'We're here to make waste sexy': Meet the Glasgow couple fighting to revolutionise Scotland's ‘rampant’ fast-fashion problem

With fast-fashion retail making headlines this week for record sales post-lockdown, it is clear people are eager to buy a new post-pandemic wardrobe.

But tucked away in the west end of Glasgow, there is one couple who have turned their backs on high street brands – and they are encouraging others to do so too.

Elizaveta and Andrew Bennett run Arkdefo – an upcycle fashion brand that repurposes discarded denim into original clothes.

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But the small business, which was shortlisted for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards this week, isn’t just about recycling material.

The fast-fashion-fighting couple also host online courses teaching children and adults to sew and mend their own clothes in an effort to limit textile waste.

“In this country, our relationship with clothing is completely broken,” says Elizaveta, who grew up in post-Soviet Russia where she spent her upbringing making her own clothes.

“At Arkdefo we want to rebuild the connection that people should have with clothes and bring back the craft of sewing that seems to be lost.

“Our message is simple: stop shopping so much, and take care of what you already have rather than buying whatever next cheap item becomes available on the shelf.

Elizaveta and Andrew Bennett

“The most sustainable wardrobe you can possibly have today is the wardrobe that you have, right now.”

A European Commission report from 2019 said estimates show that if the number of times a garment is worn is doubled on average, greenhouse gas emissions would be 44 per cent lower.

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So why denim?

Arkdefo make a range of clothing and accessories out of reworked denim picture: Arkdefo

According to Greenpeace, about two billion pairs of jeans are produced every year and a typical pair takes 7,000 litres of water to produce – that equates to about 90 showers.

“Denim seems like a good start because its production has a horrific environmental impact,” says Elizaveta.

“But it’s also a material that most people have at home, so it makes it easier for us to connect to others.”

The Bennetts accept denim of any colour, size, style and quality – be it filled with holes or stained or both, they will take it.

Elizaveta and Andrew started Arkdefo shortly before the pandemic hit in December 2019 picture Arkdefo

Denim made of 90-100 per cent cotton is cut into squares for making patchwork clothes, including jackets and skirts.

“The more stretchy the denim, the less good it is for clothing that will last, so we make this into bags and purses,” Elizaveta says.

Seams and pockets are chopped into smaller pieces for decorating doorstops and used as cushion fillers, while zips are reused for their upcycled clothing range and buttons are re-branded.

“Being in control of the denim at this stage means we are control of quality and waste – we use between 90-100 per cent of denim donated,” she says. “And the clothes look great. We are here to make waste sexy.”

The prepared material is sent to Beyonder, a Glasgow-based clothes manufacturer, whose makers are paid £15 an hour to make garments based on Arkdefo’s designs.

Arkdefo hosts courses for children and adults, teaching them how to sew and upcycle material picture: Arkdefo

Better wages equal higher prices

With workers earning more than the minimum wage, and clothing taking up to about eight weeks to make, Arkdefo’s clothing range is higher than standard high street prices.

“We sometimes get asked why our prices are expensive,” says Andrew, whose background is in architecture.

“But our response is always ‘Why is fast-fashion so cheap?’

“If we are going to bring an end to the unethical practices of fast-fashion, then we need to change our mentality on the price of clothing.

"If a pair of jeans only costs around £15, then someone is missing out on being paid.

"And jeans from fast-fashion brands are deliberately made not to last so that you keep going back for more, fuelling this rampant fast-fashion problem.

"It’s better for the environment, for humanity, and for yourself to buy better quality clothing, less often, that lasts longer.”

Giving clothes to charity isn’t always a good option

Donating unwanted clothing to charity is one way to assuage guilt of contributing to the global waste crisis.

But the couple warn this “is just as bad” as throwing clothes in the bin.

“Eighty per cent of what goes to charity will likely get thrown away,” Andrew says.

“If there is anything wrong with the item of clothing you donate, it will get bagged up and exported and become another country’s problem.

“In places like Accra, Ghana, tonnes of clothing is shipped from the UK that piles up in huge landfill sites because they don’t want bad quality clothing either.

"By donating so many clothes, local clothes-makers in those countries are also being displaced.”

Speaking in an ITV report last year, head of waste management in Accra Solomon Noi said: “We are having serious challenges with textile waste that is coming from Europe and elsewhere. Our headache is the full containers coming here on a daily basis are basically rubbish.”

The solution?

This is where Arkdefo comes in.

One of its solutions to preventing the clothes from piling up is its range of online courses that teach people how to repurpose unwanted clothing.

"Bringing back the craft of sewing and encouraging recycling in a fun way will help change future attitudes towards the fashion industry, particularly with the younger generations,” Elizaveta says.

"These courses will hopefully encourage young people to think about the issues of fast-fashion, workers rights and the amount of pollution it causes.”

Championing “slow-fashion”, the courses encourage participants to use whatever material they already have at home.

“If you want to buy material that’s new, that’s okay,” Elizaveta adds, “as long as you wear that item that you have made for ten years or more. That’s what makes it ‘sustainable’.

"It’s about taking care of it, making it well and making it last.”

But with the UK failing to meet its 2020 environmental targets, the Bennetts are urging the Scottish Government to take more immediate action.

According to a recent Zero Waste Scotland report, clothing and textiles make up 6 per cent of waste, but a massive 34 per cent carbon impact – the highest compared to any other other waste group in this country.

"There is currently nowhere in the UK for people to take old clothes to that does the textile industry any good,” says Andrew.

"What we need is a factory, one with machines that can break down clothes – which are otherwise being shipped abroad – into fibres which we can then use for making clothes.

“These machines are expensive, but they exist, and the Scottish Government’s £4.7 million used to subsidise Amazon could instead be used to cover this, to help put an end to the textile waste problem here in Scotland.”

Andrew added: "Textiles is not even close to being discussed enough in this country.

“The government keeps ‘researching textiles’, but the more you do research, the more you fall behind on the problem.”

In response, a Scottish Government spokesman pointed to Zero Waste Scotland’s Revolve Programme, which seeks to promote the benefits of second-hand over new clothing purchases, adding: “We are fully committed to bringing forward a Circular Economy Bill to promote an economy where materials remain in use for as long as possible, rather than being thrown away.”

To find out more about Arkdefo’s courses and donating denim, visit: arkdefo.com/

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The clothes are made at clothes manufacturer Beyonder in Glasgow picture: Arkdefo
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