Environmental science and policy students win third place in sustainable fashion competition
Like many things over the past year, it started with a post on Slack: “Would anyone like to form a group for the Global Circular Challenge?” So began our three-month adventure to invent and pitch an idea for a sustainable clothing brand.
We are five students in the Masters of Environmental Science and Policy program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Our team, AMARA, was one of three Columbia University teams competing to reinvent the future of fashion. We placed third among 27 teams from various countries, origins and universities, including PhD students, MBAs and professionals.
The Global Circular Challenge of the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics was launched as a competition to design solutions for sustainable fashion, with an emphasis on circularity. Circularity in the fashion industry means extending the life of the clothes we wear, keeping them for as long as possible, and finding other uses for the materials once they can no longer be worn.
What is AMARA?
AMARA represents the names of the students on our team: Alyssa Ramirez, Maya Navabi, Ariela Levy, Rashika Choudhary and Allison Day. It also represents the commercial pitch we created for the final of the Global Circular Challenge: a disruptive, unisex and sustainable denim brand with circularity at the heart of its mission. We designed this hypothetical business model from scratch and improved it using the advice of our educational advisor – Athanasios Bourtsalas, Columbia University professor of energy and materials – and the various experts brought in to share their experience with students. contest participants. Throughout the spring semester 2021, numerous guest speakers from renowned organizations and businesses – including Gap, Etsy and Ralph Lauren – provided insight into how the fashion industry is adjusting to the consequences of the human-induced climate change, and provided valuable input and advice. to participating teams.
To create our business model, the AMARA team studied each stage of the life cycle of a denim garment and identified areas for improvement. AMARA’s business model aims to promote the longevity of denim garments, and our pitch was unique among the other finalists as it includes circularity at every stage of the denim garment lifecycle, including:
Creation: While most jeans are cotton or cotton-synthetic blend, AMARA uses a synthetic-free hemp blend. Hemp is less water intensive, more durable and more breathable, becomes softer over time and retains color better than cotton. It is estimated that hemp may be four times cheaper to produce than cotton, but production has yet to achieve economies of scale. However, as more companies like AMARA start using hemp, its price is expected to drop significantly.
Supply: At the procurement stage, suppliers are vetted to ensure a fair and equitable workforce and safe environmental practices. This environmental assessment of procurement and production allows AMARA to know our suppliers intimately and to ensure that they meet our high standards for sustainability.
Design: AMARA products are designed to last longer and reduce waste. The brand’s clothes don’t have unnecessary, hard-to-recycle metal rivets, and tiny pockets made from pieces of fabric so small they can’t be reused. AMARA garments are designed to be deconstructed and reused, and the hems can be adjusted easily. These design elements are essential to ensure that reusing clothing is as easy as possible.
Retail: On the retail side, AMARA stores offer new and used clothing that has been returned to the store.
Carry: The care labels on AMARA garments contain instructions on how customers can take ownership of reducing the environmental impact of washing their garments. For example, a pair of jeans should only be washed every 10 uses, in cold water, and lined dry, if possible. This reduces the amount of water and energy used to keep the jeans clean.
Return, repair and reuse: AMARA’s “Triple R” initiative, or Return, Repair, and Repurpose, extends the life of clothes and keeps them out of the landfill for as long as possible.
Each garment is made with a unique identification code sewn onto it. When the customer wants to return the garment to the store for repair, reuse or disposal, they can enter the code on the store’s website. AMARA then sends the customer a reusable shipping bag that the customer can use to return the garment to the store. Transportation is provided through contracts with power purchase agreements that share the cost of an electric vehicle fleet with an existing transportation service to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping products.
Once back at the store, the garment can be repaired if it is torn, remade into another garment – for example, turning an old denim jacket into a denim skirt – or it can be deconstructed into scraps and then sold to retailers. artisans or craft stores. as a usable material.
If the customer simply no longer wants the garment, they can return it for resale in the “Previously Liked” section for a reduced price, depending on the condition of the item. The “Previously Liked” section makes our products more accessible to more people, because not everyone can afford to buy sustainably made clothes. Customers who return their old clothes for resale receive either store credit or a smaller cash return.
Used clothing has a “history tag” indicating where the clothing was returned, when it was originally manufactured, and any modifications or repairs made to it so that the customer can understand. the role they play in the life of the garment.
In developing this business case, the AMARA team has developed a deep understanding and appreciation of what it takes to make a pair of jeans, and more importantly, what it takes to make them durable.
The team began by ripping up a pair of jeans and analyzing the possibilities for improvement and circularity. It was obvious that some parts, like the metal rivets found around the pockets of most jeans, needed to be phased out of the design.
The team also conducted a number of interviews with circularity professionals and average consumers to find out which factors consumers felt most important when purchasing a garment. The fact that the majority of consumers surveyed, whether or not concerned about sustainability, found price to be the most important factor, inspired the team to create the discount second-hand section in the AMARA store.
Another module allowed the team to perform a very simplified analysis of the denim life cycle. From there, they learned that consumers could play an important role in reducing the water and energy that goes into denim over its lifespan by simply washing it less often.
Challenges and successes
The format of the Global Circular Challenge has been adapted to adapt to security guidelines in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This has proven difficult for a number of reasons, including time constraints and adjustments to the program itself to meet the limitations imposed by the virtual environment.
When the competition began, half of the team was on the west side of the United States while the other half was on the east side. Although these challenges at times made it difficult to compete and unfortunately limited the possibilities for travel, the AMARA team persevered and had the privilege of learning more about sustainable fashion while forging a close bond.
Being able to interact with so many people around the world, work on something meaningful and be honored as a third place finalist has been an incredibly rewarding experience.