Seated in a lodge in the Selkirk mountains of British Columbia amongst 44 new and old friends across a number of professions, photographer and environmental activist Meg Haywood Sullivan shared her thoughts on circular fashion and sustainability with me. It wasn’t the first time that I considered this era of retail’s negative impact on our ecosystem but it was certainly the most impactful consideration.
I was there for the tying of the bow and I was there to capture the customer removing it after it arrived at her home. I photographed the entire chain, from beginning to end.
The award-winning photojournalist told the story of prAna, a well-known activewear brand that predates many of the brand identities adopted by DTC retailers today. Started in 1992, the brand maintains many of the sustainability initiatives that are just now becoming popular. She detailed one of her trips to prAna‘s factory, documenting the day-in-the-life of a worker. She was there at the home of the prAna contractor when the factory worker awoke. The two rode a scooter together to work, where she documented the day’s duties down to the yarn tied around the package for delivery. Once Sullivan was back to the United States, she then photographed a prAna customer receiving the package in question, untying the yarn to see the new piece of clothing.
On prAna‘s site, the retailer lists a number of initiatives. There is a code of conduct and policies on fair labor, traceability, recycled polyester, polybag reduction, and supply chain. You can find the brand’s suppliers on the site.
It is rare for American consumers to see this intense of a commitment from a brand. For prAna, it is more than marketing speak, that is certain. But its impact on the greater machine is nearly non-existent. Their efforts are meaningful, but it will take an industrial shift to stymie the rising problems that the fashion market faces.
Consider that in 1995, a consumer’s poly-based fabrics were worn in gyms or on runs. Today, the majority of clothing resembles organic-appearing variations of those same technical fabrics. These fabrics have taken over our closets, our drawers, our long runs, and our boardroom meetings. But there are consequences to fast-fashion and athleisure; plastics weren’t intended to be worn and discarded with impunity.
Because it’s cheap and easy to manufacture, polyester has become today’s dominant textile. But polyester, which is essentially made of oil, causes a host of problems. While the material does provide a use for all those recycled plastic water bottles, washing any synthetic fabric — whether it’s made of raw petroleum or recycled plastics — sloughs off microscopic fibers. Those microfibers end up in water supplies and never biodegrade. 
To understand the current state of industry, you must consider the last shift of this magnitude in fashion retail. The boom of plastics in fashion retail closely resembles the turn-of-the-century availability of cotton-based goods in urban areas. Between 1840 and 1920, a number of developments accelerated fashion consumerism to unforeseen heights.
The continued rise of cotton bolstered a global trade with America as its newly fueled war supply, the wares of America’s burgeoning industries, Wall Street, and – for the first time in American history – casual fashion, a format that was uniquely European before retail distribution improved.
One reason it is hard to see cotton’s importance is because it has often been overshadowed in our collective memory by images of coal mines, railroads, and giant steelworks — industrial capitalism’s more tangible, more massive manifestations. 
The department store brought selection and ease of transaction to urbanizing areas of the United States. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Pittsburgh led the way in a retail economy that surpassed $42.5 billion in sales before losing nearly half of its value in 1929.
During its ascendancy from about 1880 to 1920, American society shifted from rural to urban centers and absorbed more than 23 million immigrants. By 1910, over one-fifth of the population lived in a city of at least one hundred thousand, big enough to support several good-size department stores. City people had seemingly inexhaustible needs — for clothing, bedding, household goods. Sales of consumer goods rocketed upward, roughly tripling in just the 20 years between 1909 and 1929. As department stores’ sales spiraled ever higher, stores expanded and rebuilt, and then expanded and rebuilt again. 
And the Gilded Age introduced trickle-down economics to major cities, albeit slowly and in limited fashion. The majority of residents of urbanizing cities worked for low wages in unsavory conditions. Between 1881 and 1900, nearly 35,000 workers lost their lives annually to work-related incidents. This tragic period would result in reforms to include the growth of unions that bolstered the earning potential of the working class. Though known for an era of robber barons and hardened industrialists, the turn-of-the-century also brought a growing class of “white collar” workers, staffed to manage the operations of many industries.
