Can Embellishments Ever Be Sustainable?

innovation materials recycling sustainable fashion Jul 17, 2023

A while back, we were going through a slideshow of the Kingpins denim shows in Amsterdam and New York and while we were scrolling through some of the trends forecasted for Spring/Summer 2024, one trend, in particular, stood out to us - embellishment.

I think most of us remember the early 2000s and the fashion that came with it. Embellishment was huge during this era, made popular by socialites like Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, and of course the cast of Jersey Shore (c’mon, we weren’t the only ones!). In the United States, we were entrenched in a war in the Middle East, we were on the heels of a major recession, and we still weren’t addressing the effects of climate change, but hey, at least our clothes were sparkly.

Sarcasm aside, Y2K fashion is coming back and we’re a little worried about what that means for sustainability. Typically, these embellishments (rhinestones, beads, sequins, glitter, etc…) are made from various types of plastics and adhered using either glue or rivets. This is probably no shock, but all those embellishments mean your bill of materials costs are going to go up. This leaves brands and designers in quite the pickle - how do you accommodate what your customers want/ are expecting when it comes to sustainability while coming in under budget?

Thankfully, we love a good challenge. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to brainstorming.

Option #1 - Preferred Sequins

Sorry to burst your bubble, but there is no scaled innovation providing sequins made from preferred materials, but there are developments in the works.

EcoCult has a list of some of these innovations that include The Sustainable Sequin Company, Elissa Brunato’s Bio Iridescent Sequin, and Phillip Lim and Charlotte McCurdy in partnership with OneXOne. Using recycled PET, wood-based materials, or algae, each of these innovations is better than traditional sequins, but we’re still a way out before we can truly deem these as “sustainable” or “preferred,” or for sure, “circular.”. It’s going to take time to sustainably scale these innovations and introduce them to the market and unfortunately, the trend cycles wait for no one.

Option #2 - Don’t Design to Trends

Many brands are good at doing this - don’t follow trend forecasts, instead stick to the basics that people typically hold onto for years. You know - the classics. Although we reference them a lot, Patagonia is one of the best companies doing this. 

Following trend cycles is really tricky when you’re trying to factor in sustainability because you want to and are expected to create products that consumers want in the here and now, but trends typically only last for a season. 

Without going too far down the rabbit hole of social media, consumption, psychology, and trends, technology has rapidly increased how we view fashion and style. Good on You wrote a great article on microtrends and how detrimental trend cycles are to sustainable fashion, but for those of you who have teenagers or kids in their early 20s, just ask them what they’re seeing on TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, and more. 

It’s safe to make the assumption that the embellishment trend, if it even gets its legs, won’t last for very long, so can we justify designing and creating product that will inevitably be cast aside once a new trend comes along? That’s a decision your brand has to make, but as a designer, you still have the power to make your voice heard. You may not have the final say, but it may be worth sharing your opinions and concerns with the larger organization.

Option #3 - Take Back Systems

Whether your brand follows the embellishment trend or not, we advocate for every brand to have a take-back system in place. Taking responsibility from your customers to handle a product’s end of life is one of the most important steps a brand can take in alleviating environmental impacts. In our current systems, many clothes that consumers no longer want end up in landfills, incinerated, or cast off to countries in the Global South where the waste endlessly piles up. 

Imagine what could happen if thousands of pieces of clothing with millions of small plastic embellishments end up as waste. It’s an ecological disaster that fuels our nightmares. 

If you are going to include embellishments into your line, the most responsible next step is to set up a collection system. Whether by mail or in-person, set up a system where customers can bring in embellished clothes for a store credit or discount for their next purchase. Incentivizing customers to drop off used clothes as opposed to donating them or throwing them away removes a potential waste stream from entering the scene and gives your customers a reason to come back and shop with you - talk about a win-win!

But… once you have those goods back, what do to do with all the embellishments!? Someone, or something, has to separate them from the garment. More on that below…

Okay, so maybe none of these options works for your brand - we have one last argument that may change how you view embellishments.

Circling back to the topic of end of life, embellishments make it incredibly hard to properly recycle clothing. Let’s use the example of 100% cotton shorts that have rhinestones attached with rivets. You have 3 separate materials that require different recycling methods: cotton, metal, and plastic. For each one of these materials to be properly recycled, we have to disassemble practically the entire garment and there has yet to be an efficient process for removing 30+ rhinestones from a piece of clothing and then separating the plastic bling from the metal backing. Now imagine how long it would take to do this entire process to thousands of pairs of shorts. 

The reality is, this isn’t going to happen. Even if the embellishments are removed, it’s safe to say that the rhinestone and metal rivet will both be tossed in the trash. 

Until recycling technology advances, adding complications to our garments like glitter, sequins, and other embellishments will only push us further away from reaching a circular economy. 

All in all, you can probably guess where we stand on embellishments and if you’re a designer, we encourage you to talk with your team (maybe even your customers!) about whether adding details like these is even worth it.

Still have some questions about embellishments and sustainable design? We can help guide your team through our consulting services! We're looking forward to working with you and your team.  

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