Recycling is the most virtuous form of behaviour that can be adopted right now as far as style is concerned. The second dirtiest industry after oil, the fashion sector has a significant impact on the environment during its alpha and omega moments, during manufacturing and disposal. Where do the clothes we throw away end up? Our wardrobes are full of low-quality, low-cost clothing, known as fast fashion, whose production often exploits workers operating in inhumane conditions in Asia, and which has a high price tag for the planet when it comes to discarding these garments. They are destined for dumping or burning, or is there another solution?
Italy is home to a district that built its fortune on recycling used clothes: Prato, where wool has been rehashed for decades. The textile town’s companies have been doing this due to market needs long before the advent of the sustainable fashion hashtag. In wartime, the price of new wool was sky high, so Prato’s entrepreneurs found a way to recycle the wool in used garments. This move allowed them to become competitive in the marketplace, as well as unconsciously embarking in good practices, as they are viewed today. Circular economy has been implemented in Prato long before politicians and economists realized that there was another way of working.
Stracci, Prato’s rags to riches ph. @marcobadiani
Used woollen rags arrive in Prato, compressed into bales from all over the world, especially from the United States. A business district consisting in lots of little firms enabled the materials to be selected for recycling or second-hand (for vintage collectors). It’s the only place on the planet that has the experience, expertise and technology to recycle wool and cashmere. The special process strips used sweaters and clothing back to being fibers, called “mechanical wool”.
The fibers might not be as fine as virgin wool, but it’s ready to return to the production cycle without having to be dyed. This is another revolutionary aspect of mechanical wool: the materials are carefully chosen by experts based on their colour before returning to the industrial process and becoming fibers. This level of attentiveness means that coloured fibers are available for manufacturing, saving the environment from the impact of dyeing, which in Prato could be achieved by using recycled water from the city’s industrial purification plant.
In 2017, 142 million kilograms of materials were converted into fibers by Prato’s textile industry. Such a high figure that the city should surely be crowned as the capital of recycling and circular economy.
From linear to circular
The way in which we design and manufacture things is changing (or rather, it needs to change radically).
The linear economy system—taking resources from the earth to make products, which we use and then throw away when we don’t need them anymore—no longer works for the environment, for me and for you, and also for companies. The old take-make-waste = linear economy formula is based on accessibility to large quantities of resources and energy, and is increasingly unsuited to the circumstances in which we find ourselves operating. Efficiency-first initiatives—through reducing resources and fossil fuels—can help to delay the crisis of this economic model, but they are not enough to solve the problems stemming from the finite nature of stock.
A shift is essential. That’s why the change from linear to circular models is being encouraged in every sector, which seizes every opportunity from design to manufacturing, use and the end of the product lifecycle to contain the amount of materials and energy used, as well as minimizing waste and losses.
The circular economy is designed to be self-regenerative, with a focus on being “made to be made again”. Hence, it’s an economic system in which planning from the get-go includes the reuse of materials and offcuts, resulting in zero waste.
Essentially, this is a new way of designing, manufacturing and using things. Waste and pollution are the by-products of how we plan and ideate. It’s time to change the way in which we work, keeping products and materials in use, while regenerating natural systems. In so doing, we can reinvent it all.
Shifting the system involves everything and everyone: governments and individuals; companies and councils; the products we use every day, our routines, and even our work.