“Among other things, sustainable textiles will prioritise use and not buying”

Conversation with Begoña Planas, Barcelona Activa, and Verónica Larrain, Moda Sostenible BCN.

14/04/2022 - 17:18 h - Environment and sustainability Ajuntament de Barcelona

 Fashion is one of the most environmentally polluting sectors and it has a negative social impact. Barcelona Activa is working to change the sector model in the city so that it includes environmental and social sustainability and more democratic organisation models though the programme RevESStim el tèxtil. On the eve of the new annual conference, we interview the head of InnoBA and Ecosistema ESS in the Directorate for Socio-Economic Innovation, Begoña Planas, and member of the Board of Moda Sostenible BCN as well as director of the  Trashion Fab project, Verónica Larrain.

Increasingly, we hear people talk of sustainable fashion, sustainable textiles and the circularity of the textile market. How would you define it?

Begoña Planas (BP): When people talk about sustainability, there is a tendency to associate it with environmental impact. We always approach sustainability, both in the textile sector and others, from a threefold perspective: environmental sustainability, social sustainability and organisational sustainability.

Social sustainability has to do with the social impact of our activity, such as workers’ working conditions, the salaries they are paid, our relationship with our surroundings, or how the activity fits in with other economic initiatives in the area. Organisational governance refers to governance and promoting more participatory, more horizontal models.

Obviously, that is not incompatible with economic sustainability. One thing has to be linked with the other.

What is the current situation of the textile industry as regards those three aspects?

Verónica Larrain (VL): I think we all know that the fashion industry has still got a very long way to go to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But it is also true, particularly in the Catalan context, that there are lots and lots of different initiatives looking for ways to establish a more sustainable system. In fact, it is one of the most polluting on the planet.

There are some really interesting environmental policies, there are circular economy projects, digital design and the digitalisation of all the production processes, recycling, repair, reuse, raising consumer awareness, etc.

It’s true that it’s not an easy way nor an ingenious solution, but [sustainability] is being tackled from different angles by the different players. Everyone is trying to do their bit, both government as well as public and private companies and various organisations and social entities.

In a context of innovation and rethinking, what role does the RevESStim el tèxtil programme play?

BP: Barcelona Activa’s RevESStim el tèxtil programme works on strengthening and driving collective and social enterprise projects in the city’s textile sector, as well as strengthening the sustainable textile sector businesses that already exist in the city.

Basically it does that through two lines of action. One essentially involves socio-entrepreneurial strengthening, such as training and business advice on management tools, feasibility plans, strategic planning, very much adapted to the textile sector. The other line is the coordination part, because this is a sector that is not sufficiently coordinated or visible in the city, even though there are quite a few initiatives underway for developing textile or fashion projects from this perspective. We are trying to coordinate the sector to make it increasingly visible and, in that way, generate more synergies and develop more joint projects.

You mentioned Catalonia. What is the situation here and, specifically, in Barcelona?

VL: Many designers and small brands in the Barcelona area have been socially committed from the outset with regard to making their garments, looking for small workshops involved in the social and solidarity economy (SSE) through job placement programmes. It is increasingly common to find initiatives that assume environmental responsibility goes hand-in-hand with social duty.

The textile sector is highly segregated in Barcelona. Through the Barcelona Activa programme RevESStim el tèxtil we are working to coordinate the sector and give greater joint visibility to  all the parts involved in the garment chain.

How do you work on sectoral coordination through the RevESStim el tèxtil programme?

BP: The textile sector in Barcelona has lots of organisations working on different levels and from different perspectives. Through RevESStim el tèxtil we have created workspaces for the different players: an entrepreneur’s group, for entrepreneurs in the sustainable textile sector who intend to develop joint solutions; another group is working from Barcelona’s social workshops to identify which joint projects they might develop. A third group is working at the training centres offering training in textiles in the city. Each group analyses what’s needed and then they try to develop joint actions. The idea is that all these groups end up having a meeting space.

What relationship does the textile sector have with the SSE?

VL: The SSE focuses on people and the environment and is an important part of the economic sector, accounting for 7% of the city’s GDP. It is another way of building the economy which, moreover, is very closely linked – increasingly so – to a new approach to creating fashion.

We are talking about companies that are generating a positive social impact while reducing their environmental footprint as much as possible, and moving towards more participatory organisational models, especially those in the textile sector.

How can we grow the sustainable textile sector in the city?

BP: We have to think about what we consume, how we can reduce it, how we can repair much more and, when we have to buy, where and how we do it. Reflecting on our consumption is important in every sphere of life but much more so when it comes to our relationship with clothes and fashion.