But the new era of industry and innovation didn’t only produce misery. As factories and commercial enterprises expanded, they required an army of bookkeepers, managers, and secretaries to keep business running smoothly. These new clerical jobs, which were open to women as well as men, fostered the growth of a middle class of educated office workers who spent their surplus income on a growing variety of consumer goods and leisure activities. 
These three macroeconomic shifts – the continued cotton empire, the golden era of the department store, and the birth of the white-collar employee – ushered in a time of cotton trousers, oxford dress shirts, and suiting en masse. The retail industry is a lagging indicator, not a leading one. In today’s market, athleisure and technical fabric-based casual wear signifies shifts of their own.
Workplaces are more casual than ever before. And that’s if you even report into an office. Distributed workforces are prevalent in today’s economy, the types of clothing investments that consumers make are second order effects of their lifestyles. And no longer is cotton king, technical-based fabrics (polyester, spandex, nylon) are the cheapest to produce as long as crude oil is in ample supply. These fabrics deliver a host of benefits: they wick moisture from one’s skin, they stretch, they contour the body, and they deliver compression performance in some cases. The endure a day’s commute without the wear and tear of traditional fabrics.
According to Grand View Research, the market for technical fabrics are only going to grow, doubling between 2015 and 2023. To the untrained consumer, these products are all benefit and with little downside.
But there are unseen side effects. When consumers wash clothing made with plastics, microfibers enter the water system – a pesky form of pollution that does irreparable harm to the ecosystems affected. The durability of a number of these fabrics, often cheaply manufactured, is a fraction of the durability of organic-based fabrics that preceded today’s technical era. Today’s customer is cycling from purchase to discard at a faster pace. Additionally, few if any retailers have instituted circular logistics – a policy that would promote upcycling old fabrics into new garments.
There are a number of trends that are aiming to stymie this problem. Nike and Adidas are the two largest manufacturers of technical performance wear; they’ve both committed to upcycling plastics and other discarded fabrics and materials. In turn, consumers will see more products designed with repurposed goods rather than the mining and processing of additional, raw material. Additionally, services like ThredUp have partnered with flailing retailers like Gap, J.C.Penney, and Macy’s to institute resale programs. And organizations like Circular Fashion are technologically equipping materials suppliers to track products in through to the consumer and back to the supplier for upcycling.
The circularity.ID Open Data Standard allows fashion brands to publish their product data in a format that can be utilised by a variety of software applications along the product life cycle. 
It’s my position that there will always be a place for technical fabrics in the marketplace. For those retailers, circular fashion strategies must be instituted to minimize waste where possible. On the consumer side, CPG companies like Filtrol are working to widen the appeal of solutions like their own – a microfiber filter for washing machines that prevents plastic fibers from entering the water supply.
Even if the majority of companies operated like prAna, it wouldn’t be enough to reverse the effects of this era of fashion, and I speak from experience . The athleisure industry is one that I’ve been involved with in some way or another for the majority of my adult life. It will take another generational shift back to organic fabrics designed to be worn for 10 years rather than 10 months or even 10 weeks. Specialty retailers will have to end their practices of overproduction and superfluous promotion, reducing the prices of clothing to the point that consumers view them as temporary goods versus potential heirlooms – the types of pants, coats, dresses, and oxfords that could be passed to younger siblings, sons, or daughters.
Changes in retail are often a result of larger societal changes. Fashion insiders also have a responsibility to mitigate a growing problem. But until those larger changes occur, circular fashion (and sustainability as a whole) is just window dressing. As organic fabrics begin to adopt many of the technical capabilities of their new-aged counterparts, we’re likely to see a shift away from the athleisure-like appearance that has overtaken this era of fashion. It may take the dawn of a new industry, a period of strengthening of the middle-class, or a new period of growth for traditional retailers. Something beyond the industry will have to force its hand. Until then, brands like prAna will stand in virtuous opposition to today’s common practices. And it won’t be nearly enough to stop the flow.
Report by Web Smith | Edited by Hilary Milnes | About 2PM
 Disclaimer: I am a proud cofounder of Mizzen + Main, a label that is derived from technical fabrics along with fellow upstarts like Ministry of Supply, Theory, and a host of copycats. Although I believe that companies like Mizzen + Main are in the minority of good actors, my concerns remain for the industry as a whole.