3 lessons for fashion from consumer packaging

Credit: SophieB

What can glam sustainable fashion learn from the dowdy packaging industry? Quite a lot.

Fashion is our personal packaging. Much like the wrappings around consumer goods, clothes help us control our temperature, keep us safe and signal our personal style (or lack of it).   

Packaging came under sustainability scrutiny long before we started to worry about the social and environmental issues of fashion. Both industries have become obsessed with circularity as a cure for their rampant use of natural resources and consequential waste.

We should celebrate fashion’s commitment to find solutions. Its challenges are many and highly complex. The sector is supported by an ever-expanding ecosystem made up of pressure groups, technical innovators and the more enlightened fashion houses who are looking to adapt or revolutionise their business models in a quest for sustainability and prosperity.  

What’s more, recycled packaging – especially used PET beverage bottles – is a valuable raw material increasingly used by fashion houses.

Here are three quick lessons for fashion, from the sustainably-challenged consumer packaging sector.  

1.  Circularity is very hard to do

The invention of disposables in the 1960s created great opportunities for brands to offer unprecedented convenience for consumers, avoid the cost of returnables and develop myriad branding opportunities − all resulting in a cumulative, global avalanche of waste that continues to foul our lives 60 years later.  

Public concern about packaging waste led in the 1970/80s to policy initiatives ranging from anti-litter campaigns to the “producer pays principle” where brand owners had to fund the collection and recycling of the resulting waste. Since then there has been much discussion about recyclability but little action on recycling – other than exporting the waste to poorer nations for them to extract the (minimal) value and chuck the rest away. This led to the glorious euphemism of plastic waste “leaking” into the environment.

Some progress has been made with recycling metals, but even with the aluminium lobbyists proudly claiming a 75% recycling rate in Europe, little is said about the elusive 25% that is lost.

While technically feasible, the much-vaunted circular economy for plastic is still very much a dream.  Or rather, a nightmare – visit any unmanaged beach anywhere in the world to witness the failure of the circular plastics economy.   

Lesson for fashion:

If we’re incapable of recycling our plastic – easy to collect, easy to sort, easy to reformulate – what hope is there to do the same for clothes whose mix of fabrics, threads, buttons, studs and zips make the multi-layered aseptic cartons and plastic films seem remarkably simple?  Technology alone will not solve the problem. Intelligent public policy is needed to ensure that expanding networks of used-clothes collectors actually recycle the fabrics. And as we have learned from plastics, market stimulation is needed to ensure used clothes have a value greater than rags.

Bottom line:

The fashion industry has a great opportunity to get it right. It must spend more time and greater energy lobbying for pro-sustainability public policies to ensure circular innovations deliver the promised results. And everyone should understand that these policies come with a cost that must be borne by someone other than the environment.

2. People matter too

Fashion and packaging industries support highly vulnerable people. It is estimated that up to 75 million people are employed in the textile, clothing and footwear industry. The millions who do the farming, harvesting, dying, cutting and sewing live largely at the margins of society and are, on the whole, poorly paid. Some more enlightened fashion houses pay above the minimum wage for garment workers which in Bangladesh, for example, is US$ 105 per month.

It’s a lot worse for informal waste pickers who are essential to mop up the “leakage” of disposable packaging. From the streets of New York City and throughout Africa and Asia, you see them carrying large bags of plastic and metal. With the collapse of the oil price, the value of used plastic has all but evaporated, along with the measly incomes of pickers.

Advocates of the circular economy are obsessed with the technical opportunities and conveniently forget about the people who will suffer most from major structural adjustments in the fashion industry. Small changes to well-established systems, such as employment in the garment industry, can have devastating impacts on the livelihoods of poor people who depend on fashion’s jobs. This has been demonstrated by the contraction of the fashion industry badly hit by Covid-19, leaving millions of garment workers without an income.

It would be a pyrrhic victory if circularity, with its engineering-centric view of the world, led to greater poverty.

Lessons for fashion:

Sustainability challenges may have a technical hue, but they are fundamentally political in nature. Sympathetic public policy makers should be encouraged to find solutions that maintain and grow fairly-paid jobs in fashion while accommodating the changes that circularity will bring.  

Bottom line:

Stories of circularity are cool, but in the end it is people who matter most. The good news is that the good actors in fashion agree and are working to ensure fair jobs and respect for human rights.

3. Darnin & Mendin will not make you rich  

Simple packaging is remarkably complex, like clothes.  Some packaging is pure genius. Think of the plastic fizzy drinks bottle: paper thin but it can withstand high pressures and tumbling about on trucks while keeping its sparkle for us. We drink thirstily from a miracle of modern engineering, and then – and then – we chuck the bottle away!  Extraordinary behaviour, but that’s the system we’ve got. 

Clothes are the same: cleverly designed, made from fabulous fabric, expertly crafted and, increasingly, worn once to a party and never again. We may not dispose of our clothes as quickly as a drinks bottle, but we’re getting close because clothes are dirt cheap.  

Yes, some clothes can be mended and special pieces can be re-commerced. In the sustainable-fashion conversation there is much chatter about mending, darning, and celebrating the enduring value of well-made clothes.  But let’s not kid ourselves about the scalability of this minority, granny-like activity. Darnin & Mendin is great for some, but the practices of yesteryear will never make a scalable, profitable business model for tomorrow.

The packaging industry is often asked to return to the good old days of heavy, reusable bottles. Advocates for re-useable containers see the past as a way forward despite blinding evidence that the environmental costs of washing, sterilising and transporting heavy containers far outweigh the benefits. The same applies to darning and mending.  

Lessons for fashion:

Nostalgia will not lead to circularity.

Bottom line:

Look forward for solutions, not back. 

Final takeaway

If there is one takeaway for the fashion industry it is this: get radical. Some influential and enlightened players in the industry are genuinely committed to sustainability because they know it’s critical to future of their business. But as the packaging sector has demonstrated, technology alone will not solve your problems. 

The fashion industry needs to be less shy about its role in public policy. Enlightened actors need to up their advocacy and get governments to promote policies that encourage sustainable solutions for all.

To everyone’s cost, brand owners and the packaging industry have shown us the dire consequences of weak, ill-conceived policies that create unintended consequences. 

Ask any turtle with a straw up its nose.  

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