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The Consumer Mindset on Fast and Sustainable Fashion

The Consumer Mindset on Fast and Sustainable Fashion
Article is an essay written by Haley Walsh<3

Andrew Brooks and his colleagues once said that “To be concerned about the future is to be preoccupied by environmental change” (483). The damage being done by the fashion industry is taking over the world, destroying the resources that are used to produce clothing materials from our environment along with it. I, along with others, are personally affected because I am within the age range where fashion is one of the most important aspects of maintaining my identity. Fashion is important to me because it’s an outlet of expression; I can mold my looks to present who I am and who I want to be. According to Byun and Sternquist (2011) and Moore and Fernie (2004), fast fashion is a “clothing supply chain model” that feeds into consumer behavior by consistently releasing new products throughout the year, that are generally low in quality and in price (qtd. in Bahareh Zamani et al. 1368). Also known as ethical or slow fashion, sustainable fashion according to Thomas (2008: 525), is a practice within the industry that creates “positive impacts” on the environment from the production, designer, and consumer standpoint (qtd. in Annamma Joy et al. 280). Because fast fashion harms the environment, consumers should make it a habit to live sustainable lives by contributing to eco-friendly practices and investing in sustainable and local businesses.

Fast fashion was developed as a rapid-moving cycle meant for consumers to be changing their wardrobe frequently to keep up with the ongoing trends. According to Toktali (2008), fast fashion has introduced “massclusivity,” a term used to describe how fast fashion giants rip off luxury brands by producing clothing that is designed to look high quality and expensive, but can be bought at a cheaper price (qtd. in Joy et al. 276). Cachon and Swinney (2011) and Mihm (2010) add that fast fashion offers a “low cost, fresh design, and quick response times” (qtd. in Joy et al. 276). The upsides [of fast fashion] are what paves the way for unsustainable fashion to take over the market, leading young consumers to purchase more, including myself. By introducing low prices, consumers of my age are not as worried about the quality; you can always buy more, right? Sull and Turconi (2008) present statistics that show fast fashion companies are earning higher profit margins (16%) compared to sustainable fashion (7%), even though their clothing is generally cheaper and of lower quality (qtd. in Joy et al. 276). From a personal standpoint, fast fashion affects what I buy and when I buy it because it’s convenient and cheap, and I can get it quickly. Even if it’s not well made, I’ve learned to make it last so that I am not buying clothes regularly, especially now that I am in college and paying tuition. According to Barnes and Lea-Greenwood (2006), “Avid consumers are now primed to browse fast fashion stores every three weeks or so in search of new styles” (qtd. in Joy et al. 276). The fast fashion industry relies heavily on instant gratification within consumers, and are taking the approach to put out as many seasons of clothing as possible within a given time frame. This has affected me because I worked for American Eagle Outfitters (a fast fashion giant) for years. Working there, I bought whatever I liked immediately. AEO uses a lot of persuasion to get you to buy more, especially when you’re surrounded by it daily and see your favorite influencers wearing the same clothes too. Our favorite celebrities are being paid to advertise new clothing in an effort to get us to buy more without considering the quality and the environmental consequences of supporting these cheaply made brands. If celebrities are advertising fast fashion, how can we as consumers combat it and lean towards slow fashion?

The fashion industry has some of the highest emission rates in the world. According to Stenton et al., “The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of worldwide GHG [(Greenhouse Gas)] emissions, including 4% of global CO2 [(Carbon Dioxide)] emissions” (1). This is due to the cause of our reliance on oil-based products. Our oil-based global economy connects to the use and expansion of polymers, plastics that are unable to be broken down, such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, rayon, and more. Although being an oil-based economy has raised our economic growth standards, it has tremendously backfired in terms of keeping the environment clean and healthy (Brooks et al. 491). The more we use nonrenewable oil, the less of a chance we have of creating solutions that will save our planet for future generations. It doesn’t help that literally everything made around us is derived from oil-based products. Looking around my room, everything is made of plastic. It makes me wonder just how much can be recycled, in the event I couldn’t use these products anymore, such as clothes, school supplies, bedding, decorations, etc. According to Tatiana Schlossberg, “More than 60 percent of all our textile fibers are now man-made synthetics, derived from oil [...]” ( 140). This means that they cannot be broken down, recycled or degraded without producing toxins that can be released into the environment. Not only are we using a ridiculous amount of oil and releasing emissions into the air by mass producing cheap clothing, we’re also wasting so much of it. Schlossberg states that 85% of our clothing is dumped into landfills each year; only about 15% of it is actually reused and recycled (153). It makes me think about just how much I’ve thrown away without really thinking of these consequences. How much am I personally contributing to the amounts of waste put in landfills and what can I do to reduce it?

