This year's NYCxDesign calendar featured an unusual exhibition in the heart of fashionable SoHo. Yards of exquisitely woven tapestries, bright green, pink, blue and black, depicting lavish, abstract gardens, were on display at Glasgow Caledonian University's New York exhibition space. The unusual tapestries were made entirely from recycled trash, transformed into fiber by a company called Miniwiz.
Miniwiz, located in Taipei, Berlin and Beijing, works with different waste streams, and has been able to produce fibers and manipulate them to have sophisticated performance. Johann Boedecker of Miniwiz Europe noted at the opening of the exhibition that the tapestries are "re-recyclable." When it comes time to get rid of them, their material will be reusable again. And again.
Cara Smyth, the university's vice president and founding director of its Fair Fashion Center, opened the exhibition enthusiastically. "We hope there will be a lot of trash on runways soon." Her own impeccably designed navy dress, she noted, was once 150 plastic bottles. She said the United States produces one third of the world's trash, which could be treated as a great resource. Smyth views trash as "a new medium for fashion, design, furniture."
At the SoHo exhibit, called "Gardening the Trash," textiles master Lorenzo Bonotto of Bonotto, the Italian design house that produced the tapestries, said he'd like to see "a real circular economy" in fashion, and talked about improving collection of old fabric. "Probably what most of us are wearing used excess water, and contains petrochemicals" and other resources that could be limited, he said.
Fast fashion retailer H&M is well-known for its program to take back customers' old clothes, which the company says makes business sense. H&M and Nike recently became the first two "core corporate partners" to join the new Circular Fibres Initiative launched by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, which focuses on promoting a circular economy. "Participants in the Circular Fibres Initiative will work together to define a vision for a new global textiles system, which will address the significant drawbacks of the 'take-make-dispose' model currently dominating the industry," reads the initiative's website.
According to McKinsey, clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by 60 percent.
Our consumer culture has gone to an extreme with fast fashion: we purchase clothing and no longer keep it, in some cases, more than a season. The first principle in a circular economy is that products should be made to last, and consumers should keep using them as long as possible. This isn't happening, which is why the Circular Fibres Initiative has its work cut out for it. The next principle is that we should fix broken products rather than throw them away. Once upon a time, grandmothers used to darn socks and patch dresses. When we are really done with a product, another principle should be to find out if someone else wants to use it, for example by donating old clothes to Goodwill. Fortunately this does happen, and many perfectly good clothes do find their way to new owners, including on poorer continents. Only as a last resort should a product then be recycled.
With demand for clothing skyrocketing, and an increase in climate issues such as lack of water, it may someday become cheaper and easier to produce apparel from garment or other waste, switching away from current supply chains involving cotton and wool farming or sourcing polyester and acrylic. The complexity of apparel supply chains today - and the wastefulness - is mind-boggling. Cotton is mostly grown and harvested (by machines) in the United States, and then shipped all over the world more than once before returning to the US in the form of a $10 T shirt.
Such an enormous shift will depend on innovation, particularly given the difficulty, today, of recycling natural fibers from apparel into fibers of a quality that can be used to make new clothes. Companies like Miniwiz and Thread are leading the way forward in the exciting new trash-to-textiles market, and we may well be seeing more of these soon.