Redesigning the fashion chain

by Instituto C&A on May 16, 2017

In the week of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the largest sustainable fashion event in the world, Instituto C&A (C&A Foundation in Brazil) talked to Luísa Santiago, Brazilian representative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, about the concept of circular economy.

This week, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit took place. It is the largest sustainable fashion event in the world and platform for decision-makers, NGOs, researchers and academia to meet. This year the event - which was supported by C&A Foundation (parent organisation of Instituto C&A) – focuses on the circular economy. To gain a better understanding of the concept, we talked to Luísa Santiago, representative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in Brazil, also a participant in the Copenhagen Fashion Summit.

Created in 2010, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation gathers companies worldwide willing to change their business models by using circular economy.

The interview with Santiago was made after the Diálogos Transformadores (Transformational Dialogues), an event held by leading Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo, and Ashoka, with the support of Instituto C&A.

“The fashion value chain, like all our production and consumption systems, was conceived very linearly and created based on great losses – it is the world’s second highest waste generator. This fact alone shows us there are many opportunities, considering that it is possible to turn losses into opportunities.”

Brazilian representative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Luísa Santiago

Instituto C&A: What is circular economy?

Luísa Santiago: It is an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. That means, it designs out waste and negative impacts from the beginning. Circular economy is underpinned by three basic principles:

1. Preserve and enhance natural capital [raw material], and not degenerate, as we do in a linear (make, use, dispose) economy;

2. Optimise resource use: in our current model of extraction, processing and disposal, there is a lot of loss, we lose residues and miss opportunities.

3. Foster system effectiveness: A circular economy is not about a greener product, a more sustainable company or better practices, and least of all “being more sustainable than before". It means being part of a system that works better and that, in the long term, reveals and designs out negative externalities from the beginning of the value chain. In life and on the planet, things regenerate and restore themselves all the time. The idea is to include this principle in economy.

Instituto C&A: How can circular economy be applied to the fashion value chain?

Luísa Santiago: The fashion value chain, like all our production and consumption systems, was conceived very linearly and created based on great losses – it is the world's second highest waste generator. This fact alone shows us there are many opportunities, considering that it is possible to turn losses into opportunities. We still don't have all the answers, but we're beginning to understand how fashion can actually operate according to the principles of circular economy. We won't have a single solution, but we'll build the paths together with the main organisations of the sector.

Instituto C&A: And how is the work being done?

Luísa Santiago: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with a network of organisations, the CE100, and we have a Brazilian arm in this network. It is a global programme that includes organisations like C&A, Renner and other smaller companies that are already coming up with some solutions. One of the challenges to be faced is how to transform textile waste into other products within a system that operates in the long term, so that these new products won't turn into waste afterwards. There are also great opportunities ahead, including the production of regenerative raw materials, the design of products and the definition of business models that prioritize need satisfaction instead of excessive consumption.

We work individually with each of these companies, but we also act collectively so that they can build models that work better. Currently, we're developing our global programme, now at the research phase, to take the entire fashion industry into account. I'd say we're beginning by admitting that we know too little, but also that there is a lot of intelligence being developed, especially in Brazil. After this research is completed, still in 2017, we'll talk to the participating organisations to redesign the fashion system, not only with one brand or one company, but with a global, systems vision.

Instituto C&A: What would be the benefits of a circular economy in the fashion industry?

Luísa Santiago: There are many. The first one is valid for any type of material and sector: it is to show that economic value creation is not linked with extraction and with the limit of the planet's finite resources. Another interesting aspect is that fashion influences and inspires, and can even be a channel for much bigger changes. Fashion has the ability to reinvent concepts that may go beyond the mere use of a piece of clothing.

We're talking about redesigning the whole system, not only the manufacturer of cotton fibre, the sewing shop, the seamstress, the retailer or the consumer. These stakeholders alone won't be able to redesign a chain, but together they can redefine the meaning of success, redefine how to create value and the usefulness of what is made today in the fashion industry. And we expect a lot of innovation will be used to inform this redesign of fashion into a circular economy.

Learn more about Circular Fashion

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Picture credits: Eduardo Anizelli/Folhapress – Folha de São Paulo