According to the AAfA (2015), “97% of all U.S. apparel purchased was imported in 2013 compared to 43% in 1991” (qtd. in Abigail Clarke-Sather and Kelly Cobb 1207). If you look at this from an environmental standpoint, the transportation aspect of apparel is one of fast fashion’s biggest laws. I think about this more when I look at buying clothes, especially since most places at home are a half hour drive away or longer. Transportation matters, and when you’re living in states where everything is far apart, it plays into the environmental downfalls of supporting fast fashion. By buying clothing that doesn’t come from our country (especially if it’s cheap and low quality made clothing from countries like China), we are not supporting the local and sustainable businesses that can be found on this continent, much less the United States. Wyatt (2016) adds that China continues to be one of the largest exporters of apparel within the fast fashion industry in the world, mainly relying on the United States and other first class countries to buy their imports (qtd. in Clarke-Sather and Cobb 1207). Because we are not buying locally, we are feeding into the carbon footprint that the fashion industry is leaving behind. Whether or not we are contributing to this now, at some point in time we have been part of the problem.

Zamani and their colleagues state that “customer transportation has a bigger impact on global warming potential comparing with laundry” (1373). Laundry is also a big reason why the environment is changing so drastically due to fast fashion standards. Because the wear time of a product is less than normal, the average washes of the item are a significant amount smaller than clothing produced through the slow fashion industry. Laundry was industrialized for our own instant gratification of getting things done sooner and in a smaller amount of time (Brooks et al. 489). Think about it. How often do we wash our clothes? How long are we waiting to wash our clothes in between washes? Since doing research for this paper, I’ve been learning more about laundry and how I can elongate the life cycle of each piece of clothing that I own. By washing it on a cold water cycle and drying it for shorter amounts of time, I’m preserving the quality of the clothing. Not enough people pay enough attention to the laundry cycles that they’re using, and how detrimental it is to our environment if used incorrectly.

A case study done in Sweden on clothing libraries also heavily reflected on how laundry plays into the fashion industry. Clothing libraries are essentially a business run by making consumers pay a subscription every month in order to loan clothing to keep up with trends. Laundry plays a significant role in fashion, especially when it comes to wash cycles. While Zamani and their colleagues understand that in the scenario, the store is most responsible for laundry, there is the fact that consumers could wash the clothing before giving it back, as well as washing it after they receive “newer” clothes. A lot of this is also based on consumer behavior outside of the store and how it affects the life cycle of the garments, especially when it comes to wash, use, wear, and other deciding factors (qtd. in Zamani et al. 1371). Another reason why laundry is an important variable is because garments that are made out of non-recyclable materials such as polyester, are being ingested by local wild and marine life. This causes impacts on the environment by damaging the reproductive and digestive systems of animals, accumulating chemical pollutants released through these materials being used, and by reducing entire ecosystems due to loss of life (Brooks et al. 486). This directly relates to how every time we wash our clothes, microfibers are being released into the environment. The sad thing is that most people don’t even know that they’re contributing to polluting ecosystems. Schlossberg states in Inconspicuous Consumption that “about 85 percent of the plastic pollution found on shorelines around the world is in the form of microfibers” (143). Without our knowledge of this happening, how can we combat it with the general public knowing so little about what happens every time we wash our clothes?

