What if we could redesign the fashion industry so that it would regenerate our environment and empower people? That’s what those who advocate for a circular economy have in mind. The fashion industry currently produces over 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, uses 108 million tons of non-renewable resources, and over 24 trillion gallons of clean water each year, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The circular economy hopes to change this paradigm.
WHAT IS CIRCULAR FASHION? Circular fashion is a set of ideas, business practices and design strategies that aim to eliminate waste and pollution, keep fashion products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. This so-called "closed loop" production aims to transition away from the linear fashion industry and towards a new clothing and textiles economy that supports a healthier future.
HOW CIRCULAR FASHION AIMS TO DESIGN OUT WASTE
Fast fashion encourages us to simply throw our clothing away once we have grown out of it, stained it, ripped it, or grown tired of the style. Currently, less than 1% of it ends up getting recycled into new garments, while the rest pile up in landfills and third world markets. However, there are numerous efforts to change this reality.
- Design using zero waste principals. There is a movement of zero waste designers, like Zero Waste Daniel, who use textile waste as resources or change the design process to avoid leftover material.
- Redesign clothing for recyclability. Currently, most clothing is difficult or impossible to recycle, either because components like zippers, buttons and stitching are a different material than the fabric or because the fabric is blended with a material like Spandex, which isn’t recyclable. Forward-thinking brands, like Adidas, Eileen Fisher, and For Days, have designed products that are more easily deconstructed and recycled.
- Brand takeback programs. A number of clothing companies, including Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, have launched take back and repair programs for their products.
- Textile-to-textile recycling innovations. There is headway being made on true textile-to-textile recycling. Currently, there is limited existing technology that can recycle garments made from mixed fibers or materials made with harmful substances. Fabric producers like Lenzing and recycling startups Evrnu and WornAgain have invested heavily in research that would make it possible to break garments down into polymers that can then be made into new yarn.
HOW CONSUMER BEHAVIOR FUELS THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
There are a number of consumer habit shifts that contribute to the circular fashion model. While innovation is key to the circular economy, shifts in consumer behavior and the capacity to embrace new business models of sharing and renting clothes are key.
- Buy less, buy better. Shopping less, buying better quality, and properly mending and washing, as Fashion Revolution and Elizabeth Cline’s book The Conscious Closet advocates for, are all big parts of reducing consumption and prolonging the life of a garment.
- Resale, thrift, consignment, and vintage. Another way individuals can be more circular is to buy used clothing via thrift, consignment, or buy-sell-trade stores or online with secondhand stores like thredUP, dePop, Poshmark, Grailed, or Tradesy.
- Renting and leasing clothes. Sharing clothing via rental or lease services is another option. Popular rental sites include Rent the Runway, Le Tote and StyleLend. Renting or borrowing a garment can be more environmentally and budget friendly.
HOW TO SHOP IN THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
1. Borrow instead of buy
2. Wear your clothes longer
3. Learn basic maintenance techniques like mending, stain removal, and proper laundering habits
4. Hire a cobbler or tailor to make repairs to clothing and shoes
5. Shop secondhand - vintage, consignment, thrift or online resale (thredUP, dePop, Poshmark, Grailed, or Tradesy)
6. Rent for special occasions and seasonal/trendy fashion (Rent the Runway, Le Tote and StyleLend)
7. Donate, swap, sell, or recycle all unwanted clothes, don't throw away (charities, for-profit clothing bins, in-store take back programs)
HOW REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE HELPS CIRCULARITY
The fashion industry relies on industrial agriculture to produce natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool, and depletes fossil fuels to create synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon. This process of making clothes creates environmental hazards all around the globe through water and air pollution.
Regenerative agriculture (a type of farming that restores soil health and sequesters carbon) has become a key component of circularity. For example, the organization Fibershed supports local, sustainable wool production and Patagonia has helped to establish a Regenerative Organic Certification standard for consumer products. Certifications like OEKO-TEX 100 and BlueSign have been working with dye houses for years to create non-toxic dyes, and some brands have even begun working with natural dyers like Botanical Colors to shift their dyes to 100% biodegradable formulas.
Transitioning the fashion industry from a linear model to a sustainable, circular one will take time and collaborative effort in order to get there. The good news is that a number of brands, non-profits, activist organizations, and consumers are already on board with this new model for fashion.
Further Reading on Circularity
- Ellen MacArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy report
- The Conscious Closet by Elizabeth L. Cline
- Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough, Michael Braungart
- Zero Waste Fashion Design by Timo Rissanen, Holly McQuillan
- Circular Fashion online database
- Fast Fashion Is Creating an Environmental Crisis (Newsweek)