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Ann Runnel on sustainability and the circular economy

Ann Runnel, the founder of the Estonian company Reverse Resources, focuses on the use of textile waste and reducing the fashion industry's dependence on virgin materials. She has come up with a digital data platform that allows the fashion industry to track textile waste from garment production and connect it with textile recycling to become a new resource for fashion again. According to her, as a society, we don't have to give up abundance and we can still behave sustainably. 
Foto: Reverse Resources

Why do we need sustainable solutions, especially in the fashion industry?

Fashion, with its complex global supply chains, is considered one of the biggest polluters. It is also among the last to address climate change. Production is increasing all the time because we believe that economic growth is needed to improve people's living conditions. There are various solutions, and at Reverse Resources we have focused on the source of fibers. By replacing virgin materials with recycled ones, we decouple economic growth from the consumption of primary resources. By reusing the same fiber or raw material, we can still create new economic value while reducing the burden on the environment. We help major fashion brands map how much textile waste is generated in their supply chains and suggest how to sort waste by composition at source. In doing so, we help textile-to-textile recyclers to access waste with reduced cost and better quality and help to produce high-quality recycled fabrics that can rival virgin fibers in performance. 
We have to work together to make a difference.
Our uniqueness lies in addressing the whole supply chain of textile waste from source to recycling with a digital, data-driven approach. It’s not just a place to buy and sell waste, although there are components of that. Rather, it’s a combination of supply chain management, traceability and verification of the textile flows for the big industry players, allowing a new industry of textile-to-textile recycling to be created and scaled up. In 2022, we helped recycle nearly 4,000 tonnes of top-quality waste. This roughly corresponds to a reduction in emissions of 50,000 tonnes of CO2 and a reduction in water consumption of 26 million m3. That's an average annual ecological footprint of 10,000 people. In addition, our work is helping waste management companies in countries like Bangladesh and India so they can move from waste brokering to a service model that increases their margins while supporting the global fashion industry's compliance requirements. By 2030, it is realistic that at least 30% of all fibers used by the fashion and textile industry will come from secondary material streams, i.e. textile waste. 

What do you think sustainability means today?

Actually, I don't use the word often because it can mean anything from process setup to environmental issues. However, we usually talk about the circular economy as an economic model that at the same time preserves life on planet Earth. I am pleased that the concept of the circular economy is becoming more widely known. I particularly like the fact that it is not just about better waste management, but about a fundamental change in the way we think and act.

Just recycle? Or should we rather reduce consumption?  

Reducing consumption is essential, but I also really like what Braungart and McDonough say in their second book, The Upcycle. We don't necessarily have to think of sustainability as a necessity to deny our self-expression. We can have the abundance we are used to through well-adjusted processes and new technologies. Recycling is still important. Reducing waste in production can reduce waste, but it cannot eliminate all waste. The real question is what clothes are made of and how much we use new resources. How much of our GDP can we create from the same volume of textile fibers that enter circulation, instead of using virgin materials. Recycling is the way in which industry reduces its impact and the amount of waste. In addition, to make progress, we need to replace energy sources, reduce consumption and eliminate industrial pollution.

You work with brands that are accused of greenwashing. How does this collaboration work?

I believe it is mostly a lack of knowledge rather than deliberate greenwashing. I know that's no excuse, but at the end of the day we are all human and it's our nature to tend to talk confidently about certain issues without checking the facts. In the early years, we had to convince brands that there was much more waste in their production process than they realized. Instead of attacking them, we focused on finding solutions to turn this problem into an opportunity. I see this as a more certain way to achieve change. 

Can fast fashion and sustainability really coexist? 

Fast fashion and sustainable solutions can work together, but it depends on the business model. The fast fashion concept of selling products and leaving the responsibility to the consumer is outdated and needs to be revised. Large corporations still rely on this business model as their main source of income, and it is difficult for them to abandon it because they are also part of a larger system. Yet they are testing new approaches and business models, and start-ups and innovators are also showing their market power. Once a group of market-leading brands agree on something and send a common signal to suppliers, it can fundamentally change the behavior of the whole segment. No single government can do this, because the supply chain is very globalized in the fashion industry. Cooperation between consumers, brands, supply chains and the public sector is essential. We can achieve abundance and behave sustainably at the same time. 

What could brands do to be more sustainable and responsible towards natural and non-renewable resources?

They should be inquisitive and open to change. And invest part of their revenue in innovation and systemic change.
Foto: Reverse Resources
Ann Runnel

How is sustainability reflected in your daily life? And are there any rules that everyone should and could follow? 

I used to put a lot of time and effort into being a model conscious consumer. However, the system doesn't support me as a consumer, I gave up over time. Instead, I try to choose from the solutions that are available and try to be an early adopter of sustainable choices. I spend my working life helping to change the system itself in one narrowly defined area, while hoping that there are enough others doing the same elsewhere. I have been working extensively on sustainability and the circular economy for the last ten years. Both the pandemic and the war have made more people think about sustainability recently, and the shift in thinking has even accelerated. One of the basic rules for change that we need to make as a society is to start to understand that we cannot just look at the actions and impacts of a particular individual or one organization. We have to work together to make a difference.
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