Imagine this: If all people on our precious planet consumed food, clothing and goods at the rate Americans consume, we would need more than 5.1 Earths to sustain us. The problem is that we have only one.
The products we consume impact people and the planet throughout their lifecycle: from extraction, production and distribution to consumption and disposal. Businesses are producing products to maximize profits. Consumers are purchasing to minimize costs. But the costs to the environment and our future are often not included on either side of the equation.
Our overconsumption habit is filling up landfills and polluting our air, soil and water.
So what is the solution? Consumers can buy less and reuse and share more.
• For most things, you probably don’t need it. When you do buy, look for products that use circular economy principles on the Cradle to Cradle Certified Registry.
• Choose durable, quality goods that have a lifetime guarantee or that you know will last a long time.
• Purchase goods secondhand from local and online resellers such as thredUP and Poshmark.
• Organize a clothing swap with friends. Local bloggers Kanesha Baynard (boldlivingtoday.com), Suzanne Bell (asksuzannebell.com) and friends run an annual Sip and Swap, where one woman’s trash is another’s treasure.
• Encourage “repair cafes” in your community, where amateur tinkerers can help extend the life of household appliances, consumer electronics and other products in disrepair. Repair cafes started in the Netherlands but have made their mark in Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale.
• Participate in the sharing economy. Nextdoor.com and other resources can help make sharing easier. Neighbors are often willing to lend baby gear, tools or other items on a short-term basis.
Support responsible businesses
Many businesses operate on a planned obsolescence model, designing and building products they know will be obsolete in three to six months. Or, they produce “fast fashion” they know will not be desirable in short order, ensuring that customers will keep coming back for more.
But there are excellent examples of companies taking the lead on sustainability through “cradle to cradle” or “circular economy” design, in which manufacturers design products for durability and reuse, including:
• Patagonia. Patagonia focuses on creating quality, durable products that can be repaired and recycled. It backs up this effort with a lifetime guarantee. The company created a fleece made from recycled plastic bottles and shared the technology with other manufacturers.
• Looptworks. Looptworks creates products from pre-consumer excess fabric as well as from goods that would otherwise be thrown away. It partners with a range of companies to secure materials and create “meaningful, long-lasting and limited-edition products.” For example, Looptworks worked with Southwest Airlines and subsequently Alaska Airlines to repurpose old seat fabric into products including high-end handbags, duffle bags and soccer balls.
• thredPp and Poshmark. thredUP and Poshmark don’t produce products but rather provide a platform for users to buy and sell gently used apparel and accessories online. Products are offered a second life at deep discounts.
Recycling, downcycling, upcycling
The triangular recycling symbol is intended to remind us that recycling closes the loop. In the ideal world, all products could be recycled into the same products – a plastic bottle becomes a plastic bottle or office paper becomes office paper. But typically the material degrades on recycling, known as downcycling, as a result of contamination or processing. Plastic bottles may become furniture, office paper may become lower-grade paper, and so on.
In contrast, upcycling reuses or repurposes items, making them better than the originals. In fashion, this often means taking something that doesn’t fit or is stained and refashioning it into another product. Upcycling reuses, in a creative way, textiles that would most likely end up in the trash.
Creativity on display
DesignX knows something about upcycling. Founded by Los Altos resident Durga Kavalagunta, DesignX provides after-school and summer programs in fashion design for kids. Children learn how to ideate, sketch, sew and embellish their own stylish wearable products.
Since its inception, DesignX has used post-consumer “waste” fabric, either donated by the community or left over from student projects, for design challenges and small projects. The DesignX team also regularly scours through tons of fabric samples donated by design houses to FabMo, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to fabric and textile recycling. FabMo provides unique, high-end materials that individuals can rescue and reuse for creative purposes, diverting approximately 70 tons of material from entering the landfill each year. DesignX students repurpose designer fabrics, converting them to iPhone cases, pillowcases, wallets and other accessories.
Respecting the Earth’s resources is a core belief at DesignX. This summer, the company is offering a program dedicated entirely to sharing the concept of upcycling with students ages 7-9 years old. Children will learn how to repurpose T-shirts and jeans – highly consumed and wasted fabrics – upcycling them into fashionable accessories. Kids are naturally curious and perceptive – and what a great opportunity to drive the value system for the next generation, leaving our planet in good hands.
Margaret Suozzo is a GreenTown LosAltos and DesignX Team board member.