Transforming fashion through community innovation
The fashion industry has been linked to pollution, waste, and modern slavery. In light of this, an EU-funded project led a series of successful experiments designed to spark radical, sustainable change while, at the same time, uniting Europe's textile and clothing businesses.
© CC BY-NC SA 4.0, Waag, 2016
Fashion is one of the worlds most polluting industries. Every year, the sector generates around 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 and 10 % of the 100 billion items of clothing produced go straight into landfill. Fashion brands are also regularly implicated in cases of exploitative working conditions and modern slavery.
As one of the largest textile districts in the EU, the Italian city of Prato felt it was in a unique position to inspire change and encourage the industry to become more sustainable. Consequently, the local government united with a diverse mix of textile and research organisations from across Europe to set up the EU-funded project TCBL: Textile and Clothing Business Labs.
The project established a community of like-minded individuals, associations and companies that worked together to revolutionise business models and create a more ethical European textile and clothing sector. Those involved included 52 labs community spaces ranging from local sewing cafes to textile research institutions and 249 associates businesses involved in the textile and clothing value chain, from cotton farmers through to dress-sharing start-ups.
Together, the TCBL community launched a series of concrete experiments to explore solutions to key problems in the industry, such as testing bacteria-based dyeing which has a near-zero environmental impact. Each individual experiment generated new findings which the TCBL team documented in 185 YouTube videos, 79 guidebooks published on issuu.com and 42 scientific articles published in the projects online magazine.
We like to think of TCBL as a machine that constantly tracks innovation and explores how new and sustainable processes and mindsets can be embedded into the fashion industry, says Jesse Marsh, project coordinator for the City of Prato. Our experiments in redesigning garment factory layouts so that manufacturing teams could be more sociable, for instance, brought a significant improvement to the ability of sewers to communicate and collaborate while, at the same time, leading to a 9 % savings in manufacturing times and a significant reduction in defects, he adds.
In order to identify the industrys key areas of concern, the TCBL team wanted to reach people working on fashions frontlines not the brands, but the people who actually spin the fibres, weave and knit the fabrics, and design and sew our clothes.
At the heart of the TCBL mission is the desire to benefit all those involved, from the tailor to the researcher to the factory owner to the customer, says Marsh. An improvement in social and environmental impacts starts with the quality of the working environment and ends with a healthy and thriving community. We cant separate social and economic benefits if we want to transform an industry they have to work together.
This was no easy task. Behind the big names in fashion, Europes textile and clothing industry fragments into around 170 000 mostly micro and small and medium-sized enterprises employing over 1.7 million people. Through site visits, workshops and conferences, the TCBL project heard from more than 1 000 people involved in manufacturing, uncovering a desire to move towards more sustainable business models.
Going even further
In an early meeting, one of our partners said: This isn't a project, it's a global movement, recalls Marsh. This self-realisation shaped our determination to build a community based on values rather than just company profiles, projecting the idea of a sustainable fashion industry as a collective vision. The degree to which we have been able to do this is perhaps our greatest achievement.
Because the project was so successful, the majority of those participating wanted its work to continue. It was as though the ecosystem had taken on a life of its own, so we just had to find the right framework for it to continue growing and innovating, said Marsh.
These continued efforts have taken many forms. Although the project officially ended in June 2019, 15 TCBL experiments are still ongoing and the project team are currently setting up the TCBL Foundation, a non-profit body that will continue to promote sustainable innovation in fashion. TCBL participants have also created 14 new start-ups that are still operating, and the team has established the TCBL service company which will support paid-for consulting services by TCBL advisors.
We have seen that for innovation to spread throughout an industry, people need to feel part of an environment where they trust each other and feel theyre going in the same direction, says Marsh. By innovating as a collective, we have shown how to become a disruptive movement.