Though a profound invention that has impacted significantly on modern society, plastics are a major sustainability challenge as they do not decompose and contribute to environmental problems both on land and in the sea, as well as to the health and safety of humans and wildlife. While the focus tends to be on the disposal and recycling of plastic bottles and packaging (Gjengi Makers and TCG), an area that receives considerably less attention is the disposal of clothing. Particularly with the advent of fast fashion, millions of tonnes of clothing are disposed of annually, the majority of which are composed of artificial fibres such as polyester and nylon. Not only do these garments release microplastics when washed and worn, but, when disposed of in landfill. they degrade into microplastic fragments that leach into and pollute waterways and the animals that live in and on them. They can then be transmitted to humans through the food chain. With the advent of the circular economy, rather than eliminating the problem by finding an alternative to plastics, efforts have been made to reduce it by extending the life of the garments, through reselling or recycling schemes.
Women’s tights or pantyhose provide an example of the challenge. Some 8 billion pairs are manufactured each year and the market is predicted to expand to 387 billion pairs (including leggings) by 2025. Women wear them and then throw them away at the rate of 1-2 pairs a month, ending up usually in a landfill. While there are numerous ingenious uses for such discarded items, ranging from scented sachets to hair ties and even plant ties in the garden (Lim Chua-Wee, undated), in Koping, Sweden, Linn Frisinger, and Nadia Forsberg have founded “Swedish Stockings”. Its mission is to change and influence the whole hosiery industry by producing tights/pantyhose from recycled yarn and becoming the world’s first completely circular hosiery brand. While acknowledging that sustainability has three pillars – Social, Financial, and Environmental – they claim to have prioritized the latter and use solar power to help reduce energy consumption, as well environmentally friendly dyes and post-dying water treatment.
In contrast, Sophie Billi-Hardwick and Marie Bouhier have created the world’s first biodegradable tights/pantyhose. It took them two years of research, testing, certification, and wearing trials before they opened “Billi London” in 2019, selling innovative products that biodegrade in landfill in less than 5 years. This compares to 40-100 years with traditional nylon and recycled garments, thereby reducing by 80% the time a pair of tights/pantyhose pollutes the environment. Although at present they can only produce 30 denier tights/pantyhose because of the difficulty in handling the yarn, they intend to produce quality, elegant products. As their focus is on quality rather than quantity they will limit their range, though they do have plans to enter the socks and leggings market eventually.
While they acknowledge the benefits to the planet of recycling they do not believe that it is a satisfactory and long-term solution to the sustainability problem. For them, it is necessary to find an alternative to plastics and to create a business that has ethical and sustainable practices at its core. This means, as they say, considering “the impact our decisions have on our workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment”. They believe in complete transparency and will only partner with manufacturers who share their aims and meet a set of clear, measurable sustainability criteria.
In accordance with their policy on transparency, they publish a breakdown of their costs which shows that 50% are incurred on materials and production, 24% on VAT, 21% on transport and delivery, and 5% on the packaging. Though they recognise the need to make a profit, they see margin as a means to finance and develop the business, including investing in research and development. Apart from wanting to innovate and transform the industry, they are working towards eliminating waste by developing waste management strategies, minimising, if not avoiding, the use of chemical products, and focusing on low energy and water consumption. Already a member of the Eco Packaging Alliance, which means their carbon footprint is offset when they import products from abroad, their goal is to become B Corps certified, indicating that they meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
Both “Swedish Stockings” and “Billi London” may be regarded as harmonious enterprises as they are economic enterprises meeting SDGs 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure) and 12, (Responsible Consumption and Production), eco enterprises meeting SDGs 13 (Climate Action), 14 (Life below Water) and 15 (Life on Land) as well as Social Enterprises meeting SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities). In addition, “Billi London” also clearly addresses SDG17 (Partnerships for the Goals) and can be regarded as a humane enterprise since Sophie and Marie believe that the rights of the workforce cannot be forgotten and contend that “it’s a nonsense to produce with the least impact on the planet if the workers’ rights are not protected”.
Do you agree with Sophie and Marie that recycling “is only a sticking plaster for social and environmental sustainability” and that the long-term solution should be to eliminate plastics by finding a biodegradable alternative?
Lim-chua wee, A (Undated) 14 ways to Reuse Old Tights and Pantyhose. Martha Stewart.com.
Roberts-Islam, B., (2021), Recycled materials ‘Not Good Enough’ Says Startup Whose Synthetic Tights ‘Fully Biodegrade in Landfill’.” Forbes, May 18.
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This is an impressive business and the wearing and disposal of women’s tights is something that possibly had not been considered properly and to be commended, especially their acknowledgement that they need to produce profit margins to enable them to reinvest and grow.
However, the bulk of the tights in the market place now are of low cost and as such not valued. Many women would love to purchase ethically made products but the reality is that basic economics prevent this. So how to address the practicalities of recycling panti-hose at a cost of production which meets the consumer pockets?
It would be good to see some facts about their market share, how they progress and the opportunities for greater innovation – so a longitudinal case study of their business journey. There is a very good European competition for women inventors and I would hazard a guess their entry would do well.
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Thank you for your observation.
That is the problem with fast fashion, it is cheap and easily discarded for something new/different and it then becomes someone else’s problem.
Traditionally if you bought something cheap it was said it wouldn’t last – “penny wise and pounds stupid”. Now, with our disposal society, we don’t want it to and although it is cheap we might end up spending more in the long run.
Either we need to change the mindset or we need to find an alternative that is cheap and can be disposed of. Maybe both.
But you are right – a longitudinal study would be interesting… David Kirby.
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