Steering businesses towards a circular economy

As I have previously blogged about, the students in my master course ‘measuring sustainability’ at NHH have analysed and proposed indicators that H&M and other fashion companies can use to steer their business towards a circular economy. We are very thankful to H&M and sustainability manager Luisa Book for collaborating with us on this case. The topic is very much of the moment as an increasing number of companies, just like H&M, aim to become circular but then also need appropriate tools to help steer their operations in this direction.

Some of the indicators the students proposed, such as amount of recycled material out of total use of materials, are maybe not new but are crucial when a circular business is the target. Moreover, the number of times a material can be recycled needs to be monitored in order to make sure that recycling is not just a prolonging of a linear path (see Circular Flanders great illustration of this to the left). In an ideal world, materials can be recycled indefinitely.

The students also argued that it is key to keep track of collecting initiatives i.e. when brands collect used or discarded products. How much of what is sold returns to the company for recycling? Moreover, companies need to monitor what happens with collected garments- are they recycled into new garments or in fact only downcycled (used for other less valuable products)?

One reason materials cannot be recycled is because the materials are contaminated for example by chemicals that hinder recycling. The students here proposed to measure the use of such chemicals or substances. By monitoring, the company can also try to minimize such use. To know if the product is made with substances that might hinder recycling, you need proper information about what the garment is made of and how it is made. Here the students proposed that H&M could develop more elaborate tags with information about the item which could help the customer to take care of it and, eventually, facilitate the recycling of the garment.

Another point that is crucial to circular operations is to keep the materials in the processes. In the textile industry, a lot of fabric gets wasted and does not end up in any garment. Consequently, some students suggested to measure the amount of material that ends up in a garments in relation to total amount of materials used. Ideally, all materials used should end up in a garment. Similarly, the students also identified microplastics as a threat because it means that small amounts of plastic fibers continuously leave the circular flow and non-renewable materials are subsequently lost.

Another aspect commonly discussed in the context of circular economy is the slowing of the circle i.e. the prolonging of a product’s life span. Here the students reintroduced the idea of enabling users to repair their clothes, for example by making sure all items come with threads or buttons necessary for repair or providing repair services in stores. The company can track both the use of repair services and number of items that customers could repair themselves.

I hope that H&M and other companies will find the students work helpful. How to measure a circular business is really at the forefront of both practice and research. In fact, two research colleagues and I just last week got financing for a project on circular business practices by Vinnova. That the students managed this task so well and were able to develop these very helpful indicators show, to my mind, that we at University teach students useful and up to date skills. We educate students that can in fact contribute to and improve current business practices.

A second year of no-shopping?

At the end of a year of no clothes shopping, I concluded that I would not be able to continue another year. Despite ending the year with ca 540 items in my wardrobe, I saw ‘needs’ that meant that I would have to resume shopping this year.

Five months into 2018 and it turns out I was wrong. There have not been any urgent needs that I have had to address. Sure, I am running low on nylon stockings (but still I’ve managed 1,5 year using only my stash!). The boots are getting worn but they are still fine with a bit of leather balm. Clearly, I overestimate how much I wear items. In this part of the world, seasons change so fast so clothes/shoes are used only a few times before the weather is too warm/cold and the items get stored away again. The wardrobe gets worn oh so gently.

A friend asked how much time I spend mending. Yes, mending takes time. In fact, I’ve kept track of how much time I’ve spent mending the last four months. As a general pattern, I mend more when I have time to do so and less when I’m too busy. Only natural. What happens when I’m busy is that I get professional help with the mending and I’ve kept track on that too this year. So far it looks like this:

February: 32 min mending, no professional help

March: 15 min mending, professional help SEK 1600 (including mending,  dry cleaning & shoes repair)

April: 10 min mending, professional help SEK 2600 (including dry cleaning & sewing)

May: 1,5 h mending, no professional help

So I don’t spend a lot of time mending, but when I do I get a lot done (17 mends overall). I had five occasions of professional mending/sewing to a totalt cost of SEK2500. Two instances of shoes repair to a total of SEK 500.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense to mend things yourself. It’s fast and cheap. However, in very busy times, it might make sense to get help and save the stress of possibly not having the clothes ready for when you need them. I get help with mending and sewing from my dry cleaner and yes the cost adds up. Above all, less dry cleaning would save both the environment and my wallet. In once instance, I successfully avoided the dry cleaner by washing outerwear in the washing machine, after realising that it was mostly cotton and thus supposedly washable despite the label saying dry cleaning. Shoes repair I’m happy to leave to the professionals at all times.

I’m also happy to report that almost half way through 2018, my wardrobe is  minus 2 items. I went plus 8 when I inherited some clothes, mostly outerwear, from my great-aunt. In addition, since January, I’ve worn out 10 items (mostly basics). Since I don’t expect to suddenly inherit more clothes (fingers crossed!) and if I successfully keep other temptations at bay, I hope the wardrobe content will decrease even more. I am, as we speak, selling a pair of hardly worn Converse All Stars on auction site Tradera. That’s another minus one.

So to sum up, I’ve now managed 1,5 years without wardrobe shopping and, since the start, reduced my wardrobe with six items. It’s safe to say that I will never have a minimalist wardrobe. And that’s not the issues here either. I love my clothes. I just need to wear them instead of getting new ones all the time.