It is no secret that fast fashion companies understand how to make their products more enticing to consumers. According to Niinimäki and Hassi (2011) and Zamani et al. (2017), fast fashion encourages the use of fast-response cycles, which in turn poses severe issues when it comes to sustainability. They rely on fast fashion retailers coming out with as many as sixteen different seasons of new clothing per year, with new clothes being brought out on the sales floor every week (qtd. in Clarke-Sather and Cobb 1208). This leaves sustainable fashion in the dust. Because of this, most consumers prefer cheap prices over high quality. Studies done by Joy and their colleagues suggest that most consumers are completely aware of how much they consume individually, but are unaware that it creates a never-ending ferocious appetite to continue shopping. “Bauman (2000) calls it “liquid consumption”” (qtd in Joy et al. 277). From a personal standpoint, I am always actively searching for new clothes in an attempt to update my wardrobe to the current trends, even if I don’t necessarily need them. Since doing my research on this paper, I’ve learned just how damaging it is to have this mindset. Bonini and Oppenheim [109] argue that although there is a large amount of awareness surrounding environmental issues, this does not tend to discourage most individuals from overconsuming or purchasing unsustainable products (qtd. in Joy et al. 288). Rather than thinking about my needs, I’m thinking about my wants. This comes from my enjoyment of buying products that I think will benefit me but in reality, hurt not only my bank account balance, but the environment as well. Joy et al. [104] agree with this claim and, through their own study, show that “fast fashion consumers, often share a concern for environmental issues even as they indulge in consumer patterns antithetical to ecological best practices” (Stenton et al. 11). I can attest to this claim. I am all for being sustainable and doing what I can, whether or not that means washing my clothes less, using renewable items such as water bottles and bags, or simply advising myself not to buy items from certain companies. I want to acknowledge my ignorance and for not looking at the bigger environmental picture. Now that I know more on what fast fashion is all about, I’ve made an effort to start avoiding it and to advocate for sustainable fashion instead.

If consumers are ignorant about fast fashion, they’re more than likely also ignorant to quality, cost, and disposability too when trying to keep up with the ongoing trends. According to Brooks et al., “Modern life is underpinned by unsustainable patterns of resource use and consumption that are dictated by norms and values, such as the social desires for new and fashionable garments and the cultural necessity to dress in fresh-smelling and unstained garments” (492). It’s safe to say that consumers don’t actively buy clothing to destroy the environment. But, being unaware of the damaging effects to save a quick dollar is where we are going wrong. When talking about quality, we are talking about how long a piece of clothing lasts, what materials they are made out of, and whether or not they are mass produced. All of these factors lead into the cost, which is why fast fashion is a booming global industry. Consumers are not paying attention to other factors, such as the disposability of the products, and whether or not these clothes can be recycled or degraded in the future. I know for a fact that most people who are shopping in fast fashion retail do not think to look at the tag and see what their clothes are made of, because I’m one of those consumers too. It’s not on my mind when I’m going shopping to check out the tag and see where my clothing is made, what it’s made of, and look up how it was made. That’s the whole point of fast fashion; they present ignorance in the form of clothing. Low and Davenport (2007: 342) suggest that consumers are “fragmented and fickle creatures,” and because of their behavior, create an “ethical identity” based on fashion preferences, trends, ultimately creating multiple personas (qtd. in Lamrad and Hanlon 608). By establishing this “ethical identity,” consumers are blinded by the upcoming trends, in order to establish their own mass produced authenticity. While fast fashion is a quick (but unhelpful) fix for now, sustainable fashion needs to be the aim of the future. Perhaps the price (and quality) is cheap, but the cost of destroying the environment is not. The greatest thing we can do for the environment right now is to start acting locally. According to Clarke-Sather and Cobb, “A global lens must be used to measure impacts of localizing production within markets” (1207). This means that we can’t act locally as just one country; every country has to take part in buying locally in some way, shape, or form. Clark provides support on the strategy that involves “act[ing] locally.” The biggest question is what should we define as local? According to Parkins and Craig (2006: 72), the definition of “local” is “attributed with meaning through the complex composite of flows of people, goods and services and representations that occur from, to, and between it [it, meaning one nation]” (qtd. in Clark 430). By buying locally, consumers can reduce the amount of transportation and delivery, slow global warming until we find a long term solution, and have more drive to buying and living sustainably. It truly takes a village to raise a child. We can take this analogy and the message behind it to come together in an effort to live more sustainably.

