Sustainability never goes out of style for the Amsterdam fashion industry: Here’s how the city weaves circularity into its fashion fabric

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When we think of greenhouse emissions, we think of automobile, aviation and shipping industries. However, according to the UN, nearly 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions is contributed by the fashion industry as a result of its long supply chains and energy-intensive production. The energy consumption of this industry is also more than the energy consumed by the aviation and shipping industry combined.

According to the statistics published by the UNEP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, every year the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water and contributes to around 20 per cent of wastewater worldwide. UNEP data reveals that every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. If drastic measures are not taken, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. The industry is also a major culprit behind the millions of tonnes of plastic microfibers being dumped into the ocean every year, which can spread throughout the food chain. 

Amsterdam: Weaving sustainability into its fashion fabric

Amsterdam is one of the few cities in the world that is actively working towards countering the detrimental impact of the fashion industry on the environment. Talking about the sustainability quotient of the fashion industry in Amsterdam, Marike Geertsma, Manager Foreign Direct Investments Fashion & Creative Industries at amsterdam inbusiness, says, “The Amsterdam area’s fashion industry might not be known for its couture, but it is definitely thriving as a home to major fashion and jeans labels and innovative entrepreneurs. In line with Amsterdam’s sustainable ethos, the Amsterdam region is home to many innovative businesses, designers and foundations focused on circular and sustainable design, helping to change the attitude towards the manufacturing and consumption of clothes. This includes big names such as Patagonia, PVH as well as world-famous designers like Ronald van der Kemp and newer initiatives, such as The Fabricant, Lalaland, Renoon, and The Next Closet.”

“The companies, organisations and local government are all united by one purpose: to help the fashion industry to become more sustainable. It really helps that there is a thriving community focused on sustainability – broader than just fashion – here, with really progressive ideas about circularity too,” she adds. Amsterdam is also the first city worldwide to commit to the ‘doughnut model’ by Kate Raworth. 

Amping up the sustainability quotient of the Amsterdam fashion industry 

The city of Amsterdam aims to be a 100 per cent circular city by 2050. In order to achieve this goal, the city is involved in various initiatives to boost its sustainable fashion industry. 

Geertsma shares some of the key initiatives that the city is involved in. “In 2018, the City Council adopted a proposal for Amsterdam to become a frontrunner in circular textiles. Several initiatives came from this, many coming together in the Green Deal Circular Textiles. Over 100 organisations from the Amsterdam Area collaborate on this Green Deal. Various intentions have been expressed to contribute to a circular approach to textiles for the next three years: refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, repurpose or recycling and regional processing. Multiple regional partners signed the intention agreement.”

“In the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, we have the ambition to have 50 per cent of the textiles in a closed loop by 2030 and to use 30 per cent recycled material from non-reusable discarded used textiles by 2025. This means that we recycle regionally discarded textiles in the region and create new economic activities with textiles and clothing in other business models such as lending or renting, second-hand / vintage, maintenance and repair for life extension. This requires innovation in product design, recycling technology, business models and a more circular approach to textile education,” she explains. 

Denim Deal

The fashion industry and denim jeans go hand-in-hand. However, only a handful truly understand the immense toll it takes on the environment to produce just one pair of denim jeans. 

According to the UN, “To make just one pair of denim jeans, 10,000 litres of water is required to just grow the one kilo of cotton needed for the pair of jeans. In comparison, one person would take 10 years to drink 10,000 litres of water.”

Amsterdam, being one of the major global denim hubs, recognizes the environmental impact of denim. The city is the birthplace of denim labels like Denham and Scotch & Soda, the European hub for global brands like Calvin Klein and the home of Denim City, which has a workshop for students and an upcycling facility. 

Therefore, the city, along with public bodies and firms working throughout the textile supply chain signed the ‘Denim Deal’, an agreement to make denim products more sustainable. The deal was signed in October 2020 by 30 parties, including the City of Amsterdam, the Amsterdam Economic Board, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Municipalities of Haarlem and the Zaanstad. Major brands, including Mud Jeans, Kings of Indigo, PVH and Scotch & Soda, have also signed up.

“Amsterdam is seen as an international denim capital, with one of the highest densities of denim companies in the world. The purpose of the Green Deal on Circular Denim is to work with leading partners across the denim value chain to close the loop and thus achieve the necessary sustainable systemic change in this value chain,” says Geertsma.

Connecting sustainable fashion startups to corporates

Pushing forward the sustainability agenda of the City of Amsterdam are various innovative sustainable fashion tech startups. One of the key challenges faced by these startups is connecting with big fashion brands and companies and helping them to recognize the importance of reducing waste.

This is another area where the city of Amsterdam helps. “The City backs various initiatives such as the M-ODE Foundation: The idea of taking better care of what we wear, and educating the fashion industry to be more responsible in how it operates, is what M-ODE is all about. The foundation is connecting young talent and established brands with a network of investors and partners that could help them grow and develop further. Backers include the City of Amsterdam, Stadsdeel West, and Dutch banks Rabobank and ABN-AMRO,” explains Geertsma.

