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Sustainably Attired

Cradle-to-Cradle Tackles the Fashion Industry

cradle to cradle fashion

There are many reasons to be down on today’s fashion industry: water pollution, toxic chemicals, landfill waste, garment worker exploitation in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia and China – the list could go on. Yet, as we’ve read in our series on sustainable fashion, innovative groups and sustainably-minded apparel brands offer glimmers of hope that this $1 trillion industry is slowly changing course. The recent launch of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s Fashion Positive offers another reason to stay positive about the future of this industry.

Launched in 2014, Fashion Positive aims to retool the entire global fashion supply chain and help create more sustainable materials, processes and products. The initiative works with fashion brands, designers and suppliers to continuously improve how clothes are made by looking at the following five categories: material health, material use, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness.

Applying this Cradle to Cradle design methodology developed by Dr. Michael Braungart and William McDonough, the initiative’s first task is to build a Materials Library of sustainable materials and suppliers that fashion designers can access to make more environmentally and socially positive products.

Already, the initiative is collaborating with brands such as Stella McCartney, G-Star RAW, Bionic Yarn, Loomstate and Belk department stores.

Focus on the positive

While most of the sustainability conversation in the fashion industry focuses on going to zero – zero waste, zero water, zero energy, zero toxins – Fashion Positive wants to create more good instead of just less bad.

Rather than launch a shaming campaign, Fashion Positive will highlight sustainable fashion innovations and inspire the industry to follow suit. One way it aims to be a positive force in the industry is to spur, document and feature the next generation of apparel and accessories that are designed for the circular economy.

"Fashion is a constant moving train," said Lewis Perkins, senior vice president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. "What we decided to do is go way back to the building blocks of fashion. The idea is not to point out the bad, but to stimulate innovation and showcase positive stories so the rest of the industry can say, 'That might actually fit in my company.'"

A matchmaker for sustainable materials

Sustainable textile innovation is nothing new: Some apparel leaders (Patagonia, the North Face, Volcom, Levi’s) have developed product lines made with recycled plastic bottles, plant-based fibers, renewable fabrics, and other pre- and post-consumer waste. But the use of those textiles has not yet been systematized into global supply chains, nor brought to scale.

Fashion Positive’s mission is to not only play matchmaker between sustainable materials and global brands, but also to encourage Cradle to Cradle thinking among all key stakeholders along the material’s supply chain and product’s lifecycle.

To make a T-shirt from recycled plastic water bottles, for example, a company might simply want to focus on how to turn that plastic into polyester to make its product. Fashion Positive wants to get that same company to think bigger: How was that plastic originally made? What chemicals are in it? How can the plastic fibers be repurposed in a way that’s safe for humans and the environment? And how can the new product be designed to be seamlessly reused, recycled or upcycled?

"We see that companies won’t get to those higher levels unless we go way upstream to the guy who makes the plastic bottle, so that we can turn the bottles into the sweaters, and the fleece, and the blankets and so forth," said Bridgett Luther, president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. "As people start to push for those higher levels, the whole industry can identify what the problematic materials and processes are and find solutions."

Systems thinking

What Fashion Positive is building is an ecosystem of brands, innovators and organizations working to transform the apparel and textile industry. Of course, this transformation will not happen overnight, nor will Fashion Positive do it alone.

One of the initiative's goals is to build bridges between players within its community to further propel the adoption of materials and manufacturing innovations. The initiative’s Innovation Fund, for example, provides funding to select suppliers to develop forward-looking materials that will be shared with Fashion Positive’s larger community. The initiative has also partnered with organizations such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the NRDC’s Clean By Design to harmonize and optimize sustainability efforts within the fashion industry.

"In the fashion industry, you don’t want to get left behind," Perkins said. "We’re banking on that desire to be on the cutting edge and part of what’s next. Sustainability is definitely what’s next for the apparel industry."

That sounds like a positive thing to me.

Image credit: Fashion Positive

Nayelli Gonzalez headshot

Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of CreatorsCircle, a resource hub that connects diverse youth with opportunities to create a life of purpose and impact. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past 15 years. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots. 

Read more stories by Nayelli Gonzalez