According to Adams and Raisborough (2008: 1166), ethical consumption has slowly become one of the most talked about subjects but is “understudied” by sociologists. They note that ethical consumption isn’t just a problem for environmentalists. People who are in the fields of geography, political science, [philanthropy,] and business are in relation to cultural and social studies on ethical consumption and sustainability as well (qtd. in Lamrad and Hanlon 604). This is where sustainable fashion comes into play. Sustainable fashion goes hand in hand with ethical consumption, in terms of acting locally and living more sustainable lives than what your average consumer is living now. Because fashion is always changing due to the desire of consumers wanting to change their style more often, this makes the marketplace, particularly in the United States, more competitive than most countries (qtd. in Clarke-Sather and Cobb 1208). However, we can combat the fast growing fashion industry by introducing more sustainable ideas. This includes investing in local and sustainable businesses, reading up on the companies that produce our clothing and if they are acting ethically, and rather than looking at cost, we look at the quality of the clothing. According to Clarke-Sather and Cobb, sustainable development goals need to be put in place in order to prevent more global sustainability issues; this means rather than chasing fast fashion, we take our time and choose environmentally friendly slow fashion. (1214).

One of the biggest reasons why I chose to write about fast and slow fashion is because I want to highlight what buying into slow fashion can do for the environment. I had the pleasure of conducting a small case study with a young woman who is taking hold of the fashion industry and advocating for more sustainable practices. She advocates her swimwear line via social media, which is how I was able to connect with her in the first place. I specifically chose a local (to the United States) swimwear company to be part of my case study because swimwear tends to be one of the best selling products that can be bought year round. Breauna Higgs, owner of Bluemoon Swim, was gracious enough to answer a series of interview questions on how her company contributes to sustainable fashion and how her brand is doing good for the environment.

Blue Moon Swim is a sustainable swimwear company that is based out of Maui, Hawaii that is owned and operated by Breauna Higgs and her team. Breauna is a nineteen year old entrepreneur who designed and brought to life swimwear that is made out of 100% from recycled materials including plastics, nets, and synthetic waste that are found in the ocean. By working closely with her manufacturers (a manufacturing team that resides in Bali, Indonesia, who are paid well and ensure that no there are no child laborers), Breauna and her team emphasize that their work is done through closed-loop production. By using a closed-loop model, less water and less waste come from the production of her swimwear. Breauna mentions that while she isn’t the perfect human being and isn’t always living 100% sustainably (such as using plastic baggies and cups), she does a lot to ensure that her products are not made from oil-based materials and can be recycled or degraded down entirely when the product’s life cycle ends. To combat the damage that fast fashion is doing to the environment, all of Breauna’s products are designed to be recycled until the end of time. Even the accessories, which she plans on selling soon, that aren’t swimwear are made from organic materials such as canvas and organically grown and farmed bamboo. This includes packaging. All of the packaging for her products are 100% recyclable (mainly made out of poly-mailer). Her manufacturers in Bali are careful with all of the fabric scraps as well; they go towards making dog and other pet beds that go to animal shelters in the area (Breauna Higgs, Zoom interview).

Breauna notes in the interview that her company refuses to indulge in any sort of fast fashion; they are strictly sustainable and use ethical practices for manufacturing and shipment. She was inspired to open an environmentally friendly business because life is short. She adds that as she’s gotten older, she’s learned more and more about how much time we have left and how little people truly care about the environment. Even if her business doesn’t make a huge difference, what she's doing for the planet is doing more than what most people are doing. Breauna believes that bigger companies can do more to be more sustainable. The young entrepreneur claims, “They have so much money to manufacture environmentally friendly bikinis and [other] clothing. I think they could easily switch to environmentally friendly materials, slow fashion, or both. I don’t understand why they excuse that fact when they have billions of dollars within the company. It also influences people to make easier and cheaper decisions even though it isn’t eco-friendly. I see a lot of businesses on Tik Tok [and other social media] that are cheap and of bad quality that are made in China. If we don’t give in to this whole system, it will stop. I hope it ends eventually.”

Overall, Breauna Higgs’s goal is to create less of a negative impact on the planet than other companies. She wants to teach other local businesses (and perhaps fast fashion companies as well) how to incorporate sustainability into their goods and services. She emphasizes that the biggest problem people are dealing with is impatience. While sustainable fashion cannot be made at the drop of a hat, it does offer environmental change that could lead to a more sustained planet Earth, and incorporates longer lasting environmental practices. Maybe we won’t get our swimsuits and other clothing in a few days by investing in sustainable fashion, but not only will the quality of clothing last longer, it will also give the world enough time to find a long-term solution that aids in keeping Earth’s environment alive (Higgs, Zoom interview).

