With Asheen Phansey and Monica Park, Eleven Radius
Fashion as we know it is linear. With its current processes for material extraction, textile production, design, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and end of life, the fashion industry is designed to maximize clothing sales. But what if this business model could shift?
Changemakers are reimagining the business of fashion, designing circular systems, and disrupting the status quo to build a truly sustainable industry.
On the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, Cory spoke with two such changemakers, Asheen Phansey and Monica Park, of circular fashion membership organization and public-benefit corporation, Eleven Radius. This discussion on the circular fashion economy and how business solutions can help us break the fast fashion cycle is the newest installment of our Impact of Fashion series in partnership with Dhana.
For more background and conversations on circularity in fashion, check out our earlier episodes on the Rana Plaza Collapse, Inclusivity, and Sustainability in Fashion, How to Avoid Fast Fashion, and the concept of circular fashion, too!
What is Circularity?
The circular economy is a work in progress.
The vision for a circular fashion industry encompasses the entire product life cycle, including the use of sustainable materials, the supply chain, repair, reuse, resale, and complete recycling. At the end of a garment’s useful life, it would be broken down completely to form part of a new product of equal or greater value, minimizing the need for new material extraction.
A truly circular system considers the land, resources, materials, and people that a product touches throughout its life.
Basically, it’s a circle. Easy enough to understand, right? Unfortunately, it gets a little more complicated in practice.
Before we can really understand where the fashion industry needs to go, let’s take a closer look at where it stands.
Linear fashion economy
The fashion industry is built in a straight line, from material extraction to sale. That’s it. This “take-make-waste” system maximizes consumption and passes the buck on end of life.
First, it takes.
The linear model starts with raw materials, most of which are synthetics made from crude oil.
The economics of this extractive linear system disincentivize any sustainable practices that add cost or time along the supply chain. This has led to issues of over-farming, pesticide use, labor abuse, and human and environmental health concerns that make harvesting these natural fibers unsustainable.
The fashion industry uses 98 million tons of non-renewable resources every year, and according to the United Nations, it creates more than 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of global wastewater.
Linear design and production
Clothing design and production processes are full of opportunities to minimize waste, extend the life of products, and support recycling down the road. But in a linear system, apparel is not designed to be recycled.
Take shoes, for example, as Asheen illustrates on the podcast. Leather and rubber can technically be recycled on their own, but gluing them together makes it impossible (or at least, not economically feasible) to divide them into their constituents and send them to their respective recycling streams. The leather may be perfectly good once a sole is worn through, but it’s destined for the landfill along with its bonded rubber counterparts.
The impact of making these clothes isn’t just about materials or design, though. It’s about every person impacted by the supply chain. This fashion economy built on consumption creates a margins game, Monica explains on the podcast, and people are exploited every step of the way.
Garment workers face low wages with few options and potentially deadly working conditions often associated with outsourced production. Even in California, 85% of garment workers do not earn the minimum wage.
Fast fashion isn’t an accident; Monica has been taught it as a business strategy throughout her career in fashion to make people buy more and buy quickly, and it encourages shorter product life cycles, increased waste, and less consideration for the environment along the way.
The end of a garment’s useful life in the linear fashion economy is waste.
Garments aren’t made to be recycled, reused, repurposed, or fully broken down, so most (85%) textiles end up in landfills or are incinerated. Only 15% go into recycling streams, and only 1% of fashion waste ends up in a garment of equal or higher value.
Not only does this volume of waste pile up in our landfills but it also represents $460 billion of lost value to consumers every year from clothes being thrown away that could still be worn.
Linear is no longer working
As the impact of fast fashion enters mainstream consciousness, more and more of us are realizing we don’t want to be a part of it.
Customers want better clothing. We don’t want to contribute to the damage of fast fashion, but most of us are confused. Brands are realizing business as usual is not sustainable and that moving toward circularity is good for them. But these systems aren’t designed yet, and nobody really knows where to start.
We need new business models, and we can’t do it alone. That’s where Eleven Radius comes in to bring people together from every corner of the fashion industry, find pain points, test solutions, share knowledge, and collaborate to figure out what sustainable fashion can be.