On average, we use our items of clothing seven times. That makes it very clear there has to be a major change in our consumption habits, opting for companies that really are working for sustainable textiles and which cannot compete with fast-fashion companies given their prices below the real cost of production.

VL: One thing I always say is that when it comes to buying an item of clothing, think if you will be able to put it on more than 30 times. That is a recipe for changing the focus of consumer action and it works very well.

Why is the cost of sustainable fashion higher than that of fast fashion?

BP: If fast fashion internalised the costs of its impacts, such as the spills it produces, or the working conditions with which it produces, the price would no doubt be similar. The problem is that fast fashion is not passing on the real cost in the price.

What are the current trends in the sector?

BP:  That is exactly what we will be reflecting on in the programme’s third conference. One of the trends that is emerging consists of business models that prioritise using over buying. Business models such as swapping or hiring clothes, or acquiring them second-hand are not thinking about producing them but exchanging or reusing them, fostering new consumption models.

VL: The rental or hiring system, as a business model, is an ideal way to avoid accumulating a large amount of clothes on impulse. In particular, it encourages a shift towards an effective clothes consumption model and helps to reduce the sector’s environmental impact.

What will the 3rd RevESStim el tèxtil conference be like?

BP: conference. This year it will be held on 31 May, with a face-to-face format, at InnoBA, Carrer Perú 52. It will be in-person again, like the first conference, attended by over a 100 people. Under the title “From the Textile Sector of the Future to the Challenges of the Present”, we will be reflecting on what we have to do now to achieve that future textile sector we all imagine. This co-creation debate will take place at different venues. 

The first part consists of two simultaneous roundtables to reflect on the challenges facing the future textile sector. The first of these deals with digitalisation and the transformation it is generating in the sector.

We often think of digitalisation in marketing terms, but it is having other impacts too, on production models, for example by facilitating the creation of models on demand, generating community or facilitating brand internationalisation.

The second roundtable is more to do with waste management, exploring trends in its management and the circular economy. Here the talk will be about trends such as ecodesign and upcycling, among other things.

The aim of these two tables is to offer an expert view while sharing thoughts with three renowned experts on the topics mentioned. These will be followed by the “spinning corners”, spaces for participants to swap specific experiences and tackle the issues dealt with at the roundtables in a more practical way. The exchanges will take place in small groups to facilitate a more experiential approach.

In the afternoon a networking space will be organised for projects and companies so they can identify what they have in common and strengthen the links and cooperation between them.

What are the challenges facing the circular economy and digitalisation? What can we expect from these trends?

VL: In the case of digital fashion, which can have a real impact on physical fashion, digitalisation has to start thinking on a grand global scale. Personally, I don’t believe it’s possible to replace the physical fashion industry, an industry that turns over more than €700 billion. In Europe alone, the textile and clothing sector has an annual turnover of €162 billion. But I do think we can influence consumer habits and our relationship with clothing.

For example, digital fashion is already having an influence on the way products are manufactured and consumed. An example of reducing the carbon footprint by means of on-demand production, with small collections that are entirely digital such as that of Farfetch. Following an initial marketing campaign, the orders are compiled and the physical garments are produced only on demand. That way some 2.5 tonnes of carbon footprint are saved because the carbon footprint of a digital piece is 3.85% of a cotton T-shirt manufactured in the traditional way.

There are other ways, such as swaps, or shared platforms that enable users to hire items or upload their own clothes so they can hire them out or sell them. These kinds of actions lengthen the useful life of a piece of clothing, helping it to last longer.

How did the textile sector support programme come about?

BP: RevESStim el tèxtil arose in response to a very specific need of the sector. When we began to provide advice to entrepreneurial projects from an SSE perspective, an extremely high percentage were people who want to start a business in the textile sector. That was when we decided we needed a very specific resource to support these types of projects.

There is a very significant nursery for textile projects that are beginning to adopt this view.

VL: There is a lot of initiative, lots of ideas. The times we have been living through these last few years, with Covid-19 and repeated economic crises, force us to be very creative and to look for solutions.

What do we need now to make this nursery grow, to germinate these seeds?

BP: This is a sector that needs access to financing, visibility, and to achieve economic stability requires a leap in scale through intercooperation. They are projects that either have a short track record or are small, while the people that comprise them are micro-enterprises. Achieving this economic sustainability requires a change in the consumption model.

VL: And a change in the economy too. We base ourselves on an economic model that breathes, lives and dies by the GDP when we ought to focus more on degrowth as a way of improving our quality of life. Money is needed to finance all that, but it has to be linked to a change of economic model, a paradigm shift in the way we live today and what we think our lives should be like. That means being less materialist, less consumerist, less individualistic… all ists/istics out!