She further adds, “We also initiate impact challenges in which we aim to connect innovative sustainable fashion(tech) startups to corporates in the fashion industry. Businesses, governments, citizens and academic institutions are working together to move towards circularity. The diverse economic structure of the region also offers opportunities to contribute to the development of the circular economy. So it’s not just sustainable fashion, it’s cross-sector input that really drives innovations.”

Helping startups make fashion good

Amsterdam is also home to the global initiative called the Fashion for Good. Launched in March 2017 with founding partner Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation) and an open invitation to the entire apparel industry to join, Fashion for Good connects brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders to work together in their shared ambition to make the fashion industry a force for good.

It’s also the world’s first interactive museum for sustainable fashion innovation and an accelerator for startups driving innovation in sustainability, circularity and transparency. 

Katrin Ley, Managing Director, Fashion for Good, says, “Fashion for Good acts on two fronts: as an Innovation Platform we give promising start-ups the support they need in order to grow and scale. And as a Convenor for Change, we are building a Good Fashion Movement, through our museum, community space and open source resources, to help people understand the challenges and reimagine the ways in which they can make a difference.” 

Awareness triggers change

Creating awareness among the common mass regarding the heavy and detrimental impact of the fashion industry on the environment is imperative to create pressure among fashion brands to adopt a sustainable approach and also bring about policy changes. The ‘Fashion for Good’ museum is a good strategy to create awareness about promoting sustainability in the fashion sector. 

Explaining how the Museum promotes awareness, Ley says, “The interactive Fashion for Good Museum is a public-facing museum where we inspire, educate and engage people from across the world. Visitors learn about the past, present and future of the fashion industry, the challenges and the innovations and solutions that are driving it towards a more circular system. With the digitally-enabled Good Fashion Journey and an RFID bracelet, they can discover and commit to ways that they can make a difference. At the end, they take home a personalised Good Fashion Action Plan, a digital guide filled with tips for extending what they learned in the Museum into their daily lives,” 

“Additionally, we also develop open-source, toolkits, reports, whitepapers and guides available for free to the public, to help them on their journey towards good fashion practices,” she adds. 

The Renewable Carbon Textiles Project

Earlier this year, in June, the Fashion for Good launched the Renewable Carbon Textiles Project today, bringing together a consortium to accelerate the development of Polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHA polymer fibres; a promising biosynthetic alternative to fossil-based fibres with the potential to reduce carbon emissions in the fashion supply chain.

“There is an urgent need to find replacements for the predominantly fossil-based fibres in the fashion industry through solutions such as biosynthetics from renewable sources. PHA polymers represent an exciting, yet a challenging solution for reducing carbon emissions in the fashion industry, and this project aims to drive further innovation in this space to bring them to scale,” says Ley.

The project brings together key industry players to investigate, test and validate the solutions provided by innovators in the PHA polymer space; a promising biosynthetic alternative to fossil-based fibres with the potential to reduce carbon emissions in the fashion supply chain.

The catalytic funding was provided by Laudes Foundation, and collaborating partners include BESTSELLER, Norrøna, PVH Corp. and the Fabrics Division of W. L. Gore & Associates providing industry expertise and financial support.

“Participating innovators Bio Craft Innovation (formerly Biomize), Full Cycle Bioplastics and Newlight Technologies contribute their solutions to validate their potential, providing insights to scale the industry in the long term. This will enable the evaluation of the suitability of PHA polymers, accelerate fibre development and production, and determine scalability in the traditional supply chain. The end-of-use pathways for the fibres will be evaluated through third-party degradation and recyclability testing, to ensure circularity,” explains Ley. 

Future initiatives and events

1. Dutch Sustainable Fashion week: This month, from 23rd till the 29th, the annual Dutch Sustainable Fashion week will take place. During this event, on the 24th, the ‘Full Circle’ campaign will be officially launched by the MUMSTER MOVEMENT in collaboration with the Municipality of Amsterdam

 “This campaign consists of a circular clothing collection, documentary as well as an interactive exhibition. The launch event is organised for the press and public in De Hallen van Amsterdam. In addition to the documentary screening, the collection and the exhibition, the public can also register for swapping, donation, repair and recycling of clothing,” explains Geertsma. 

2. The Amsterdam Denim Days: This annual event that always has a big focus on sustainability, will take place again in October 2021. The event offers a platform for denim lovers in a series of events to share their dedication to denim and to talk about innovation and sustainability.

3. The Kingpins Show: This is a trade show for the denim industry, will also take place in Amsterdam in October from the 19th till the 21st. “Kingpins Show is committed to accelerate innovation and change within the denim supply chain to advance the Decade of Action to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,” says Geertsma.

4. PI apparel: PI Apparel Europe is the event for Product Development Leaders in Fashion. PI Apparel brings together the fashion, apparel and footwear industry to discuss the challenges and technologies disrupting the industry. It will take place in Amsterdam again in spring of 2022. 

Together with other EU cities, Amsterdam is also participating in the Reflow project. “The Amsterdam Pilot will increase the recycling percentage of home textiles, through redesigning diverse methods for collection with citizens, while providing feedstock for the recycling industries,” explains Geertsma. 

She tells us that, lately, the City of Amsterdam has been focusing more on impact development and welcoming companies and events wishing to change the fashion industry for good.