Expert Q+A With Friederike Von Wedel-Parlow/Esmod: What Is Circular Fashion?
Two months ago I gave a guest lecture at ESMOD Berlin to talk about
The Lissome and about how to create brand identities that are aligned with
a company’s values. After the lecture, I was approached by one of the fashion design students, Joyphie Jiamin Yu. She turned out to be a relentless pursuer
of mindful fashion practices with a keen passion for engaging and learning. We decided to collaborate which resulted in the following interview which I am
very thrilled about!
Joyphie Yu talked to Prof. Friederike von Wedel-Parlow who runs the MA program "Sustainability in Fashion" at ESMOD Berlin. Her research is focused on circular design systems and she is an expert on the “cradle to cradle” design approach. In the following interview, we will find out that the “circular economy” concept is not just a revamp of the 'take, make and dispose' structure of our current “linear economy” model. It is a highly exciting and long overdue approach to putting human and environmental well-being at the heart of our future economy.
Enjoy the read!
Joyphie Yu: You have been working in the field of sustainability in fashion for many years, with a special focus on the concept of "cradle to cradle". Could you tell me a bit about your background and how you started your journey?
Friederike von Wedel-Parlow: I started my journey when I was still at university and I was studying under Vivienne Westwood. She was not directly providing us with the knowledge of sustainability in fashion in the sense of material or social design, but she taught us about design quality, innovation, and beauty and about really going into depth with our research. Afterwards, when I started the program and came across the concept of "cradle to cradle", I was very excited because it was exactly about what she had taught us: design quality, innovation, and beauty.
"Cradle to cradle" has a positive agenda that creates a positive impact - also on consumer behaviour. I believe that people don't want to be told off for buying things that are not sustainable. They want positive alternatives, that bring them joy and naturally lead them to change their product preferences.
Could you briefly explain to me the ideas behind "cradle to cradle"?
"Cradle to cradle" is a design concept that eliminates waste by designing a product right from the start in such a way that its materials and components can be re-utilised at the end of a product’s lifetime without losing their quality.
The aim is beyond recycling at the end phase of the current linear economy system since we have already produced so much waste. Instead, we have to start from the very beginning, so as to close the circle. Starting from the fibre level, we have to know all the ingredients and how to mark and separate the fibres. It is very important that we use healthy materials. We have to re-design the whole cycle to clean up the system and put human health at the centre. If the materials we use are clean at the beginning, the production process is cleaner and safer. We must not include unhealthy materials in the process as otherwise, we have to make a big effort afterwards to clean up the environment. The cradle to cradle design concept is not just about closing the loops, it is really about changing the systems, materials and processes according to a new and positive agenda.
For doing so we need to learn about how to design for circularity and reuse of materials. We have to make use of mono-material and easy-for-disassembly methods in order to transform materials into a higher quality instead of continuing to rely on down-cycling methods which decrease material quality. The health of materials is a very important factor. Materials should be designed in such a way that they could either go straight back into the biosphere and biodegrade or that they could return to a technical recycling process.
For this to happen we need to design products in a way that their materials and components are separable. We need to know what the components of a product are. Some components might be unnecessary or they could be improved.
It is also important to think about renewable energy, water stewardship and social and fair production processes. Essentially, we will need to apply the "cradle to cradle" approach right at the start of a product’s design process.
What does "cradle to cradle" mean for fashion and why are its principles so important for the fashion and textile industry?
The fashion and textile industry is one of the most important industries as it is also one of the biggest. Every 6th person in the world is working in this industry. That means it is gigantic, not necessarily in terms of the average income earned by the workers, but certainly in terms of the number of workers employed. The fashion industry uses more than 2000 different kinds of chemicals. Therefore its environmental responsibilities are very consequential. It is essential to clean up the whole industry and improve its processes.
Additionally, fashion applies to all humans. Even if you are not interested in fashion at all, you express yourself through garments you wear. It is an important instrument of distinction, individuality and belonging.
Could you please outline what makes it challenging for the current model of 'take, make and dispose' to be changed to a circular economy model?
The challenges are manifold and we need collaborations between different disciplines. A systemic change is required that applies to all processes of the design, production, retail, user phase and end-of-use phase of the products. It doesn't succeed if it is only coming from one angle of the whole industry. Also, customers need to learn what the whole process is about. To make processes traceable and transparent is another big challenge. Infrastructure and technical innovations on the industrial level for fibre separation and recycling are required to scale up to a viable and financially thriving market.
