Student Liisa Lehtinen is studying for an MSc in Social Innovation at Glasgow Caledonian University. As part of her work placement with ReMode in early 2020, she spent time finding out how ReMode works to the principles of the Circular Economy.

“Many modern problems in the fashion industry are due to a linear model of design and production. This means that the products are not designed with the whole life cycle in mind, but rather with the goal to get the item to the consumer as quickly and cheaply as possible. There are plenty of ideas flying around on how to reduce the harmful impacts of the fast fashion industry – one of these is circular economy!

Circular economy is not a new principle in any industry, least of all fashion. It is defined as a new process and thinking behind production which strives to keep waste out of landfills, utilise our finite resources efficiently and respect our environment. This is explained by the Ellen MacArthur foundation, the leading UK agency working on circular economy.

In fashion, circular economy means

For centuries people have mended clothing and gathered the worn resources to create new clothing. Clothing used to be expensive and because of this people took great care of their clothing. In fact, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution, and the shift of manufacturing to countries with cheap labour, that the price for clothing reduced radically. It reduced to the point that to many, it became easier to buy a new shirt than to sew a button back on. People have started to understand the negative impacts of fashion because of organisations such as Fashion Revolution or Wrap, that actively educate and inform people on these issues and how to combat them.

This is what ReMode aims to achieve as well, using the principles of the circular economy. The principles of reuse, share, repair, remake and recycle are used not only in the education programme but also in how the organisation is run. Clothing and fabrics are cared for, valuing the resources and work that has been put into them. Every donation is accepted and sorted with respect to the origins, quality, fibre and style of the donation. Close attention is also paid to circular economy principles, on how the donations are sorted. Good quality items that can still be worn for years to come are resold or used for clothes swaps. The rest of the pieces are kept and sorted for different uses based on the characteristics of the fabric and fibre, for example; light coloured garments made out of natural materials such as cotton, are used in dying workshops whereas garments made out of man-made materials are often unpicked and used for remaking workshops. A great example of the latter is denim garments which have been unpicked and reconstructed into great unique designs. Only a very small number of donations cannot be used in any of ReMode’s operations and are further donated to Refuweegee for disposal.

ReMode works on keeping up to date with the recent research in the sustainability of fashion, which informs the possible next steps they can take and how it can influence the Scottish fashion industry. For example, to understand what fibres are best for use in clothing, it is not enough to consider the production processes of the fabrics, such as pesticides, water usage, energy, transfer, waste and human work that has been put in to it. The consumption and afterlife are important factors in sustainability as well. One of the stages that has the largest carbon footprint in a garment’s lifestyle is created during the ‘use period’: when people wear and wash their clothes which uses energy and water and releases micro-fibres into the waterways. Therefore, it is important to remember not to wash garments too often. This can be a problem with man-made fabrics, such as polyester or acrylic, which have to be washed more often as they are made out of petrochemicals and make people sweat more.

Gillian Steel, the Creative Director at ReMode, suggests that there is no one ‘best’ fibre to use for clothing but rather suitable crops should be identified for different terrains, and crops should be rotated to ensure regeneration of the soil. Such fibres could be linen from flax, or even hemp which is a durable fibre and could be grown in Scotland. In fact, it would provide a potential revenue stream for the Scottish fashion industry, as it is illegal to farm hemp in the USA – one of the largest cotton farming countries. There are plenty of interesting fibre innovations that are trying to fill in the market gap in the fashion industry from fruit fibres (pineapple, banana and apple), to mushroom, milk and algae. Using the different sustainable options could bring about greater diversity within fibres and more sustainable production processes.

It is an exciting time at ReMode. Once we all get out of our social isolation, it is time to look into what really matters and what is the normal we want to go back to. If we can show the respect and dignity to our clothing, as ReMode does, we can slowly start seeing changes towards a more positive industry. And in the future, we could potentially see our bags made out of mushrooms that can be composted after their long use. We can help this shift by supporting the local companies in difficult times and respecting what is already made.

This article by Liisa Lehtinen is based on an interview with Gillian Steel – ReMode’s Creative Director – research into circular economy and ReMode and its practices.