Stakeholders in the fashion industry, from consumers to manufacturers, are beginning to realize the impact of our fashion choices, especially in our environment and various economies. Here we take a look at the introduction of circular fashion practices and initiatives whilst answering the questions “what is circular fashion?”. And more importantly, can it help?
Owing to the drastic changes witnessed in the ecosystem and economy, experts are calling for better industry practices in all spheres of the economy. We expect these proposed changes to lead us towards a “circular economy.”
This concept is in the hope to create an economic system where the production, distribution, and use of consumer products do not result in scarcity or extinction of resources. Circular fashion is sustainable fashion. The industry traditionally operates on a system that is rapidly consuming resources with little or no structure for renewal. Circularity ensures a close to optimum resource management, with low waste and pollution. As such, this makes it attractive and beneficial to the fashion industry.
The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter, and predictions suggest it could use over 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2°C global warming limit. It requires sustainable fashion practices to change the narrative, and circular fashion is a model to achieve this goal.
So, what is circular fashion, and how does it work?
Circular fashion is the practice of removing waste and ‘expiry timelines’ from the design of fashion items and allowing a longer life cycle through repurposing and recycling. Circular fashion tackles sustainability from its root, from the raw materials used for fibre production to the last phase of the products’ lifespan.
Anna Brismar claims to be the first person to use the term “circular fashion” in Sweden in 2014. Head of the Green Strategy consulting firm, Brismar claims to have used the term almost simultaneously with apparel giant, H&M. The entire concept quickly gained popularity in Sweden and spread to the rest of the world in no time. The core idea of circular fashion is to increase the design and durability of apparel, so it retains functionality for as long as possible, both as a finished product and material.
The term, circular fashion stemmed from sustainability in the fashion industry. This way, stakeholders will take every step into account and review it to ensure that resources reach the maximum usage potential before final disposal. Sustainable fashion does more than promote the reuse of existing textiles; it also calls for more eco-friendly production methods.
Therefore, circularity in fashion requires collaborative efforts of different sectors in the industry. These include raw material producers, textile manufacturers, apparel producers, and retailers. The input of the government and consumers is also essential in creating a circular fashion industry.
One of the key ideas for circular fashion is the separation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials. This separation is in the sense that even when manufacturers use both types of materials in one product, they can still be separated at the point of reprocessing and renewed separately. The resulting processes minimise the loss of technical resources such as nylon, polyester, acrylic, and biological materials like cotton and wool. This separation makes it possible to dispose of waste safely, allowing only organic waste to seep back into the soil and oceans.
Since the emergence of circular fashion trends, the fashion industry has been witnessing innovations that tackle waste and plastic fibre pollution. Fashion brands now transform fabric waste from apparel factories and old clothes into materials for making new clothes. New Plant fibre like pinatex, made from pineapple leaves, has come into existence. We also have new distribution models that disrupt linear use systems. These include fast gaining popular initiatives like Make Fashion Circular launched in 2017 and Circular.
These initiatives exist to provide information, training, resources, collaborations, and more. They aim their efforts at facilitating the global spread of circularity in fashion. They bring together NGOs, big fashion brands, innovators, scientists, startups, cities, investors, and concerned citizens to push the concept of circular fashion-forward. Circular fashion has the potential to unlock a more robust, circular economy, protect the ecosystem, and improve individual finances over time.
It is becoming increasingly clear that fast fashion, despite its cheapness, is detrimental to the economy and environment. In the last 15 years, clothing production has increased and become more affordable. However, this is affecting the lifespan of clothing items. Even low-income countries with a high rate of clothing reuse and re-distribution, still contribute to a global loss of $460 billion of non-recycled clothes. Circular fashion can open up a $560 billion economic opportunity when it is entirely in gear (Ellen MacArthur).
New roles in production, marketing, distribution, and after-sales maintenance will come into place. After-sales care specialists like dry cleaners, technicians, repairs, and the likes will have more income as people will fix their clothes and accessories instead of thrashing them. Offering services like redesigning, upgrades, customization will make fashion products more versatile and useful. Sustainable fashion operates on a system that reduces the industry's dependence on raw materials.