Circular fashion economy
What is the circular fashion economy?
In the perfect circular economy, no waste escapes, and no new materials are needed. Everything is created from responsibly sourced existing materials, produced with care for people and the planet, designed to minimize waste, built to last, and eventually, fully recycled. A circular fashion system has a positive impact every step of the way.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as a way to create a positive impact by “decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system” to keep products and materials in use; build economic, natural, and social capital; and regenerate natural systems instead of depleting them.
Check out this great video explainer to learn more about the vision of circularity.
We have more than enough materials in circulation. The circular model requires business strategies to effectively capture and recycle those materials to eliminate waste and give existing textiles new life.
As we reimagine the business of fashion, it’s also important to look beyond the products themselves. Asheen reminds us of the importance of building an inclusive, equitable economy, as people touch every single step of a garment’s life. In a linear economy that doesn’t value the human and natural resources that go into it, these people are exploited. A circular fashion system needs to support them with safe working conditions, fair wages, and opportunities for growth and prosperity.
A circular system encompasses the entire value chain, which is massive and differs widely between businesses. It’s not a clean circle—it’s a nuanced work in progress.
“The circular economy doesn’t exist yet,” Monica tells us on the podcast. “We need to build it.”
Why Go Circular?
We need to build a circular fashion economy, first and foremost, to minimize harm by mitigating:
- Resource extraction
- Human impact
The linear economy has depleted its resources. From human and environmental impacts to waste and carbon footprints in the face of climate change, it’s a model that cannot continue. Plus, there’s an untapped economic opportunity in sustainable fashion.
How can we get there?
The biggest obstacle to circular fashion is the status quo. As Monica says, “you’re up against inertia.”
The circular business model hasn’t been perfected and proven; there’s ambiguity and confusion, and no one knows where to start.
But it is possible to dismantle the “take-make-waste” system, incentivize longevity, and design an economy for components to have second, third, and fourth lives.
How? By working together across disciplines and departments and taking a systems approach to rebuilding business models.
It’s so easy to assume that the way things are done is the way they should be. If programs, such as Eleven Radius’s, can get experts from manufacturing and design into the same room with the shared goal of circularity, they can break through those assumptions and incorporate circular strategies.
Adopting a circular mindset means sales teams can elevate the value of product longevity over of-the-moment trends.
Marketing teams can educate audiences to care for and repair their clothes, and designers can create cuts that minimize waste.
As individuals shift their mindsets toward circularity, we’ll open the doors to collaboration and solve problems one at a time.
Business solutions to linear fashion
Eleven Radius’s work
Monica and Asheen each saw the challenges and opportunities of building a sustainable fashion industry, and their unique backgrounds in business and fashion make them uniquely suited to move the needle. As entrenched as these problems are, Asheen applauds the efforts of big businesses in exploring green initiatives with massive collaborations, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and does see corporate sustainability moving in the right direction.
“However,” Asheen says, “if you look at the IPCC reports on climate change, at our biodiversity numbers and species loss, and at microplastics in the oceans, you realize their direction is not enough. We need a faster pace of change; we need more than just incremental change. Incremental change is important, but we need to really fundamentally rethink a lot of our business systems.”
Luckily, there are new platforms, people, and eco-friendly fashion brands popping up every day with diverse business solutions.
Dynamic small- and medium-sized brands can innovate and create their own circular models from the very beginning. That’s where Eleven Radius comes in, to help pilot circularity and show bigger companies and industries the way of the future.
The business case
“There are more customers looking for these brands than there are brands to fulfill these needs at the moment.”—Asheen
There are plenty of reasons to support resource efficiency, renewable energy, human rights, and ethical practices in fashion, and most of them come from the goodness of our hearts and concern for the planet. But businesses are beholden to shareholders, and there are untapped economic opportunities in circularity.
There is potential growth of $2.3 trillion in the future circular fashion economy, according to the Lablaco x Vogue Circular Fashion Report 2020. Conscious consumers hold huge market power, and ignoring their demands leaves money on the table.
Eleven Radius works to connect people approaching circularity from diverse perspectives and corners of the industry.
