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Dame Ellen MacArthur on Building Momentum for Sustainability in Fashion

One of the world’s leading thinkers on the circular economy speaks to BoF about the growing momentum among fashion companies to commit to the principles of this restorative and regenerative movement.
Dame Ellen MacArthur | Source: Getty Images
  • BoF Team

This interview is part of BoF’s State of Fashion 2018 report, published in partnership with McKinsey & Company. For more insights into the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the global fashion industry, download the report here.

LONDON, United Kingdom— After making yachting history in 2005, becoming the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe, Dame Ellen MacArthur turned her attention to launching her foundation, which works with education, business and government enterprises to educate and support the transition to a regenerative circular economy.

BoF: Could 2018 be a watershed year for the fashion industry, in terms of a greater commitment to sustainability and circular-economy principles?

Dame Ellen MacArthur: Since we launched the Circular Fibres Initiative in May 2017 we have seen that leading brands are increasingly committed to tackling some of the drawbacks of our current “take-make-dispose” model.

Today’s textiles economy is so wasteful that in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2050 we will have released over 20 million tonnes of plastic micro-fibres into the ocean. While existing mitigation efforts are essential to reduce the negative impacts of today’s system in the near term, we need to start the transition to a fundamentally different and better system — a new textiles economy. We need to raise the level of ambition and aspiration by working towards a common vision and setting clear targets. There are already efforts underway to get commitments to some of the ambitions of a new textiles economy. For example, the Global Fashion Agenda is gathering commitments towards building a circular economy for textiles, to be achieved by 2020.

BoF: What learnings have you drawn from this work that you can apply to build momentum for improving sustainability in the fashion industry?

EM: Every sector is of course unique — and fashion is very different from plastic packaging in many ways. Yet five learnings stand out as prerequisites for successful systems-level change.

1. Alignment on the case for change. Transforming a system requires a great deal of effort and therefore a compelling rationale.

2. A positive vision. By its very definition, system change entails moving from an existing system to a new one. This requires a clear vision of the target state to move towards: “If we can imagine it, we can achieve it.”

3. Broad stakeholder buy-in and time-bound commitments. To achieve system change, the vision must be backed by all actors, including industry, government and cities, civil society and the broader public. None of them can do it alone.

4. Proof that the vision is possible. Demonstrator projects, conducted collaboratively by various stakeholders along the value chain, are required to test new models at scale and provide evidence for their success. This is particularly important, as no single actor can achieve system change alone.

5. Need for unprecedented levels of collaboration and alignment in areas of action.

The take-make-dispose model not only leads to an economic value loss of over $500 billion per year, but also has numerous negative environmental and societal impacts.

BoF: How have you worked to raise fashion players’ interest in a circular economy? In your experience, what has been the biggest obstacle to getting fashion companies to give real attention to this and other sustainability topics?

EM: The vision of a new textiles economy offers a chance to set the fashion industry on a new trajectory. Instead of just trying to “do less bad,” we need to change the way we make and use clothes so that their production and use builds economic, societal and natural capital rather than depleting it. It’s an invitation for the industry to explore new materials, pioneer new business models, harness design and put technology to work. Many players now understand that if they want to make the most of the new possibilities, collaboration at unprecedented levels is needed. And it’ll be worth it: it’s a $500 billion opportunity. Now we need the industry and all concerned stakeholders to rally behind it.

BoF: What do you see as the most important challenges for fashion players as they continue to deliver on improving their sustainability record?

EM: Worldwide, clothing utilisation – the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used – has decreased by 36 percent compared to 15 years ago. After use, less than 1 percent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. This take-make-dispose model not only leads to an economic value loss of over $500 billion per year, but also has numerous negative environmental and societal impacts. For instance, total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is therefore critical that fashion players complement existing efforts to reduce the negative impacts of the current system with a radical, longer-term, systemic transformation that moves towards a positive vision of a system that works: a circular economy.

BoF: What is your advice to fashion companies that have begun the journey of transitioning towards a more sustainable and circular model, but feel overwhelmed by the scale of change they need to make or worry that it requires too much investment to see any see real progress?

EM: There are practical steps an individual company can take in the short term to start transitioning towards a circular model. Gradually introducing leasing models to customers or increasing the use of recycled content are just two examples of actions that can significantly help drive circularity. Yet no single company can drive a full transformation towards a circular economy by itself. If on a current trajectory, by 2050 the fashion industry will be responsible for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. We need a radically new approach. This includes unprecedented levels of collaboration across brands and retailers, their supply chains, cities and governments, and collecting, sorting and reprocessing actors. Jointly developed open-source tools, for example design guides for circularity, are also an essential enabler for the transition.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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