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13 October 2011

Better Together

Written by Published in Issue 29 - Maximise Read 4362 times

Only by swallowing our pride and teaming up with the big brands will we be able to innovate towards a wholly sustainable, ethical work environment

One of the most stimulating projects that we are working on at Hemingway Design right now is with McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s – the company whose name, when I first mention we are working with them, makes people give me a look of sheer incredulity.

But when I go on to say that our project with McDonald’s is about making the most of resources, involves a programme that ultimately aims to reduce waste to almost zero and is without doubt the most technologically advanced and challenging sustainability project we have ever worked on, often the barriers of preconception start to come down.

The last decade has seen some of the big corporations that people love to hate really stepping up to the mark, sustainability-wise. As a long-time judge on the annual RSPCA Good Business Awards, year after year I see the likes of M&S, Asda, Waitrose and McDonald’s sweep the board for their work with animal husbandry and ethical food and clothing production.

And I have yet to see any of this work being done cynically in an attempt to gain brownie points with the sceptics and critics. On the contrary, these companies have ethical and sustainability champions who are every bit as passionate about the issues as Sublime readers.

I believe that we should be celebrating the fact that we can experiment and attempt to make great strides with the help of large corporations, who have the money that is needed to invest in resourcing new ideas. We can maximise opportunities by bringing small, fast-moving, cutting-edge companies under the umbrella of a larger enterprise which is able to fund innovation at a level those out on the leading edge can rarely reach.

This is exactly what is happening in our collaboration with McDonald’s. We’ve teamed up with Worn Again, a company whose very ethos is based on achieving far-reaching, meaningful change through collaboration with large companies. Together, we are taking a new approach to design thinking and applying it to outfitting 85,000 McDonald’s UK employees in new uniforms, to be launched at the 2012 Olympics.

Hemingway Design is creating the look and feel of the new uniforms, working closely with apparel supplier Dimensions, and Worn Again is designing the phased strategy to transform the uniforms from conventional to ‘closed loop’ textiles over the next few years. Closed loop, meaning that from the outset the textiles have been designed to be fully recyclable. At the end of their useful life, the new uniforms will be collected up at McDonald’s restaurants, reprocessed into raw materials and made into uniforms again as part of a closed manufacturing system.

The process for closed-loop textiles is currently available for polyester, and considering that the majority of workwear is already made from a high percentage of polyester, it’s the ideal platform on which to introduce this type of infinite resource reuse. The great thing about closed-loop materials is that they are designed to be recycled over and over, as opposed to having just one reuse, such as PET polyester which is made from plastic bottles.

Another huge benefit is that the repolymerisation process is extremely energy-efficient when compared with virgin polyester production. Energy consumption and CO2 emissions are as low as one-fifth of the equivalent created in the manufacture of new polyester fibres made from petroleum.

For McDonald’s, this move to closed-loop textiles won’t happen overnight. The infrastructure to support the collection and reprocessing of the uniforms is not yet fully developed, and the current market price is too cost-prohibitive for most businesses to swallow in one chunk and on their own.

To overcome this barrier, Worn Again is developing a committed group of leading non-competitive brands, all working towards a zero-waste corporate environment, to create the scale necessary for making the process and materials more economically viable. Real sustainability advances can’t take place in a vacuum – it requires collaboration not just between big and small companies, but among the world-leading brands themselves that have the size and impact to affect systemic change by making small but significant changes in their supply chains.

In the meantime, we’re extremely encouraged by the fact that McDonald’s have taken this bold step to fast-tracking the development of a closed-loop clothing industry in the UK. Not only will it help them achieve their own zero-waste-to-landfill ambition by 2020, but it will change the goalposts and challenge other big brands to step up to the plate too.

At the heart of this project lies the maximising of precious resources. There’s the resources of the textiles themselves. Then there’s the financial clout of a large corporation. And there’s the agility of the smaller, fast-paced companies at the forefront of the design, construction and sustainable thinking that are necessary to the whole process.

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