Tatiana Schlossberg, renowned journalist and author of Inconspicuous Consumption, states that companies (particularly those in the fast fashion industry) will always share the small amount of what they do well environmentally so that there is less emphasis on the bad that they’re doing for the environment (Schlossberg 123). Companies understand how harmful it is to mass produce clothes, but instead of placing the blame on themselves, they blame it on consumer habits and their product demand. I can attest to this from my time at American Eagle Outfitters as I started previously. They put emphasis on how they recycle jeans and use less water to dye their denim, but refuse to come out with any statistics regarding other sustainable practices that they’re supposedly part of. AEO and other companies publish reports with a lot of gray area regarding how ethical their practices actually are when it comes to producing clothing. While consumers do need to step in more and read up on the companies they’re buying from, it is ultimately the fashion industry’s responsibility to be actively communicating the impacts that fashion can have on the environment. (Schlossberg 124-125). This is the direct effect caused by industrial capitalism and why we are seeing a decline in the world’s resources today. The industrialization aspect of it is the reason why irreversible damage is being done to our environment, due to the existential use of nonrenewable resources, deforestation, and synthetic fiber production. (Brooks et al. 489). The sad part is that we are all playing into this without really knowing just how harmful our choices can be. It begs the question of what we can do to be more educated on the topic of ethical production and consumption.

However, there are some companies willing to make the changes towards more sustainable practices. McDonaldization, a term defined by Joy et al., discusses how capitalist corporations and economies are changing and moving towards more practical approaches in order to combat inefficiency (276). This means that companies are taking into consideration how fast fashion is affecting the environment. It is companies like H&M, Patagonia and Levi’s that are setting the example to make changes that better represent ethical fashion and intelligent consumer consumption, especially when it comes to fashion from a global standpoint. One of the biggest issues that companies are facing currently is the fact that the designers don’t get a say on certain issues. According to (Waage 2007)’s observations, designers are less likely to be part of the implementation phase of fashion, unallowed to make decisions due to the fact of breaking apart the design teams before they get to this stage (Clarke-Sather and Cobb 1209). Personal testimonies from luxury designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney want more of a say in the products that they are producing. They claim to want eco-friendly practices. This proves that it’s not necessarily the designers working with these corporations who are making unethical decisions; sometimes they just don’t get a say no matter how hard they try. The fashion industry isn’t totally heartless when it comes to learning about the effects of unsustainability, which is why we as consumers need to make a bigger stand on how our clothing is made.

The biggest indicator that fast fashion is doing what it was designed to do is when we look at consumer behavior and mindset. Human hands demonstrate that humankind is the influence that produces problems and solutions that fuel large economic, environmental, and social issues (Brooks et al. 485). Focusing more on the environmental aspect, humans are the reason why there are unpredictable patterns of global warming, disrupted environments, radioactivity, extinction, and being subject to irreversible harm to Earth (Brooks et al. 485). Consumer habits and behaviors can align with signals of wealth, power, knowledge in the event to show status and rank economically. Looking back at my middle school years as well as now at the age of nineteen, what I wear outside of my house still matters to me. I’m not necessarily thinking along the lines of how rich I am, but how am I coming off to people? Do I look like I can afford these clothes? Do people think I can pay for this myself? Does it make me look older or younger than I actually am? Are my clothes too cheap looking? These questions are normalized thoughts within young consumers' heads, that have developed over the years by society. Throughout history leading up to now, luxury and slow fashion are considered special and generally are only affordable to the rich, which leaves young people like me scrambling to find outfits that make me look bigger than my bank account actually is. According to Bourdieu (1984: 466), taste serves as the greatest function of feeling like consumers have a definite place in the world, easily being able to manipulate what their social status looks like with the clothes that they decide to wear (qtd. in Lamrad and Hanlon 609). Stenton et al. argues that consumers need to make a shift in the cultural mindset that is currently being displayed, in order to be more open to sustainable fashion. The instant gratification of the fast fashion industry is keeping the consumer mindset from expanding the limitations of slow fashion and how it can lead to a healthier global environment.This means that a “drastic change” needs to happen in order to see differences, starting with developing new consumer habits and behaviors that lean more towards ethical and sustainable fashion (10). Rather than thinking about ourselves, how can we put the world’s health into perspective?

