Images from the time of the Second World War in Great Britain. © IWM

Imagine a world with no new clothes

What if from tomorrow, there was no more new fabric? How would the industry readjust itself and what can the past teach us? Gwen Cunningham and Hélène Smits imagine the innovation that is borne when raw materials aren’t an option.

“At a rapid pace, the textile industry has become one of the most polluting industries in the world. Consumption has gone through the roof and we are spending more money on clothes than ever before. To enable our growing consumption habits, global textile fiber production has risen to ±90 million tonnes per year. We are using resources and producing waste too fast for the planet to keep up. Every year we produce so much new, without effectively re-using the old. Keeping textiles ’in the loop’ as part of a circular system would significantly reduce our need for new resources and reduce the footprint of the industry. This idea of a circular textiles industry truly provides a world of opportunities, and one which we are not yet fully grasping because we seem to be stuck our old ‘take-make-dispose’ ways.

It is in our nature to find solutions when we’re confronted with a problem. We adapt to new realities because we can only thrive when we do so. This is a great quality that works well for us as individuals and as a species. However, our inability to take meaningful action against climate change is showing us that it is much more challenging to adapt to a future reality, a reality that will inevitably come but is not immediately threatening. The uncertainty of when, where and what will be, reduces our sense of urgency and responsibility. We cope with the forecasted ‘doom’ that the ecological crisis will bring, by burying our heads in the sand on a day-to-day basis. We deny, rationalize and justify. And we can afford to, because this future reality hasn’t hit us yet. But what if it did?

What if we woke up tomorrow to a world where no new textiles are being produced? This might sound far-fetched, but with a growing population, climate change driving a downward force on productivity, and looming possibilities of geopolitical conflict, we might have to become more resourceful than we ever imagined.” 

« The idea of a circular textiles industry truly provides a world of opportunities »

We might imagine that new clothing will become an absolute luxury, with sky-high price points and exclusive reach. Consumers would jointly invest in pieces, building shared wardrobes of ‘virgin’ items. That which is already in the system, would be revered and recovered. Jobs in repair and maintenance will resurface, and those skills will be revalued by society. The role of the designer and the brand could become that of upcycler or service provider, with design for long-life and cyclability and ‘access over ownership’ as driving philosophies behind business. National and international government would support and uphold strict zero waste policies and incentivise closed loop practices. Furthermore, mechanical and chemical recovery technologies would be king, lying at the heart of the textiles supply chain.

This kind of shift would require the kind of large-scale collective action that seems impossible to many of us; utopic and unfeasible. However, we humans have undertaken similar resource revolutions before, a perfect example of which occurred during World War II.

In wartime Britain, clothes rationing was introduced to safeguard raw materials. Each clothing item was allocated a ‘points’ value according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Adults had 66 points per year, which shrank as the war progressed. Not surprisingly, rationing encouraged great personal and business creativity. A ‘make-do-and-mend’ campaign taught consumers how to get existing supplies to last longer. Design and production shifted to support the new system, offering high-quality, price-controlled classics. These items were fashioned with a zero waste mentality; for instance single-breasted suits replaced double-breasted and trouser turn-ups were abolished. It is estimated that these measures saved approximately 5 million square metres of cotton fabric per year. 

As the saying goes; ‘constraints drive genius’. We have not yet felt the true constraints that our dependence on a linear economy will bring, but they are inevitable. We can see the genius bubbling up already; clothing libraries, repair as service, closed loop practices – however these exist as niche ‘concepts’ on the periphery of ‘business as usual’. In the future scenario, these will become the prophetic winning solutions and the new normal. Do we wait to see what comes after cotton, or do we already start to build our future, now?”

Gwen Cunningham, Project Manager, Circle Economy and Sustainability Coordinator, Amsterdam Fashion Institute
Hélène Smits, Founder at Stating the Obvious (STO)

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