What I've learned about responsibility after running a circular fashion label for eight years.
Image by Cydney Cosette
Responsibility. The word is increasingly used as a sustainability catchall but more often than not, lacks all the substance of its meaning. Separate it from the heart-warming marketing videos and instagram ads and think about the sobering reality of responsibility - weighty, not very fun, rather straightforward - literally meaning accountability and duty.
What I’ve learned about responsibility
In my life, responsibility has meant owning my job. As the eldest child of four in a single parent household, I learnt that pretty early on. I knew I had to take ownership over doing my chores, and take great care in looking after my little sisters, even when I didn't feel like it or it was inconvenient or hard. It meant making sure I managed the cafe I worked in like it was my own. When the buck falls with you, you’d better step up.
I've grappled with the conundrum of making stuff in an already over-produced-stuff-world, of designing a product beyond the abstract. The toll and implications of design and the making of things have called on me to be known and understood. Making stuff requires a lot of different processes, like extracting materials, engaging a supply chain, producing, selling, storage, waste disposal and so on. If I'm going to set all that into motion, then I better be willing to take responsibility for it. That extends to the whole lifecycle, including what happens in the making (birth), use (life) and post use (afterlife) phases.
As a designer or key decision maker, the whole lifecycle is technically within my power to plot, manipulate, engage and execute. Some things might spin out of control, for example, a garment that could have easily been home-composted could still end up in an early landfill grave. That speaks to a leaky system, but I can still do everything in my power to set it up right, so nothing leaks by way of design.
Photo by Lily Clatworthy
So we need a new system
People say we need systems change, and I agree! Wholeheartedly. But why do people think the fashion system will change when the flows within the system aren’t changing either? It’s a stalemate. Are we all waiting to be forced to make clothing with integrity? Legislation seems to be the only way to make such changes, but I want to implore the industry to see the benefits of moving first, of taking responsibility and building value into products for every stage of the lifecycle right now.
You see, we DO have the ability to design products for circularity now. The systems might take a little longer to catch up, but we know where they need to be. What’s the harm in making circular clothing that may end up in landfill while we wait, when most garments are headed there anyway? Why not lead? Why not demonstrate to new players in the system how they'll soon be able to extract benefit and value from reusing, repurposing and recycling rather than if clothing went to landfill? How do we show the value of feedstock for future inputs? It starts with taking responsibility and thinking about value beyond the first sale and your own cut. That’s the biggest hurdle.
A.BCH has existed to prove that clothing can be designed for circularity today. We’ve been making plastic free clothing for years. We've sent out very detailed (it's a lot, we know) care guides and offered free repairs, repair workshops and helped countless customers in the life phase. We've pioneered, collaborated with suppliers and calibrated machines to create the most durable yet plastic free seams possible. We’ve created thousands of mono-material garments destined to be biologically nutritious to soil and a high value recycling input. We've made hundreds of customised pieces, created to fit your body, not the other way around. If we all designed this way, I think we could expect to see the future circular business models the system sorely needs (think reuse, repair, alterations, repurpose, remanufacture and recycling services) sprouting up faster than we could imagine. Then the system has a reason to change and circular economy solutions can become the norm.
Photo by Vlad Savin
Value for the Lifecycle (and tough love)
If we design for value now, meaning we are placing value into the materials and product throughout its lifespan, allowing others to extract from that value and giving life to the entire circular ecosystem, we have a fighting chance. If we keep designing with shitty, low quality materials that aren’t worth anything to the next person in line, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. News flash. No recycler wants your shitty garbage. It’s not worth their time. This is why garments end up in landfills. Too much nasty, low quality clothing. There I said it.
Taking responsibility means businesses paying more to the people in the supply chain, paying more for the better fibres, paying more for the higher quality material.
Unpopular opinion alert. It means individuals paying more for the clothing they buy and wear. I’m not necessarily saying everyone should start spending more overall but given Australians are buying 54 items of clothing per year (AFC, 2023) we can certainly buy fewer, higher quality items, utilise repairs or alterations and engage with ways to increase a garment’s lifespan. It also means paying for (in time or money) repairs and replacement parts even if buying a new one is only a fraction more and seems more convenient. It means paying for recycling or donating with integrity and pride (Would you buy this? Would you give it to a friend?). Paying in each of these scenarios, whether with your own time or hard earned dollars is really about investing. And why would you invest in something of low quality and/or value?
What does taking responsibility look like for a brand?
Something I have asked myself since the early days of A.BCH is 'How does a brand take responsibility beyond saying so?'
When we started A.BCH we had no examples of circular fashion, there was no one to look up to for inspiration. We had to figure it out on our own - a very expensive and drawn out process! But, nearly 8 years on from the original concept of A.BCH we can say that circular fashion is entirely possible. We’ve done it from the beginning, independently and somehow managed to achieve what so many people told us wasn’t possible. I can proudly say we've taken great care with every item we’ve produced and put measures in place to keep them in good use for as long as possible. At the end of the day our pieces are the best feedstock for garment to garment recycling.
The good news is anyone can do this! We’ve laid it all out, if not imperfectly. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the spirit of A.BCH will remain alive through ABCH.WORLD as an education tool, digital archive and consultancy. For individuals and our very dear customers, this means you can tap into any of our online resources for free. For brands and businesses, it means you can learn from our mistakes, adapt and create even better versions of our laboratory style fashion label. We're allowing ourselves to become nutrients to the soil, passing the baton with us right behind you. But I’ll tell you now, it will be more expensive. It will challenge your very making of the thing to your core. It will make you question everything about units, volumes and economies of scale. Circular Design is not something you can tack on to any given product. It is the heart and soul, right there in the act of design, that it lives and is set up for success or failure. It’s beautiful and worth it, but takes a total rethinking of purpose, design, values and more.
I think this is a big part of why the industry finds it so hard to shift to circularity. It’s seemingly trying to leapfrog the rethink and go straight to endless recycling of the same crappy materials that are poisoning our environment. It won’t work.
We must rethink how we design and how much we make in the first place, perhaps aligning with economist Kate Raworth’s work on Donut Economics and finding the sweet spot within a social foundation and ecological ceiling. While that might seem difficult, scary and narrow to navigate, remember that anything worth doing is going to have challenges. Taking this kind of leadership and responsibility will pay off in the ways that matter. And the best bit is that I’m here to help! Once we get through all your gorgeous orders, that is.
That reminds me that Sunday 11th Feb is your last day to order any item from the site including Made to Order and Custom. From Monday 12th Feb, we'll be updating our inventory to reflect actual stock and then there will be an opportunity to shop from those limited items we have for another 3 weeks before we wind up for good. I've loved seeing all your orders come through and am so thankful we have such a beautiful community who will wear their A.BCH with pride for years to come.
In other news, you can now sign up to my Substack called Clothing 2.0 for a quarterly newsletter from me.
With love and gratitude,