A study done by Joy and their colleagues presents that most consumers from younger generations don’t understand that sustainability also includes fashion. However, they are aware of other ways to help sustain the environment, especially when it comes to food waste, water waste, and saving energy. Each of the 30 participants were instructed to find ten photos that they thought represented best fast fashion, sustainable fashion, and luxury fashion. This case study was done to gauge where the participants stand in what their values are on environmentalism in the fashion industry, while also specifically looking for subtle characteristics in their personalities on why they chose the pictures that they did. They were also asked questions about how they are doing their part to save the environment. The conclusion of the study is that most of the participants were proven to be concerned about the environment, but that it didn’t affect their consumer habits when it comes to buying clothing. While these participants care about the environment, Joy and their colleagues propose that their hypocritical decisions and little guilt that they carry when buying clothing does not reflect their true beliefs (Joy et al. 278-280). It’s safe to say that this could be hidden guilt too, and that ignorance is to blame. Some people are so blind to what’s going on around them, that they are not looking at the bigger picture in the aspect of fast fashion and how it can be damaging to invest in the industry.

According to Brooks et al., “The unbridled consumption of clothing [is what] threatens the environment” (1). But what does this really mean? How can we as consumers and as citizens help the environment rather than hurt it? There are plenty of solutions in mind that could help with our current environmental situation, and the impacts that we are making to Earth. The solutions that could create the biggest impacts include clothing libraries, using regenerated protein fibers (RPFs) to create sustainable materials, investing in local and sustainable fashion, and overall working with closed-loop cycles and collaborative consumption. That’s a lot to unpack, and not all of these can be used as long term solutions either. However, they are a great starting point to persuading consumers to think differently and more carefully about purchases. According to Piscicelli et al. (2014), collaborative consumption is defined as “People coordinating the acquisition and distribution of a resource for a fee or other compensation (Belk, 2014), which can include the renting, trading, swapping and borrowing of goods” (qtd. in Zamani et al. 1368). This means that by setting up a system that allows people to rent out clothing and return them (kind of like when you rent a pair of ice skates at the rink, or lending a library book), it’s guaranteed to use a closed-loop cycle. Closed-loop cycles or systems have two definitions: they can be thought of as the reuse and recycling of the same materials until the end of time, or simply as reusing clothing until they’ve lived through their full life cycle (Schlossberg 154). While these options are few and far between to fixing the entire planet, they can slow and potentially reverse some of the effects that humans have on the world.

A great solution would be using RPFs to help make fashion more sustainable. It opens a variety of natural or synthetic fibers that can be made sustainably, which in turn allows the environment to regroup to its original, natural state. These RPFs allow more materials to be made that fall under the categories of bio-based, biofabricated, and biosynthetic, and are generally produced from the organic waste of flora and fauna (Stenton et al. 4). While most RPFs are not local to the United States, they can be imported to the country. Most RPFs are produced in Europe (Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom), Asia (Philippines), and South America (Brazil) due to their agricultural climate. These bio-based materials are used as alternatives to petrochemicals and leather, and are generally vegan as well, excluding the RPFs made from milk. Raw materials that are used to make these RPFs include milk, orange peels, pineapple leaves, apple pulp, grape skins and stalks, sugarcane waste, potatoes, and banana leaves (Stenton et al. 4). If more companies used these fibers, it would allow for some time to come up with more recyclable materials that can be used to produce clothing. If fast fashion companies could make the switch to RPFs or at least partially, it would create all the difference in saving ecosystems and environments all over the world, particularly the ocean and forests. Not enough companies have taken the time to understand just how important it is to act and produce clothing sustainably, even with something as simple as a recyclable fiber.

Another great solution to utilizing sustainable fashion and ethical consumption is the use of clothing libraries. According to Zamani et al., a clothing library uses collaborative consumption that allows the community of consumers to pay a monthly fee in order to browse and borrow clothing that is on trend and in fashion, to which they can return in a few weeks or less (1369). This business model allows participants to stay in fashion and switch out clothes regularly to keep up with trends and the changes on a regular basis. By taking advantage of clothing libraries, we are utilizing a circular economy (also known as reduce, reuse and recycle) that Banwell et al. argues could help with taking part in a closed-loop production (Stenton et al.



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