Could you explain the difference between down-cycling and up-cycling?
For recycling, we use discarded materials, the waste produced by consumers and by the industry. The clothes and production leftovers get collected and separated for different determinations. Some of the clothing can be re-worn. Some clothing is torn and the fibres are re-threaded and spun to be turned into the likes of transport blankets or insulation materials. This is what we call a classical down-cycling process. In this process, we use mechanical processes which shorten the staple length of the fibre, the stability and quality of the new materials turn out lower than the initial ones. Through down-cycling, the initial quality of fibres gets lost.
In up-cycling processes, the quality of the materials stay on the same level or get better. We can make use of certain technologies to stabilise the quality. Nylon 6, for example, can be endlessly up-cycled through depolymerisation processes and stays on the same quality level. Some people also use the term up-cycling to describe a garment that is redesigned from used products like old trousers or used industrial products.
Could you show and explain me a positive example of a fashion company working with the "cradle to cradle" approach?
I would name Trigema as a positive example and the first on the market with cradle to cradle certified garments. Trigema produces jersey clothing and their production is entirely based in Germany. The company is so confident and transparent that they open their doors for visitors at any time during the production. Not only their products are made in a conscious way, but they also have a very close relationship with their employees with guaranteed jobs also for their children.
How do you think e-commerce can be integrated into a circular economy? How can its downsides of packaging, waste issues, transportation issues and the lack of tangible intimacy between consumers and products be dealt with?
Interesting question. I don't think e-commerce necessarily contradicts a circular economy or not more than standard retail. The same issues are faced regarding waste issues and transportation: circular packaging that won't end as waste is needed as well as clean transportation based on renewable energy. Cradle to Cradle is already offering some solutions here regarding paper and plastics and transportation concepts.
When I think about a circular system, I imagine a system where all industries should be in some ways connected to each other. How do you think different industries could positively impact on the fashion industry and vice versa?
The textile and fashion industry benefits massively from research findings by the auto, medicine and food industries, as profits from its own research and development are usually too low. Materials can cycle from one industry to another and become more profitable. One can learn from each other regarding transparency, traceability sourcing or technological or digital processes. I think collaborations will expand in the future.
I am also imagining an ideal university, where ground and applied research, science, design, engineering, sociology, marketing and business work closely together. Students of different disciplines would have common projects and will be producing strategies and products together. In the future, research will be more trans-disciplinary.
It seems to me that the "cradle to cradle" concept applies to the environment and economy. However, the human factor doesn't seem to be that relevant...
On the contrary! The "cradle to cradle" concept is putting the human being in the centre specifically. All the efforts we are making are to create a better world for people. "Cradle to cradle" is not just about reusing resources. It is primarily about creating a better life for people. It is about improving the whole industry for both the workers to improve their working conditions and health and safety but also the consumers to have better and healthier products. A healthy environment is key to providing a good life.
The fashion industry is currently in a process of speeding up to a great extent. Products are sold straight from the catwalk and the waiting period of the products going into the market is cut to zero. These new methods are often described as smart business and modern ways of satisfying consumer demands. At the same time, they put a lot of pressure on the people involved in the production process, from the low-paid workforce to the interns who often work for free and over time.
Very well-put. Fashion is becoming faster and cheaper by exploiting people. On one hand, we can't turn back the wheel. But we can clean up the processes and make them transparent and create fair paid jobs on a global basis. It helps some consumers to rethink and to feel the need to slow down. The economy invests double the amount of money into marketing than into the product itself, only to make consumers think that buying a certain product will make them happier. And when they buy the product, there is implied already the need for the next item; there can never be real satisfaction. As designers, we need to think about what a customer really needs. And what can make a customer truly satisfied.
So based on what you just said, the whole industry should be based on need?
Let's call it real desire.
Yes, it is not realistic to base it on need since we already have so many garments out there...
As surveys show, 20% of garments are never worn, another 20% of garments are never sold. So up to 40% of all garments directly go to waste. We are investing so much money in creating the desire for people to buy things that they don't need. The system somehow forces the consumer to buy new products, which have no real benefit. There should be a real benefit in terms of functions, safety, community building etc.
