4. How to realise a Fashion Circular Economy

In recent decades we have become a throwaway society. In the past, repairing clothes, passing them on and buying pieces to last was the norm. We need to transform our linear economy and every aspect of our take – make - waste system: reduce resource use, how we make and use products for maximum utilisation, how we can eradicate waste and redefine it as a material resource. Only then can we create a thriving circular economy that operates within planetary boundaries that can benefit everyone. According to figures published by Oxfam, more than 70% of clothes donated globally make their way to Africa. Kantamanto market, in Accra, Ghana has been profoundly affected by the dumping of second hand clothes that The OR Foundation, say 40% of which “end up in landfill almost immediately”. Other countries are calling struggling under it all, banning second hand clothes imports and calling for a slowdown.
Circle road within trees

How do we change to a circular company?

In the words of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading NGO in the field, “a circular economy is bigger than incrementally reducing the harm of our current model”. It is underpinned by three principles, all led by design: eliminate waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. For fashion it means ensuring that products are used more, are designed to be made again and are made from lowest impact, recycled or renewable inputs.

A circular economy for fashion creates better products and services for customers, contributes to a resilient and thriving fashion industry, and regenerates the environment. It can prioritise the rights and equity of everyone involved in the fashion industry; it can create new opportunities for growth that are distributed, diverse, and inclusive.

The circular economy gives us the chance to cut production and tackle waste, pollution, the climate and biodiversity crises together, while addressing important social needs. It gives us the opportunity to create jobs locally and in the global south – as well as leading an important cultural shift to reducing mass consumption. The average consumer buys 60% more clothing compared to 15 years ago, yet due to the lower quality of items, wears each item of clothing for half as long.

In September 2021, the British Fashion Council (BFC) urged government and retailers to work towards halving consumer demand by 2030 by replacing new fashion products with pre-owned, repaired, rental and virtual outfits to reduce waste and enable a circular economy.

This is one of a list of recommendations to the fashion industry from BFCs’ The Institute of Positive Fashion ‘The Circular Fashion Ecosystem Project’, which came about largely thanks to pressure from fashion influencers, pioneering ethical brands, campaign groups and citizens. Their vision requires industry and government to work together. It will need significant investment, large-scale innovation, transparency, and traceability. There is a strong case for climate finance here to be used to support a just transition creating livelihoods in the circular economy in producer countries like Bangladesh.

It should be noted that, while recycled synthetic materials are undoubtedly better for the environment than those made from virgin resources, their planetary impact is still high in terms of microfibre shedding and length of time to decompose. Even those garments that are starting to be recycled – either via a chemical or mechanical process  and respun – must be balanced by whether yet more harmful chemicals and energy are required to recycle the fabrics and spin new fibres.

For many, going circular seems impossible in a highly competitive and lucrative industry with complex supply chains spanning the globe. But in fact, the knowledge, the processes and the technology are almost all in place to enable it – what is lacking is the vision and the commitment to action as entrenched thinking and behaviours get in the way.

In a circular economy is bigger than incrementally reducing the harm of our current model.

Finisterre circular economy wheel graphic.

 What role does design play?

Design briefs could help by detailing the proposed life cycle of the garment. How robust is it? Will it stand being worn by multiple users? How easy is it to repair and fix? What materials and blends is the whole product made of? How easy is it to recycle and repurpose? How much fabric wastage will the garment require in the design? The Swedish Fashion Association point out that 80% of a garment’s sustainability will be decided in the design process.

A critical enabler of the circular economy is a ledger system for materials or material passports using blockchain or other decentralized, open information technologies.

 Who’s taking action

The EU strategy for sustainable textiles (EU strategy for sustainable textiles (europa.eu)) is intended to help the EU shift to a climate-neutral, circular economy where products are designed to be more durable, reusable, repairable, recyclable and energy-efficient. To find out more about sourcing sustainably and responsibly produced materials go to The Sustainable Angle’s 10th Future Fabrics Expo on 28-29 June 2022.

Although some brands have started to embrace the circular economy, the challenge remains huge. Overall, less than 1% of the material in clothing is recycled into new garments. Some brands like Ecoalf, are making it part of their DNA, supporting a network of fishermen to collect oceanwaste and have designed hundreds of new, innovative recycled materials from it.

However, a value-added circular economy, where companies earn several times from the one product, is now looking to take the place of the traditional linear model.

The resale of clothes accounts for 9% of the market but it is the fastest growing market and based just on current trends it is on track to make up 18% by 2030 according to the ThreadUp Resale Report 2021.

Exeter based, sustainable boutique Sanchos recently developed their business to include Shwap – a blockchain enabled circular resale platform.

In the year of its ‘Don’t buy it’ campaign Patagonia saw its revenue grow about 30% by attracting new customers attracted to its uncompromising integrity – this it invested in its second-hand clothing system.

Patagonia demonstrates an example of building high quality clothes made to last and creating facilities to buy second hand or repair.

There are a growing number of platforms for resale and sharing (such as Depop, Vinted, Reskinned and of course Ebay) as well as brand owned sites such as Finisterre’s Lived and Loved and Vivos Barefoots Revivo).

Why fashion needs to act now

Each year millions of tonnes of clothes are produced, worn, and thrown away. Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. Waste occurs throughout a garment’s life cycle, culminating in 57% of discarded clothes going to landfill each year. (Clothing Waste Statistics & Facts). In the UK, more than 30%  of our unwanted clothing currently goes to landfill (Facts on clothes recycling).

Huge quantities of fabric are wasted during the production process of clothes. Some brands are working with left over and roll end fabrics. Better design, zero waste pattern layout and waste management offers huge cost savings and environmental benefits.

Rolls of cotton in a factory
Young boy walking through landfill

In the UK, more than 30% of our unwanted clothing currently goes to landfill.

A pile of discarded clothing in landfill. Fashion Declares a climate, ecological and social emergency