Down to Earth: EDGE talks circular fashion with Ophir El-Boher

OceanPlastic Dress, courtesy of Ophir El-Boher, photography Steven Xue

What I find fascinating about the subject of sustainable fashion is that many in the industry don’t truly understand, or let’s say embrace, the benefit of a complete supply system that conserves and values our resources.  Industry “speak” on the topic is quite prevalent, along with company sustainable product statements, marketing spin [aka greenwashing], and a few inroads on “eco-friendly” materials.  Well that’s never passed the smell test for me, nor does it for Ophir El-Boher.

Ophir, Oregon based designer, artist, educator, curator, and scholar who focuses on the cultural and environmental aspects of fashion and textiles, and I spent hours talking about circular fashion over a course of days and could have talked longer.  She not only gets it, she lives it through her art, design, and scholastic work. When you talk about circular fashion, aligning with the principles of a circular economy, you’re communicating at a higher intellectual level on the subject of sustainability.  You blow past a more generic conversation of, for example, identifying biodegradable materials, to a conversation of the ecosystem, biomimicry, and government-involved infrastructure. Ophir is meticulous in her approach of an alternative to the existing consumption-based fashion system – textile waste reduction, a key focus.  But we dig deeper . . .

This talk is published in two parts.  In part one, “Down to Earth”, we go as deep as white supremacy and it’s effect on employment representation, labor practices, and defining our culture’s aesthetics; and dig deeper into the how the dominance of human activity has effected our environment.  Part two of our talk, “Circle By Design”, highlights Ophir’s real practical solution for circularity in fashion and her vision of the future.  Her vision is actually present day in small batches, not so apparent until we change our value system.

In opposition to the model of linearity, circular systems consider the before and after of what we normally look at when assessing a system. In a way, it is like the difference between the laboratory and the real world.

RPH:  Rethinking the fashion system is top of mind particularly during this Pandemic era.  Sustainable, no waste practices have always been important to you.  A circular system raises the responsibility at a higher conscious level.  What is it about a circular system that adds the most value to a sustainable future?

OE:  Firstly, yes, you are very right that no waste systems were always important, to me, and broadly. However, I want to acknowledge that we don’t really see operating no-waste systems that are man-made. I’ll explain- the waste we generate comes in many forms, some aren’t very visible, and some are out of sight, but not detached. So, even if I produce new garments out of used material, that was waste at one point or another, and even if I design them so that they are completely biodegradable or 100% recyclable, I probably have produced some waste in various forms, such as CO2 emissions from the electricity used for sewing, and potentially some micro-plastics that will break from the thread during washing and might end up in waterways.

All that is to say that when we talk about sustainable systems we need to understand that we are on a life-long journey, and while the goal is complete circularity, no one is 100% there for my knowledge, but the attempts are none the less important and some are getting quite close.

Circular systems require a paradigm shift on all sides- production, consumption, use, and disposal practices all need to be addressed. That means, that not only the design and production phases differ from the conventional paradigm of fashion making, but the consumer has to change their behavior with the clothing too. That means that culturally we move to a higher conscious level, as we collaborate, producers, and the public, in fitting ourselves and our systems better to the ecosystems we live within and work together to allow the shift.

OceanPlastic Dress, courtesy of Ophir El-Boher, photography Steven Xue

Give an example.

A simple example is a collaboration between a producer that designs and manufactures a 100% recyclable garment with a consumer that brings back used garment for recycling, with a recycling program that makes a new useful high-quality product out of the used material. This program could be a governmental service, or by that same producer from the beginning, or other entities. If only one out of these links is broken, the garment will end up in a landfill. That’s why we need a real deep paradigm shift, that is now happening, to create the social context to adopt the circular systems we are all working on.

Circularity, as we both see it, Rhonda, is one term that we use to be a little more specific about what we mean when we say sustainable. In opposition to the model of linearity, circular systems consider the before and after of what we normally look at when assessing a system. In a way, it is like the difference between the laboratory and the real world. The circular way of thinking is based on an understanding that what happens before, after, and around the system, is also part of its effects. A circular system considers all the components surrounding it, and design solutions for its inherent waste, by thinking of waste as a resource for a process that’s part of the system.

How would you break down distinct advantages of a circular system?

Circular systems are one way to think sustainably out of many, and in my opinion, it has two distinctive offers for the sustainable fashion community. One is that it effectively reacts to the already existing waste. In opposition to some really innovative and important sustainable solutions, like biological textiles for example, that use raw materials as a resource, circular systems can and should be based on solid waste as the resource, which makes them the solution for the waste problem. But even a circular system that uses raw materials is effective in preventing waste as it takes back the material into another cycle, ideally for an unlimited amount of cycles.

The second distinctive advantage of circular systems is that we have many models to look at, in nature. This kind of approach is sometimes framed as biomimicry, and of course, circular systems are modeled after biological ones. The reason I see it as a huge advantage is that it allows us to transform our collective behaviors to fit in the ecosystems that we are part of, and that is absolutely essential to becoming sustainable. Also, for designers, that means we have proven effective systems that we can use as analogies for structuring new ones. This rich bank of inspiration is highly useful and extremely beautiful too.

