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Wearable waste. One person’s rubbish is one entrepreneur’s treasure.

In a world of excess and consumption, innovation comes not just from designing something new, but by designing something new with something old and used. Turning waste in to usable and innovative products sits at the heart of the call for a more circular global economy.

In the fashion industry, both global brands as well as new designers and entrepreneurs are seeing the value in turning waste into new products. This is called Wearable Waste. It’s happening in three key ways:

Upcycling second hand clothes

In the western world the second hand clothing market is fairly niche and traditionally used by those who are a bit thrifty or have a retro or vintage style. The growth of fast and disposable fashion means that the second-hand clothing market isn’t as “vintage” as it once was. In the developing world, second hand clothes imported from the west make up a large portion of the stable source of clothing. The prevalence of this has led some nations to ban imports because of the negative effects that this has on stunting local textile industries.

Recognising the access to cheap materials, entrepreneurs around the world are leveraging their creativity and “upcycling” has become the new trend. Turning something old, into something new. From bags and accessories made out of old pairs of jeans in Kenya (Suave), to men’s shirts being converted in to dresses for little girls in the USA (Little Grey Line), the “post-consumer waste” market is growing.

Left-overs from garment factory waste

A staggering 40% of raw materials from the fashion industry ends up as waste in clothing factories, 15% of that just in the cutting room. One million tons of textile waste is dumped into landfills around the world each year. Innovative companies are seeing the value of that waste and turning it in to clothes to be worn.

The brand Tonlé has made it its mission to not only save waste material from going to landfill but to also ensure decent working conditions for its workers. Sourcing material scraps from the remnant markets in Cambodia, the business ensures zero waste and good labour standards. Each of its garments is signed by their Cambodian makers which allows for greater transparency which is lacking in the fashion industry.

Study New York has a zero waste policy, sourcing sustainable fabrics and ensuring the best environmental standards. Using zero waste cutting techniques, the garmets are designed efficiently and when there is waste, collaborations with designers means using that waste in creative ways ensuring the maximum life of the fabric.

Non-garment waste to fashion

We know that plastic in particular is an environmental disaster for our planet. As companies look at reducing the amount of new plastic in their products and seek out alternatives, fashion innovators are looking to used plastics to replace water-intense raw materials like cotton. This is redirecting plastic from our oceans to our wardrobes.

Both global sports brands Adidas and Nike are using plastic waste in their shoes and clothing ranges. Recognising the role that big businesses can play in tackling the environmental challenge of plastic waste, Adidas, like other fashion brands including luxury designer Stella McCartney, has partnered with Parley, a collaborative effort of those within the creative industries to protect the world’s oceans. Using plastic waste from, or directly headed for, our oceans creates an innovative product that meets both consumer demand and environmental need. Nike has used plastic bottles to create clothing ranges including forming the uniform for the USA team at the Olympics.

Hong Kong based start-up enterprise Erth Company uses the bamboo scaffolding that is used once to make some of the tallest buildings in the world and converts the material into insoles for fashionable shoes for men and women. According to the company’s Kickstarter fundraising campaign, more than five million bamboo rods get used by the construction industry in Hong Kong each year which end up in landfill due to the country’s health and safety regulations. Capitalising on the raw material, the company is successfully beginning to turn waste into fashion. Another Hong Kong based company, Alchemist Creations uses aluminium cans into watches using recycled leather for the straps. It patners with a social enterprise workshop for people with disabilities to further its credentials.

The benefits of incorporating waste in to the fashion industry are multiple. Not only can designers and entrepreneurs take advantage of previously unused raw materials to make their creations, but issues of environmental damage and waste have a chance of being tackled. To make wearable waste effective means firstly attracting consumers who look for “on-trend” styles as well as those that consciously seek out ethical fashion. Secondly, for the effects to be felt at a global level and across the industry, more mainstream brands like Adidas and Nike have to adopt ideas of circularity, seeing the benefits not only to the planet, but to their profits, pioneering the way for others to follow and for wearable waste to become the norm.

Finally, you the entrepreneur, the designers and the creators need to think differently about the materials that you use, seeking out alternatives and innovating to not only reduce, but to use waste to showcase your brands. Don’t let wearable waste be the political chatter from international fashion weeks, make it your own and take on the challenge with style.

As featured in Negolution.

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