Environmental Science and Policy Students Win Third Place in Sustainable Fashion Competition
Like many things during the last year, it started with a message on Slack: “Would anyone want to form a group for the Global Circular Challenge?” Thus began our three-month-long adventure in inventing and pitching an idea for a sustainable clothing brand.
We are five students from the Environmental Science and Policy master’s program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Our team, AMARA, was one of three teams from Columbia University competing to reimagine the future of fashion. We placed third among 27 teams from varying countries, backgrounds, and universities, including PhD students, MBAs, and professionals.
The London School of Economics Department of Geography and Environment’s Global Circular Challenge was pitched as a competition to design solutions for sustainable fashion, with a focus on circularity. Circularity in the fashion industry means extending the life of the clothes we wear, keeping them in use for as long as possible, and finding other uses for the materials after they can no longer be worn.
What is AMARA?
AMARA stands for the names of the students on our team: Alyssa Ramirez, Maya Navabi, Ariela Levy, Rashika Choudhary, and Allison Day. It also represents the business pitch we created for the finals of the Global Circular Challenge: a disruptive, unisex, sustainable denim brand with circularity at the heart of its mission. We designed this hypothetical business model from scratch and improved it using advice from our faculty advisor — Athanasios Bourtsalas, a Columbia University professor in energy and materials — and the various experts brought in to share their experience with the competition participants. Throughout the spring semester of 2021, many guest lecturers from organizations and recognizable companies — including Gap, Etsy, and Ralph Lauren — gave insight into how the fashion industry is adapting to the consequences of human-induced climate change, and provided valuable feedback and advice to participating teams.
To create our business model, the AMARA team studied every step of a denim garment’s life cycle 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 because it includes circularity at every step of the denim garment’s life cycle, including:
Creation: While most jeans are made out of cotton or a cotton-synthetic blend, AMARA uses a synthetic-free hemp blend. Hemp is less water-intensive, more durable and breathable, becomes softer over time, and holds color better than cotton. It’s estimated that hemp can be four times cheaper to produce than cotton, but production has not yet achieved economies of scale. However, as more companies like AMARA begin to use hemp, its price is predicted to decrease significantly.
Sourcing: At the sourcing stage, suppliers are vetted to ensure fair, equitable labor and safe environmental practices. This environmental assessment of supply and production allows AMARA to get to know our suppliers intimately and make sure they meet our high standards for sustainability.
Design: AMARA’s products are designed to last longer and reduce waste. The brand’s garments do not have unnecessary metal rivets that are hard to recycle, nor tiny pockets that are made of fabric pieces so small they can’t be reused. AMARA’s garments are designed to be deconstructed and reused, and the hems can be adjusted easily. These design elements are critical to ensure that the reuse of the garments is as easy as possible.
Retail: On the retail side, the AMARA stores feature newly made and secondhand clothes that have been returned to the store.
Wear: The care tags on AMARA’s garments have instructions for how the customers can take ownership in reducing the environmental impact of washing their clothes. For example, a pair of jeans should only be washed every 10 wears, with cold water, and lined dried, if possible. This reduces the amount of water and energy used to keep the jeans clean.
Return, Repair, and Repurpose: AMARA’s “Triple R Initiative,” or Return, Repair, and Repurpose, extends the life of the garments and keeps them out of the landfill for as long as possible.
Each garment is made with a unique identification code stitched into it. When the customer wants to return the garment to the store to be repaired, repurposed, or disposed of, they can type the code into the store’s website. AMARA then sends the customer a reusable shipping bag that the customer can use to send the garment back to the store. Transportation is operated through contracting with power purchase agreements that shares the cost of an electric vehicle fleet with an existing carrier service to reduce the carbon footprint of shipping products.
Once back at the store, the garment can be repaired if it is ripped, remade into another garment — for example, by turning an old jean jacket into a denim skirt — or it can be deconstructed into scraps and then sold to artisan or craft stores as usable material.
If the customer simply no longer wants the garment, they can return it to be resold in the secondhand “Previously Loved” section for a discounted price, depending on the condition of the item. The “Previously Loved” section makes our products more accessible to more people, since not everyone can afford to buy sustainably made clothes. Customers that return their old clothes to be resold receive either store credit or a smaller cash-return.
The secondhand garments have a “story tag” outlining where the garment was returned from, when it was originally made, and any alterations or repairs that have been made to it so that the customer can understand the role that they play in the life of the garment.
In developing this business pitch, the AMARA team developed a deep understanding and appreciation for what it takes to make a pair of jeans, and more importantly, what it takes to make them sustainable.
The team started by tearing apart a pair of jeans and analyzing where there was room for improvement and circularity. It was obvious that some pieces, 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 what factors consumers found most important when purchasing a garment. The fact that the majority of consumers surveyed, both sustainability-minded and not, found price to be the most important factor, inspired the team to create the discounted secondhand section in the AMARA store.
Another module had the team perform a very simplified life cycle analysis on denim. From this, they learned that consumers could play an important role in reducing the water and energy that goes into denim over its lifetime by simply washing it less often.
Challenges and Successes
The format of the Global Circular Challenge was adapted to fit with safety guidelines in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This proved to be challenging for multiple reasons, including time constraints and adjustments to the program itself to meet the limits brought on by the virtual environment.
When the competition first started, half of the team was on the western side of the U.S. while the other half was on the eastern. Though these challenges made the competition difficult at times and unfortunately restricted the opportunity to travel, the AMARA team persevered and had the privilege to learn more about sustainable fashion while forming a close bond.
The ability to interact with so many people across the globe, work toward something meaningful, and be honored as a third place finalist was an incredibly rewarding experience.