Rachel Kibbe is the founder of Circular Services Group, an advisory firm working with fashion brands, retailers and NGOs on circularity strategy and policy. 

She’s also an Executive Producer and one of the co-hosts of Hot Buttons, a Post Script Media show about the future of fashion and culture on a changing planet. Each week, Christina Binkley, Rachel Kibbe, and Shilla unwind the breaking news, industry moves, cultural trends, and tech breakthroughs that are shaping sustainable fashion. The fashion industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. Can we change it? Listen Here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you first become introduced to the sustainable fashion world?

When I was 27, I went to get my AAS degree at Parsons. Their AAS Fashion Design program is equivalent to traditional graduate programs – it was a really intense program. When I came into that program with my undergraduate degree and a fair amount of experience in the real world, I was really ready to shift gears. I hadn’t found a way to apply my creative writing degree in an impactful way and I’d always loved fashion and design.Project Runway was really popular at the time and I think we all thought we were designers watching that show.  

Well, as it turns out, you have to be able to think like an engineer to be great at construction and design. I am more of a storyteller. I’m really interested in how things are made and the people behind how things are made so after graduating from Parsons, I launched one of the first online stores for ethical fashion. I really loved talking to designers to learn how they made things, and also the opportunity to pitch sustainability through more of a design lens. I got a bug in my ear when I was at Parsons because every class had a little bit to do with sustainability. One of my teachers took it pretty seriously and I remember sourcing sustainable silk for this dress project – I was really into it!  

I started looking at different designers who were using sustainable materials and thought, gosh, there’s some designers who are really designing great things, but they had such little exposure for using more sustainable materials. I thought there was an opportunity though to start telling a story about designers who are designing beautiful things and using considerate materials and labor. 

Is there such a thing as a “sustainably-made” piece of clothing?

Virgin extraction or use of non-renewable resources to make a “sustainable” garment is still an extraction of resources. I think we’d all love to think that this shirt I bought is made from sustainable materials, so it should be good for the planet – but there’s always an environmental trade-off to produce any new product.

After six years of running my online clothing shop, I ended up merging my company with a used clothing collector. When I first started working with them, we were collecting 25 million pounds of clothes a year solely from American Northeast states. What I got from those years is a total education about how our clothes are collected, that many are exported as a commodity, and that true textile-to-textile recycling hardly exists in the current system. Reuse is the best way to recycle in the clothing industry. 

Fashion has a very close relationship to waste management now. It’s our fastest growing waste stream domestically making up 7% of our landfills. It costs our communities over $4B a year to haul fast fashion to our dumps and incinerators. The waste comes in various forms, both excess inventory and returns, along with the used clothing in our closets. It takes resources and labor to handle this waste, compounded by the fact that most brands have reasons to keep their product scarce. This is why policy becomes so important in reducing the massive waste in the fashion industry, because businesses that make products need greater incentive to create a durable and circular lifecycle for their garments. Businesses that specialize in fashion waste won’t be able to fully scale and compete with new clothing production unless there’s policy, but there’s an enormous opportunity here for a boost in domestic green jobs and to even the playing field through better regulation and incentives.

Are you seeing clothing and apparel companies embracing the repair and return culture that consumers are asking for, or are we still in the greenwashing phase?

I think that many brands are addressing repair/return culture – they don’t have any choice. Yes, greenwashing happens and there are big brands I could name that get in trouble for this practice every day. But, I hesitate to call it greenwashing because what does that really mean?  I think the term is too broad when you’re trying to explain the industry’s failure points, and without a universal, legislated definition, it creates more confusion. The fact is brand progress is often slowed down because of the system they’re operating in. I see some brands focusing sincerely on being more responsible, but then they also have quarterly targets that are only met by new clothing production within the current system in which they operate. Resale and repair aren’t as profitable yet as new clothing production.These companies don’t want to work themselves out of existence because then what good can they do in the industry? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand they have ambitious targets and continue to try.

The progress is slow, but everything from designing for circularity to lining up the right partnerships to not over ordering because you now have an AI inventory management system are all solutions I’m seeing companies implement today. It’s not so much that people are out trying to pull one over on consumers, although that does happen, sometimes they’re just working in the apparel industry as it is currently set up – which prioritizes consumerism. The conversations and planning it takes to start a resale process takes years and a lot of brands have failed trying.

What’s the incentive for brands to keep trying to do better then? 

Thank God for consumers. Consumers are 100% the reason brands are even engaging in working to find solutions. We have a young, bold generation coming up who prioritize or only shop thrift. They will also engage with advertising and get on social media and call out companies for not having inclusive sizing and diversity of models and sustainable practices. 

Who are the leaders in the fashion industry that you support or follow?

Stella McCartney and Gabriela Hearst have both been working to change fashion for a really long time and they’re not just earnest about it – they’re putting their money where their mouth is in everything they design. I also see some big, fast fashion brands getting in hot water for their mis-steps, while they are also making significant investments in innovation and progress. They are almost getting in trouble because they’re trying to work within the current system, which puts such a target on your back. Any misstep is going to be blown out when millions of people are watching. Big brands getting it right is what will change the industry though. Stella and Gabriela design luxury items, they are leaders in the field, and it will take H&M, Zara, and other huge, global brands to shift course for change to actually stick. I love fashion and I love design and I love beautiful things. In terms of sustainability, we have to stop incentivizing production and focus more on design for durability, reuse and repair and then, lastly recycling.

What do you hope people who listen to Hot Buttons do after listening to the show?

If people listen to our episodes, and they think the fashion industry is really complicated, we’re here to tell you that yes, it is. And that consumers do have a voice and can do something about it. That the simplest thing they can do is just buy what already exists. None of us on the show are saying fashion is bad, don’t buy fashion – we’re saying just make a conscious decision and be more informed in your purchasing habits. Fashion by nature is a marketing machine and it looks really glamorous. The industry behind it is not and lifting the veil on that that’s what we want to do.

What are you listening to right now?

I love business so I listen to Pivot (with tech journalist Kara Swisher and NYU Professor Scott Galloway) almost every week. I get a lot of my news about what’s going on in the market from them. They’re an interesting and compelling duo and their dynamic is kind of second to none in podcasts. 


About Post Script Media

Post Script Media makes podcasts for a changing planet. Founded by Stephen Lacey and Scott Clavenna, Post Script has produced some of the most important podcasts in the energy and climate space, including The Carbon Copy, Catalyst With Shayle Kann, The Big Switch, Columbia Energy Exchange, and Watt it Takes. Its production of Where the Internet Lives for Google won two Webby Awards in 2022, including Best Technology Podcast and People’s Voice Winner, Technology Podcast. Its production of A Matter of Degrees was a bronze winner in the inaugural Anthem Awards in 2022. Post Script Media is based in Boston, MA, with a team of audio professionals located throughout the U.S.