Cradle to Cradle

A budding circular economy initiative on Gabriola Island takes aim at the scourge of fast fashion

by Gavin MacRae

Fast fashion has helped drive textile production to double since 2000, creating shoddy garments that are filling thrift stores and overflowing into landfills.

Textile waste was piling high at the Gabriola Island Recycling Organization’s (GIRO) yard in 2020. Clothing donations had ramped up as the public, under pandemic restrictions and with little to do, routed closets for old clothes. Meanwhile, GIRO’s textile buyer, Diabetes Canada, had ceased pick-up of the clothing – at first because of COVID and later because their buyer, Value Village, was swamped with its own clothing glut.

“We were then sitting on over a thousand bags of textile waste, and our only option at that point was to send it to the local landfill,” says Michelle Kresnyak, GIRO’s general manager. “We were just horrified… that’s when we really got serious about trying to find a solution.”

The organization first conducted a survey to find out more about what textiles people were donating, and why. Using that information, Kresnyak and GIRO board member, Fay Weller, developed the C2C (Cradle to Cradle) Threads initiative to upcycle textile waste into new products while supporting a sustainable circular economy on Gabriola Island.

But what products, exactly? To answer that question GIRO held a juried design contest.

“We put out a call for people to come and pick up the textile waste and design whatever they wanted, says Weller. “But we did say it needed to be marketable and really thoughtful around lifecycle use – something that was durable and would last.”

Three submissions were chosen: Acoustic sound panels to insulate against noise between rooms, a dog bed design, and cotton “un-paper” towels.

The panels and dog bed both incorporated textile fill, which Weller says helps utilize much more of the waste stream, while the un-paper towels are “focused on shifting behaviour change from single-use to multi-use.”

The average person buys 60% more clothing items than they did 15 years ago, but keeps that clothing only half as long.

The next stage of the initiative is to build a makers’ space where self-employed entrepreneurs can craft the upcycled goods under a contract arrangement with GIRO. The space would also be for workshops on sewing, mending, and repair of textiles, and as a venue for education. A timberframe structure left over from a class at Gabriola’s Island School of Building Arts is slated to become the building’s frame.

“The bigger picture here is to try and educate and raise awareness around the fashion industry, the pollution from the industry, the waste that’s being created by it,” Kresnyak says. “We’re just one little community creating all this waste, and every community has the same issue around the world. So how can we change that? How can we look at textiles differently, and not just focus on turning this waste stream into products, but also focus on rethinking our consumption of clothing?”

Fashion intervention

“Fast fashion” describes the business model adopted by large parts of the clothing industry in the early 2000s, where cheap, poor quality garments are churned out for fashion “seasons” as short as one week. Fast fashion garments can be so shoddy they are considered single-use items.1

But despite the poor quality, fast fashion is booming. According to global business consultancy McKinsey & Company, the average person buys 60% more clothing items than they did 15 years ago, but keep that clothing only half as long.2

The trend has helped drive textile production to double since 2000, causing greenhouse gas emissions estimated to now exceed all international flights and maritime shipping combined.3

Fast fashion is made possible by poverty wages in developing countries. The industry has been implicated in child labour, prison labour, forced labour, sexual harassment, and union busting.4

As a 2019 House of Commons report from the U.K. puts it, “Fast fashion’s overproduction and overconsumption of clothing is based on the globalization of indifference towards these manual workers.”5

Over half of fast fashion garments are disposed of after less than a year, most to join the nearly three quarters of all clothing that is landfilled or incinerated at its end of life.6

We’re just one little community creating all this waste, and every community has the same issue around the world. So how can we change that?

Some of the garments that aren’t tossed make their way from thrift stores in high-income countries, to bulk textile resellers, to buyers at second hand clothing markets in Kenya and Ghana. The long-established markets are increasingly choking on the poorly made fast fashion items, discarding around 40% of the clothes the same day they are unbaled.7 This results in overflowing, ad hoc landfills, open burning of textile waste, clogged sewers, and soil and water pollution.8

“The clothing industry is really about cradle to grave right now,” Weller says. “It is created, it is used, and then it goes to the landfill…. [We need] a broader kind of rethinking of our relationship to textiles.”

Kresnyak and Weller are hopeful that C2C Threads can serve as a catalyst for just such a rethinking, and as a template for similar projects in other communities.

“A lot of the interest we’ve had from other recycling depots or thrift stores or other communities, other districts, is that they would love to try and do something similar with their waste stream,” says Kresynak.

C2C Threads is supported by $103,000 in funding from the Regional District of Nanaimo and $50,000 from the Island Coastal Economic Trust. A GIRO fashion show and auction of upcycled clothes in August also raised money for the initiative. GIRO has applied for a final round of funding that will enable the construction of the makers’ building and the purchase of a textile shredding machine.

  1. Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability
  2. The State of Fashion 2019 – The-State-of-Fashion-2019-final.pdf
  3. A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report.pdf
  4. Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability
  5. Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability
  6. A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report.pdf
  7. Dead white man’s clothes: How fast fashion is turning parts of Ghana into toxic landfill – ABC News
  8. Dead white man’s clothes: How fast fashion is turning parts of Ghana into toxic landfill – ABC News
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