The production will rely instead on renewing the materials already in circulation, which has a direct effect on agriculture. Farmers of plant fibres will no longer need to use harmful chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides to over maximize yield. Also, animal husbandry practices will become more humane because the pressure of production will reduce. Plastic pollution from fibres made from fossil fuel will reduce drastically, as there will be almost no new input. Apart from being good for the ecosystem and economy, circular fashion will bring better value to fashion products.
Making circular products involves infusing them with more value, both in material composition and design. This extra value will reflect on how consumers use and care for their clothes and accessories. Consumers will better appreciate the effort and creativity that goes into making a simple cotton shirt. Which, in turn, will improve the public image of the fashion industry. Circular fashion will also ensure that each fashion item reflects its actual cost on the price tag.
Unlike the practice of fast fashion where manufacturers and retailers sell clothes cheaply, benefiting just the companies and distributors, circular fashion creates a system where farmers reap more benefits without having to produce in excess. In garment making, workers tend to put in their expertise and receive decent remuneration. Also, putting the cost of the clothing to the environment into consideration. All these will ensure that consumers make more responsible choices in garment purchase and care.
Circular fashion is a relatively new system, and it faces challenges in the way of its establishment. One major factor that affects circularity is consumer behaviour. The practices of recycling, upcycling, thrifting, renting, and cradle to cradle systems depend on the attitude of consumers. People who find climate change a concern will be more likely to adopt circular fashion shopping and reuse practices to reduce their carbon footprint.
However, people who find themselves ignorant or less concerned about climate change and environmental pollution will find no reason to change from a linear usage system. A high percentage of the recyclability and renewability of materials will depend on how well consumers care for the products. Also, the orientation of consumers about buying used clothes and accessories is only just changing from negative to positive. Before the emergence of sustainable fashion, many consumers perceived it as something only the poor would do. However, the rise of online thrift retailers in the US and Europe, with many large players now reselling millions in second-hand clothes, points to changing consumer attitudes. And large scale business opportunities.
Notable media voices in fashion like Harper's Bazaar and Vogue are voicing their support for circular fashion. Companies that offer credit to consumers for using the cradle to cradle system also provide additional incentives for consumer attitude change. Another issue that presents itself is the creation of brand new business models to replace the traditional method of production and distribution. There's a need for innovative business and production designs. Alongside knowledge sharing, and a shorter line of the delivery to make this happen.
Circular fashion cannot wipe out the traditional system in one swoop; it calls for a gradual change. The Make Fashion Circular Initiative has brought together apparel giants like Gap Inc., Stella McCartney (through Stella McCartney Cares Foundation), HSBC, Burberry, Inditex, PVH, and H&M Group to facilitate collaborations.
Establishing circular fashion requires three key things. The first step is to redirect the source of raw materials from virgin resources to renewable waste. Next is to develop business models that keep products in circulation for as long as possible. Longer than linear use allows. Practices to achieve this include clothing rental, thrifting, peer-to-peer lending, and the likes. The last key factor is the ethical disposal of waste that often comes at the end of the circulation. There are quite a lot of companies in the business of selling used items, and others that rent out clothes on short term or subscriptions.
Companies like MUD Jeans, Rent The Runway, and Vigga specializes in renting out clothing. ThredUp, Poshmark, Bagista, and others allow the trading of used clothing and accessories. Apparel companies like Patagonia, Salewa, Bergans, Jack Wolfskin, and Houdini are elongating the life span of their products with after-sales maintenance. They also offer repair services. A typical example is Patagonia that handles about 50,000 repairs per year.
Evrnu, a company that launched in 2015, has developed a technology to regenerate cotton waste. The process involves breaking down waste into liquid and re-manufacturing it as higher-performing fibres. Sneaker manufacturer, Thousand Fell, and undergarment producer, Big Favourite operate on a cradle to cradle model. They offer credit to customers for sending back worn-out items for recycling.
The goal of circular fashion is to create a system where fashion products are ethically sourced, produced, used, and reintroduced into circulation. All without causing damage to the environment, health, and economy.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges. She’s also busy researching and exploring technology applications for product development for a changing world.