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Slowing down fast fashion: a dress to save the planet

assortment of clothes on a rail

Greta Thompson is a third-year undergraduate in Materials science studying at the Queen’s college, who has worked within the Oxford Climate society, Oxford Energy society and is a member of the Oxford Foundry’s student advisory board. Interning at Solarcentury and involving herself in events run around Oxford has allowed her to explore her passion for the sustainable energy and power sector and its role in mitigating anthropogenic climate change. Events at the Saïd Business School and Skoll Centre got her hooked on the exploration of ethical business and the concept of the circular economy, leading her to secure funding to run her own event series on green entrepreneurship this year, in order to combine these newer interests with those relating to clean energy.

Alex and Andy Dewis are the founders of Pineapple Partnerships, a certified B corporation that maps the profiles of social impact based businesses in order to connect them with relevant partners to accelerate their success. They came to the Circular Economy Lab group to run a workshop on their plan for a business that would complement Pineapple’s inventory of projects. The Poly dress would change the way the fashion industry operates, through reusing resources and doing more with less, essentially embodying the long-term aim of Pineapple – to propel society to its meeting of the SDGs. It provided a lively discussion around the theme of sustainable fashion and design. Here is Greta’s take on the workshop and its important underlying mission.

If you’ve ever attended a marathon, you may remember the rivers of mushed up plastic water bottles lining the gutters of the street. You may have even sent out a quick prayer to the goddess of the green wheelie bin, requesting their safe arrival at recycling heaven rather than the wasteful perils of landfill. (See example)

But the environmental impact of this single-use plastic fuelled marathon is reduced to a mere sprint when compared to the never-ending course of fast fashions own race: to produce the most stuff. It is a race run by industry giants kitted out in chemicals, cotton and mass-produced sequins rather than lycra, who have substituted jelly babies for a new kind of fuel: our demand for variety and volume, which they work to constantly grow.

But this crowded competition is all about quantity, consumption, and low cost – and it has no finish line. According to Elizabeth Cline (author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion) Topshop introduces 400 styles a week on its website, so it’s no wonder that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates $500 billion of value lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling of clothes .

The core strategy of fast fashion is to get you to buy more by keeping things cheap. Keeping them cheap means low-quality goods, low environmental standards and low wages for workers. There’s nothing vaguely circular or sustainable about this model. But what if a fashion company shifted its business proposition from maximising orders to maximising trust? What if they could foster a healthy relationship with the customer that outstripped the perks of next day delivery and unlimited returns? What if they could slow down fast fashion?

Alex and Andy Dewis may have a plan to achieve just that. Their Poly dress, modelled on a range of timeless vintage designs, aims to transform their customers relationship with fashion by ‘doing more with less – helping everyone and harming no-one’. The Poly dress would be for life – not just for Christmas (or that birthday party you have ‘nothing’ to wear to) and of course be created by a company of the highest moral fibre.

Their key belief is that making fast fashion sustainably sourced does not necessarily slow it down. Just changing where we get the materials from to make our clothes is not enough to curb the harm to our planet and people. No, no, rather than change the fabric or the production standards used, Alex and Andy know that in order to create true impact they need to change our minds.

Consequently, they have big plans for implementing a culture of re-use, upcycling and other eco-friendly practises, so that their dresses can become a loved wardrobe staple, continuously under modification for the desired occasion or mood of the wearer. More a companion than a piece of cloth, the Poly dress can accompany you through the development of your style and the inevitable faux pas along the way. The hope is that buyers will be able to respect the journey the dress has taken, the hands it has passed through to reach them, and its own character that shifts in tandem with the owner throughout the years.

During the workshop, we had the opportunity to discuss the various hurdles that Poly faces in coming to fruition, where microfibres, an Oxford-based pilot and inspiration from Elvis & Kresse (who make luxury lifestyle accessories from old firehose) were all discussed. I was particularly struck by what we regularly returned to as the main issue – the inability to pick one out of the numerous ways that Poly could be achieved! It was very encouraging to be able to discuss such a wide range of possibilities for the business model, and although perhaps it won’t be simple to refine all the ideas Andy and Alex have, synthesising them into a single model sounds like a lot of fun, and suitably similar to stitching a quilt. It was a wonderful glimpse into a futuristic business that had completely rethought the focus of the industry they would occupy, working right at the root of a sustainability issue that is currently getting out of hand.

It is exciting to think that the Poly dress could be the break-away runner in an entirely new race. This race would be much slower and made up of less participants: rather than a 100m sprint to the bin, items of clothing are instead given the support and love to keep traveling round and round the track, again and again. It would close the loop on clothes production and slow down fast fashion (maybe even disqualify it?) putting us one step closer to achieving a circular economy.