Monica and Asheen work with businesses to identify problems and find collaborators. Someone develops a solution, and they work together to test it, scale it, test it some more, work out logistics and communication, and build a thesis into a proven, scalable business practice.
The circular business of collaboration
There are businesses and circular fashion advocates leading the way with sustainable sourcing of safe and renewable materials, eco-friendly designs, and innovative post-sale programs.
Carbon neutral shoemaker, Allbirds, is blazing its own trail toward zero carbon emissions and inviting the business world along for the ride. The company developed and published a lifecycle assessment tool that it encourages competitors and other businesses to share. When a massive online retailer began copying Allbird’s styles, its CEO publicly invited them to copy the brand’s approach to sustainability, too.
Asheen credits Eileen Fisher as another brand that shares what it learns on its sustainability journey, and has hailed circular innovators, such as Bendy by Ashbury Skies, which creates stitched shoes that are actually designed to be recycled, and circular underwear brand, The Big Favorite.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation challenged the industry to find a better, circular way to make jeans through its Jeans Redesign project. Bringing together more than 80 denim experts and 90 brands, the initiative did away with unnecessary touches, such as metal posts and leather labels, and totally reimagined denim to create truly recyclable jeans.
“Commercial people are afraid of cannibalization, but when you shift toward the things that you’re afraid will hurt your business, the customers reward you.”—Monica
The circular mindset also means looking at your business as a service. Once you put the product out there, you give people an opportunity to take care of the garment.
Repair, take back, and resale services are excellent business tactics for customer loyalty and retention. If done well, extending the post-sale consumer relationship increases customer touchpoints and gives the brand a chance to demonstrate excellent customer service and stand by its products. That’s how one-time customers become brand advocates.
Consider Patagonia. Used gear sales, repair services, and sustainability-forward marketing strategies have helped build the brand into a responsible business icon with armies of brand advocates willing to pay for quality, sustainably made garments that they treasure for years.
The Guestlist is a high-end German cashmere company that offers customers lifetime Cashmere Spa treatments. Customers can send in their cashmere garments at the end of every sweater season for cleaning, repair, and general sprucing up, including expert de-pilling. This free service extends the life and value of every garment and gives customers a reason to stay in touch and keep wearing their sweater for years and years. The Guestlist has even opened the spa to service non-Guestlist cashmere garments for a fee. Not only does the company earn money on spa services but it also builds relationships and remains front-of-mind for any future cashmere purchases or recommendations.
Eleven Radius: Connecting fashion innovators on the road to circularity
Eleven Radius is an action-focused industry group that works with circular fashion brands and service partners. Founded from the idea that the circular fashion system is nascent, it exists to support the brands and entrepreneurs building incredible products and services that will move the vision of circularity forward. The group brings together front-edge practices in business models, technology, and human behavior to help solve industry circularity problems.
Asheen Phansey and Monica Park
Prior to co-founding Eleven Radius, Asheen Phansey spent over a decade in corporate sustainability, where he contributed to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition Higg Index and served as the global head of sustainability for the $4 billion tech company, Dassault Systèmes. Monica Park, Eleven Radius CPO and co-founder, is a veteran brand manager with expertise in take-back and resale and is driven by experiences in scaled global manufacturing in Hong Kong.
“The industry is actually waking up people like us, who are business people. We need to build in the rigor to make these models profitable and scalable so that customers don’t have to compromise.”—Monica Park
Closing: From linear to circular
Building a circular economy is like bending a metal rod into a circle—it’s difficult, nuanced, and slow. Different obstacles and challenges threaten progress every step of the way. But the industry needs to go in a different direction, and we can make it happen.
With continued pressure from conscious consumers and business innovation from entrepreneurs big and small, circular fashion will be the business of the future. Eleven Radius and its partners are showing us the way.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Eleven Radius
- Guestlist cashmere
- The Big Favorite
- Bendy by Ashbury Skies
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation
- Global Fashion Agenda
- Sustainable Apparel Coalition
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Katie O’Dell is an acquisitions editor with Falcon Guides where she works with authors to publish outdoor recreation guidebooks on everything from hiking with dogs to yoga and van life. She holds a master’s degree in public relations from Quinnipiac University.