If a “sustainable” brand uses poor labor practices, or lacks knowledge or transparency about the individuals and communities working for them than they are simply greenwashing.

OceanPlastic Dress, courtesy of Ophir El-Boher, photography Steven Xue

One way of seeing the value of a circular fashion system is the positive impact on the local community.  A local supply chain can empower and uplift the livelihoods of the community.  In addition, there’s the transparency, quality control, and less carbon footprint of resources and production.  Most consumers want transparency on who made their clothes and a commitment to ethical practices.  What are your thoughts and plans on a socio-economic component?  Is it doable to combine a sustainable practice with ethical and social responsibilities?

The way I see it, if sustainability is deeply understood, it has to include the human aspect of the environment. It is true that there are so-called sustainable production systems that aren’t considerate of sustaining the livelihood of the community involved in the system, and that is a major problem. In my opinion, if a “sustainable” brand uses poor labor practices, or lacks knowledge or transparency about the individuals and communities working for them than they are simply greenwashing. Talking about environmental sustainability without considering the human element is complete ignorance of the fact that humans are part of environments. Good morning Anthropocene.

Saying that I also want to emphasize that while we might be perfect theoretically, in reality, none of us is. The life-long journeys of dismantling powerful cultural structures are doomed to fail some times. So, while we can all critique the attempts of others, and we definitely should, as constructive critique is essential for change, it is also important to note that we all make mistakes, and it is inevitable.

My experience at Levi Strauss & Co was quite profound in addressing labor and poor working conditions at factories. They pioneered a rigid policy called Terms of Engagement, supplier code of conduct guidelines as an early roll-out of their sustainable practices.  I understand how the social aspect is as equally important as the environmental element.

Yes. When approaching the social aspect of sustainable fashion, it is commonplace to target the poor labor conditions in garment factories we hear about in the media. This issue is enormous, we need to address it as consumers and as professionals alike and there’s no time to waste, we have to take action immediately.

Another important and very interesting conversation is about the way white supremacy defines our culture’s aesthetics, and what is considered beautiful or “right”.

Speaking of action, today’s social unrest and Black Lives Matter movement is prompting a call for change in employment practices of representation and balance among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color [BIPOC].  The labor market, particularly factory and distribution workers, can be defined by a class structure typically made up of an oppressed BIPOC community.  The effect of the pandemic has been quite tragic on this group.  And the lack of inclusion and representation at all levels of management within the industry, is raising its ugly head.  With the spotlight on this topic, your thoughts?

This too needs to be addressed.  There are many more social aspects to fashion that we should be addressing more bluntly and more urgently, and just like the first one, we should be acting quickly. Two of the urgent ones are the very important conversation of white supremacy as it appears in fashion companies’ representation, mostly around the employment and opportunities for BIPOC.  Another important and very interesting conversation is about the way white supremacy defines our culture’s aesthetics, and what is considered beautiful or “right”. Both of these conversations are being developed for many years by BIPOC fashion professionals, but recently, with the Black Lives Matter movement, they reach wider audiences and potentially allow many more individuals and companies to reconsider how white supremacy is affecting their practices on every level.

Yes, the movement has struck an awareness of inequality deeply ingrained in the industry.

OceanPlastic Dress, courtesy of Ophir El-Boher, photography Steven Xue

Support, planned infrastructure, and regulations can be key in the success of a circular fashion system.  What should the government involvement be, if any?

It is so true, and yet we see some circular structures flourish regardless, and that’s a wonderful thing to note! One part of the infrastructure is the educational part of making circularity an understood concept to allow its adaptability by the broad fashion user. But solid structures, like investments, recycling programs, funding, and technologies that literally convert waste into fiber are also needed. There is much research being done all over the world in all of these aspects and more, but we don’t see it yet on the ground- it is yet to be available for us.

There are funds available by foundations and waste management departments to support programs and businesses that use waste as a resource. It definitely exists in Oregon and hopefully, many more governments and organizations will choose to invest funds in developing these projects.

Imagine a nation that does not fund armed forces, and do invest in under-served communities, and circular businesses, that’s where I want to be! 

In order to become sustainable, we need to work on all fronts: consumption behavior, policy changes, corporate responsibility. The policy shift can be addressed through funding methods, rethinking what we value as a culture, can be seen through the choices of funding that governments do in democracies. We can see the gaps between our personal beliefs and ideologies to the proportions of funds devoted to different structures of our cultures. These gaps are the places to rethink, to demand change. Imagine a nation that does not fund armed forces, and do invest in under-served communities, and circular businesses, that’s where I want to be!

OceanPlastic Dress, courtesy of Ophir El-Boher

Ophir, thank you for your knowledge and candid perspective on circular fashion.

Part two of my talk with Ophir, “Circle By Design”, is about her work on a consumer-involved circular design system.  The end user is part of the process.

For more information on Ophir El-Boher go to https://www.instagram.com/ophir.el/

Images: The OceanPlastic Dress, courtesy of Ophir El-Boher, made out of upcycled cotton sheets & scraps, patched and screen printed illustrations, telling the story of micro-plastics traveling from our washers to the oceans and back to our plates; photography Steven Xue; models – Alexa Lautenschlager and Gabi Abraham.