A smart fashion design is crucial for circular economy

The fate of a product’s life cycle is determined at the drawing board, before it even exists. Here, a smart designer can select the appropriate materials and chemicals that can increase the recyclability. By doing this, toxic waste and non-recyclable materials can simply be “designed out”.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that by decreasing the hazardous content of a product, you increase the possibilities for recycling and success in the aftermarket. You also reduce the need for virgin raw materials and the energy costs to produce them.

The novel idea that the circular economy presents is that good design is not only environmentally and morally good; it’s also more profitable. Bad design, on the other hand, is expensive as it only creates useless waste at the end of a product’s life cycle.

Chemicals management should therefore have a higher priority on the corporate agenda. Chemical issues cannot be the responsibi­lity of a supporting department with a weak mandate within that organisation.

This problem can be illustrated by the fashion industry. Among the majority of brands, who do you think has the last say when designing a product – the designers or the chemicals department? The designers, of course.

Progressive fashion companies have solved this by either educating their designers about chemicals, or simply giving them a set of pre­-approved materials to work with. In such cases, chemicals have gained higher priority in strategic business decisions and these organisations have created policies that guide towards a more proactive approach.

Depending on company goals, chemical issues can be prio­ritised at different levels. At the lowest, so-­called reactive level you simply follow regulations and adapt on the fly. By contrast, at the highest and most ambitious level you actively seek out green chemistry and sustainable materials that position the organisa­tion for the circular economy. This kind of work means that you are working with positive selection of chemicals. Simply replacing an undesirable chemical with another that is not yet regulated, is of similar quality or poorly investigated, is not enough.

Phasing out unwanted substances from production should be followed by product development that aims to meet the needs of a circular economy.

The solution is not necessarily another chemical. Instead of using hazardous plastic softeners such as phthalate, it is often smarter to use an­ other type of plastic or a material that is naturally soft. Instead of doing PVC prints on kids’ shirts, some brands today stitch sequins together to form a pattern on chest, negating the use for chemicals altogether. Now that’s clever design right there!

Solutions like this can be found by thinking outside the box and questioning dogmatic preconceptions, behaviour and routines.

Changing behaviours, cultures and even lowering consumer demands may sound frustratingly vague, but shouldn’t be sneered at. We strongly believe that if consumers were told why changes are made to garments, they would embrace these changes. Removing over­-the-­top features from products, while simul­taneously communicating the environmental reasons for doing so, can work wonders.

About ChemSec

ChemSec – the International Chemical Secretariat – is an independent non-profit organisation that advocates for substitution of toxic chemicals to safer alternatives. We do this because these substances represent one of the biggest and most serious threats to our health and environment. And because we know that change is possible. Through independent research, cross-border collaboration and practical tools, we are driving the development of more progressive chemicals legislation and pushing businesses towards the transition to non-toxic alternatives. And the more people who work towards the same goal, the quicker this process will be.