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What is Circular Fashion?

by Katie McCourt |

Introducing Circular Fashion & Circular Economy

To understand circular fashion, it’s first important to understand the concept of a circular economy – the concept that circular fashion is based upon. 

A circular economy is an economy based on designing out waste, keeping resources and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

“Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

With the traditional linear economy, we make, use and throw away. In a circular model, resources would be kept in use for as long as possible as to extract the maximum value from them whilst they are in use.

There are many benefits to this system in comparison to the take-make-waste model. For example: 

  • Reduced waste - less waste materials that will get sent to landfill or for burning
  • Reduced environmental impact of production - less use of raw materials and therefore less extraction of the earth’s resources
  • Boost resource productivity - a major study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey demonstrated that a circular approach ‘could boost Europe’s resource productivity by 3% by 2030, generating cost savings of €600 billion a year and €1.8 trillion more in other economic benefits’
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    So, how does circular fashion fit in? 

    Defining Circular Fashion

    Circular fashion is based upon the concepts and benefits of a circular economy. A circular fashion industry would prioritise clothing that is designed to last and to circulate responsibly. 

    As defined by Anna Brismar of Green Strategy, ‘Circular fashion’ can be defined as clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use.’

    It’s a completely different approach to the fast fashion model where clothes are mass-produced at a low quality, worn a handful of times and then thrown away. Currently, the way the fashion industry operates is incredibly wasteful and in the UK alone, 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill each year. 

    When you look at it globally, it’s even scarier. According to Common Objective, ‘the fashion industry generates 13 kilograms of waste for every person on the planet. To put that into perspective imagine a landfill the size of France filled with thrown away clothing and textiles’.

    Despite all that waste, very few clothes are recycled into new clothes.

    ‘Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing,13 representing a loss of more than USD 100 billion worth of materials each year’ - Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

    To achieve a fully circular fashion industry would require huge changes throughout the fashion supply chain from the initial designs to the end of the garments life. Circular clothing should be designed to last and created with resource-efficient materials and processes. As well as this, circular clothing would need to be biodegradable or recyclable, so at the end of its life, it can be regenerated back into the system.

    The good news is, the shift to this circular fashion system has already begun. According to the Fashion for Goods Future of Circular Fashion Report, ‘12.5% of the fashion industry has committed to circularity’.

    The Future of Circular Fashion

    Fashion for Goods Future of Circular Fashion report outlines three circular business models that will shape the future of sustainable fashion: Rental, Subscription Rental and Recommerce. 

    All three of these areas are showing significant growth as consumers look for more sustainable ways to shop. According to ThredUp’s Second Hand Fashion Report from 2019, resale grew 21-times faster than the retail apparel market over the previous three years. 

    However, for the future of fashion to be truly circular, the industry cannot just rely on second-hand and fashion rental markets – there will always be a market for first-hand apparel. Plus, second-hand or rental fashion really doesn’t work for more intimate garments such as underwear, which represents a $30-billion dollar industry globally.

    Organisations Promoting a Circular Fashion Industry

    There are a number of companies that are doing great things to produce circular clothes or to promote a circular fashion industry. Here are a few of them:

  • Recover - Recover turns textile waste into new premium upcycled yarns. By doing so, they have created the lowest-impact cotton fibre in the global market. In 2019 alone, they made huge environmental savings including 40-billion litres of water, 2.7-million kg of textile waste and 2.9-million kg of pollutants.

  • ThredUp & Depop - both online resale platforms, the give consumers easy access to second-hand clothes as well as providing a platform to those looking to sell clothes on after use. This helps to extend the lifespan of clothes and therefore reduce their environmental impact.

  • Hurr Collective & Vestiaire - two examples of fashion rental services. Fashion rental is an option that provides customers with access to a variety of clothing styles whilst decreasing the demand for new clothing production. 

  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation - a global thought leader on the circular economy, and an amazing resource to anyone that wants to learn more about circular clothes. They have a comprehensive learning hub on circular fashion that takes a deep dive into different circular fashion business models and the characteristics required of a circular brand. 

  • We All Have A Part To Play in Circular Fashion

    Circular fashion is not going to solve all of the fashion industries problems overnight. It’s a full system that would require change across all points of the lifespan of garments, including habit change from consumers. 

    However, small steps in the right direction are better than nothing and we have so much respect for brands that are taking ownership of their environmental impact and committing to sustainability. 

    Remember – consumers have a part to play too. There are so many simple changes you can make to help promote a better system such as buying less or selling what you don’t need second-hand.

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