In the United Kingdom alone, over 1500 tonnes of personal protective equipment (PPE) is discarded each year and approximately 90% of this is sent to landfills or incinerated which has a significant impact on the environment. AFTER:WORK founder Johnson Wong had already seen first-hand the immense amounts of waste generated by the fashion industry and this was the catalyst behind the launch of AFTER:WORK.
The concept behind the brand was established as part of Johnson’s master’s project whilst studying at the London College of Fashion, where he explored the potential for turning discarded PPE into fashion items. His journey started with a visit to British Textile Recyclers – a clothing recycling centre based in Bristol. Here he purchased 30 kilograms of used and discarded PPE which included vests, trousers and jackets. Johnson then cleaned and de-stitched these items, cutting the fabric into panels. He then attached handles on to the fabric and the first bags of what was to be known as the AFTER:WORK label were made. Johnson explains,
“Seven prototypes were produced during my project, with extremely positive feedback. The aim of my research was to investigate how PPE can be made more sustainable so that the current trajectory of ending up in landfill can be prevented.”
So why are there such high volumes of PPE being discarded? PPE is produced predominantly from polyester or polycotton due to cost and design implications, including strict safety regulations. This has an important implication on its life cycle since polyester is an end-product of petroleum so is non-renewable, and thus recycling PPE can be difficult and costly. Another contributory factor is that items may be physically damaged, soiled, or branded, and the process of cleaning and de-branding each item may incur extra costs. Thus, at the end of the cycle, approximately 90% of discarded PPE (1500 tons per year in the UK alone) is sent to landfill or incinerated.
The primary aim of AFTER:WORK was to ensure that used workwear could be given a second life as upcycled bags. Whilst there are many sustainable fashion labels repurposing old materials, it is only AFTER:WORK who are currently using PPE materials, but what was it about PPE that intrigued Johnson? He says: “I was struck by the number of ways the PPE could be used to produce various products, and the fact that all elements of the PPE can be used one way or another. For example, a strip of Velcro removed from the front of a jacket used to produce a tote bag can be unstitched and used on an AFTER:WORK messenger bag.”
There are currently four styles of bags within the range (plus a card holder) which includes the brands signature product – a shopping bag which is produced from a single high-visibility vest in either a bright yellow or a punchy orange. Other bag styles include a pocket bag, a tote bag and a messenger bag. Now, the focus is on the existing product line, but Johnson reveals that the brand has several prototypes which they are currently refining. He says: “Our plan is to expand our product range with items such as a roll bag, backpack and items targeted at cyclists.”
How would Johnson define an AFTER:WORK customer? He reveals that his customers are people who believe strongly in investing in sustainable fashion items and that in particular, that the AFTER:WORK card holder has proved to very popular amongst young people ‘who might otherwise be walking around with loose cards in their pocket!’
As well as having strong green credentials, AFTER:WORK also pride themselves on working with local social enterprises such as HEBA and Making for Change. Johnson explains: “Working with these manufacturing units was a carefully considered approach and, as it has turned out, is highly effective means of having our products manufactured. These units are positive and inspiring places and it has been a pleasure to spend time getting to know the skilled machinists who work on our products.”
He continues: “I am pleased that AFTER:WORK can help to empower women to use their skills to create our products, and hope that by working with these organisations we can have a positive impact on the lives of these women. In the case of Making for Change, we support the notion that machinists in a prison should be taught a skill which gives them a sense of purpose, and studies have proven that this reduces reoffending rates.”
Johnson exhibited the AFTER:WORK product range at the Sustainable Style: Fashion for the Future event at the British Embassy in Paris earlier this year which he feels was a fantastic opportunity to showcase both the products and the vision for AFTER:WORK to such a high-profile audience. He says,
“I was proud to have been selected to showcase AFTER:WORK at this event. Since graduating, I have been extremely well supported by UAL (University of Arts for London), and this event was run by London College of Fashion and the British Embassy in Paris to mark the 10th anniversary of LCF’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion.”
Why does Johnson think there is such a ‘wear it, throw it’ culture here in the UK? He believes it is largely down to the ‘fast fashion’ industry which provides cheap and easily accessible clothing and that this has contributed a great deal to the “wear it, throw it” culture in the UK. He says: “There is clearly a lack of awareness as to the impact this has on the environment, so more education is needed to address that. More and more brands are, however, starting to recognise the importance of sustainability and, from a commercial perspective, see that offering a sustainable range of clothing is also a way to appeal to a wider market.”
There is no denying the PPE is bright, but there is absolutely a bright future for both Johnson and AFTER:WORK who continues to shine a light on the importance of supporting sustainable fashion.