Do you think the circular economy model should be implemented from the top of the industry?
Circular material flows are ideal in a bigger industry to become profitable and feasible. Nevertheless, there are different roles to promote beneficial design. Small and emerging designer labels can in some ways be more extreme in their approach and lead in terms of innovation and new ideas. They can oversee their processes better and can test and experiment with new systems with smaller risk. For big brands, it is more difficult to make changes since every little step has a bigger impact. At the same time it's they who have the money for investments, research and development.
There are so many approaches to sustainability. Which one do you think is the most pragmatic one that balances the environment, human well-being, and the economy?
There is neither the one most sustainable fibre nor the cleanest process – it always depends on the context. The main thing is that designers have the right intentions. They should make great products and throughout the process, they have to see how they can work in the best possible way. There is not only one way we can go. I think we need diversity. I think we need to take our own direction, define what our aims are, assess what can be done and implement changes step by step.
There is a concept called localisation which is the opposite to what dominates the current economy: globalisation. Do you think that globalisation necessarily has to have a negative impact on the whole environmental system?
We can't turn back the clock as globalised production streams are established and the question is if we can take back business from the developing countries. I think we should rather do the same that we did for the European production lines in the last fifty or hundred years. We need to clean up the production streams in the developing countries, implement unions and fair and safe work conditions, pay living wages, and give people their voice - globally.
It also depends on how we look at localisation. When cotton is produced in India and the weaving and the cut and sew is also all done in the same area in India, then in a sense this is also localisation because the whole production process is conducted in one country. Today the harmful thing is when the cotton comes from one country, the threading is done in another, the dyeing yet somewhere else and the garment making in another - that is mad. I think it is powerful to have things produced within communities.
The luxury market nowadays is hugely dependent on tourism. When political or economic disturbances are occurring the market can be hugely impacted. Rather than depending on tourists should we not focus more on local consumers and nurture a good relationship with them?
Yes, local community building is very important. I highly recommend buying from your local heroes. I would always choose Berlin brands over mass-produced products or big labels, even if the products are not entirely sustainable.
Unfortunately, it seems that most consumers don't share this approach...
I would say that there is a counter-mass market growing and that it is getting bigger – with a massive interest in experiencing fashion without necessarily buying a product. Community building and social involvement become more and more important. This is where designers can offer completely new and positive solutions.
What are your suggestions for young designers? How can they best contribute towards sustainability in fashion?
It all starts with your intention. With the intention of 'doing good instead of less bad' to quote Michael Braungart, the founder of cradle to cradle. Find your own passion and find out what really connects to your heart. Try as best as you can and ask the right questions. You don't have to find all the answers yourselves immediately but make sure that you work with the right people. The industry is changing and the materials are changing and improving. Step by step you will make a bigger impact.
Spend enough time to do your research before you really start a business. Once you are in there it is difficult to make changes. It involves a lot of effort but it is important that you push yourself. Keep your eyes open. I have worked in this field for so many years but I still have to learn new things. And: follow yourself and follow your intention. Don't be irritated by other people's opinions. Stick to your beliefs.
Thank you so much for the interview!
Berlin-born designer Friederike von
Wedel-Parlow leads the Master's program "Sustainability in Fashion" at ESMOD Berlin which was launched in October 2011. Her
design and research interests are focused on circular design systems and the “cradle to
cradle” design concept.
Follow the link for further information:
MA "Sustainability in Fashion"
Prof. Friederike von Wedel-Parlow recommends:
MINDFUL FASHION BRANDS
Click on the images to shop the brands online:
Dear Joyphie of six years ago,
It is so wonderful that you have always been inspired and keen on learning how to reduce impacts of fashion on our environment. I am writing to express my gratitude to your early commitment to such an empowering style of living and working. I still recall that you studied for a Bachelor degree in fashion design at Esmod Berlin, Germany. From 2014 till 2016, you embarked on exploring sustainability in fashion after you were inspired by a workshop run by the professor who was teaching the Master program. You are now not only working on beautiful and well-crafted designs with consciousness behind them but also are living a sustainable life with your family in an adorable house that runs on clean energy. This morning you have just harvested some Camellias, your favorite flowers, and are preparing a cake with fresh berries from your garden.
Joyphie Yu in August 2022
If you would like to get in touch with Joyphie, you can send her a message via firstname.lastname@example.org