29 Jul 2019 Story Resource efficiency

Brazilian pioneer turns trash to treasure as Earth Overshoot Day shows planet in peril

Photo by Refazenda

On 29 July 2019, humanity logged a new dismal record, exhausting nature’s resource budget for the whole year with over five months to go. This is the earliest Earth Overshoot Day ever, and it offers a stark reminder of how human activity is depleting our exhausted planet’s finite resources. 

Over the past 20 years, Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what the earth’s ecosystems can regenerate in that year, has moved up three months. This means we are depleting our natural capital faster and faster, imperilling the survival of future generations.

The date is calculated by the international research organization Global Footprint Network, using its ecological footprint tool. Ecological overspending translates into deforestation, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and more carbon emissions. 

The urgent need to address humanity’s wasteful use of the world’s resources lies at the heart of the UN Environment Programme’s push for sustainable consumption and production as part of its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. To preserve our planet, economic growth must be decoupled from the consumption of finite resources and waste must be designed out of the global system. 

This is exactly what Magna Coeli set out to do when she set up a textile company, Refazenda, in Recife in Brazil in 1990. Long before upcycling had entered common parlance, the Brazilian stylist found a way to turn trash into treasure by collecting discarded fabric and using it to make new clothes, jewellery and accessories. 

Her vision was rooted in her childhood.

Photo by Refazenda

“My father was a tailor and my mother a seamstress, and as a child I learned to sew clothes for my dolls. I can remember using the fragments of fabric generated in my father’s tailoring as a raw material for the making of my dolls’ clothes,” she said. 

Refazenda’s workers use patchworks made from fabric scraps as raw materials for the design of new items. Although the firm started making household fabrics, today it makes clothes and also produces natural fabrics using organic cotton, silk and linen.

It also employs local lacemakers, providing jobs to skilled artisans who had fallen out of favour because of new technologies. Refazenda also runs workshops to help consumers learn more about upcycling their own clothes and extending the life of their wardrobes.

“Now I look back and understand that I have always looked at ways to practice upcycling, well before the concept was created and had its meaning defined in dictionaries,” Coeli says. “The essence of the ‘value-added recycling’ was built into the business concept, together with the desire to think about fashion in a circular way.”

Coeli believes that it is not possible to be environmentally sustainable without being socially and financially sustainable as well. 

Photo by Ashlley Melo

“To stay committed to the three dimensions of sustainability is paramount,” she says. “Neglecting any of these pillars is to break the ideal concept of sustainability. The great challenge is the constant pursuit of the balance between social, economic and environmental dimensions. And this is achieved by being as conscious and as transparent as possible.”

The environmental impact of so-called fast fashion is widely acknowledged, and efforts are underway to try to redesign the world’s second most polluting industry. Every year, the fashion industry uses around 93 billion cubic metres of water, and around half a million tons of microfibres are dumped into the sea. The fashion industry is also responsible for more carbon emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. 

UN Environment works with textile industries to promote moves towards a circular economy and hosts the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, an initiative of United Nations agencies and allied organizations that aims to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through coordinated action in the fashion sector. 

But fashion is not the only culprit: all industries and sectors need to design more durable products. UN Environment is working to place durability at the heart of the global manufacturing system by combating planned obsolescence and encouraging manufacturers to offer maintenance and repair services. 

As part of its work in the One Planet Network, UN Environment, TU Delft (Delft University of Technology) and the Akatu Institute produced a report and case studies to provide recommendations on the opportunities available to consumers, the private sector and governments in the implementation of product lifetime strategies. The Long View: Exploring Product Lifetime Extension was funded by the French Ministry for Ecological and Solidary Transition, and Refazenda was featured as a case study to inspire other entrepreneurs.

“With the expected doubling of the global middle class in the coming years, it is widely recognized that the linear economic model is reaching its physical and environmental limits, and a transition to a more circular economy and to more sustainable consumption and production practices will make sense for people and the planet,” the report states. 

Ligia Noronha, Director of UN Environment’s Economy Division, says the global take-make-dispose economic model that relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy must be reformed.

“The only way we can all live well on this one planet while guaranteeing everyone’s health and dignity is to radically change the way we produce, consume and live our lives. A transition to more circular approaches to sustainable consumption and production patterns is urgent,” said Noronha. 

Sustainable Development Goal 12 calls directly for sustainable production and consumption, with individual targets on efficient use of natural resources, cutting food waste and achieving sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycles. 

“Product lifetime extension makes a compelling case as it reduces resource use and waste, while preserving the economic value embedded in products. It is a win-win situation for the environment, the economy and society. We can reduce environmental impacts, waste and save resources, the economy gains because businesses save money, and society wins because people get better value for money and more information about what they buy,” Noronha said.

The need to do more with less and do everything differently lies at the heart of efforts to secure the survival of our planet in the face of population growth, climate change and other challenges. On 23 September 2019, the UN Climate Action Summit will be held in New York to highlight the need to act urgently on these interlinked issues. 

Photo by Flora Pimentel

Coeli says it can be a challenge to promote innovative businesses like hers in developing economies where official and financial support can be lacking but she believes the demand for a different way of living is already there.

“Nowadays, consumers are increasingly identifying themselves with our brand. The fashion market has changed at a speed never seen before. Fast fashion is giving way to something new. This new moment has sustainable behaviour at its core, and changes the paradigms about the concept of what it means to get dressed.”


About the One Planet Network

The One Planet Network was formed to implement the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP), a global commitment to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production in both developed and developing countries. The One Planet Network Consumer Information Programme is a multi-stakeholder open partnership that supports and delivers projects and develops strategies seeking to make it easier for consumers to make sustainable choices. This means addressing each stage of the supply chain, working globally with producers, retailers, governments and consumers and their representative associations. 


Learn more about UN Environment’s work on resource efficiency.