Nature is the cradle of circularity: a system that is restorative and regenerative by design. In a circular economy the goal is to eliminate waste, which is beneficial for both business and the environment, and in turn, should be better for society. Since the onset of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, an extractive linear business model has dominated global manufacturing. Today, the repercussions are being keenly felt in the form of climate change, overflowing landfill and a seemingly endless stream of waste.
Circular economic systems have been presented in research papers since the latter half of the 20th century, but it has only been in the last decade or so with the emergence of non-profit organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (UK), Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (California) and Circle Economy (Amsterdam), that these ideas have really began to take hold. Focusing specifically on clothing and textiles, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit was launched in 2009 alongside the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference as an annual event that brings global industry leaders, change makers and thinkers to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable fashion industry. The Summit is organised by the Global Fashion Agenda, who are also behind the CEO Agenda and the Pulse of the Fashion Industry reports.
At the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Make Fashion Circular initiative, with the likes of H&M, Nike, Stella McCartney and Burberry as core partners; while the Global Fashion Agenda called on the industry to turn words into concrete action by signing the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment. The ambitions of both these schemes is to 1) develop business models that keep clothes in use (and out of landfill) for longer through reselling, take-back schemes, garment repair etc. 2) ensure clothes are designed for circularity, e.g. made from renewable materials that are manufactured in a safe, non-toxic way, and 3) turn old clothes into new ones via upcycling, mechanical or chemical recycling.
The Global Fashion Agenda managed to get 12% of the global fashion market – including Eileen Fisher, H&M, Nike, ASOS and Inditex – to sign the 2020 Commitment. Each company set their own circularity targets, and as of July 2019, signatories fulfilled 21% of the 213 targets. Despite these efforts, the 2019 Pulse report revealed that the fashion industry is still far from circular, the pace of sustainability performance has already slowed since 2017, and sustainable solutions are not being implemented fast enough to counterbalance the negative environmental and social impacts of a rapidly growing industry.
Going back to the 2017 Pulse report, by 2030 the global population is predicted to exceed 8.5 billion people, which will increase global garment production by 63%. Yet when brands from H&M to Burberry have been exposed for incinerating perfectly usable unsold stock in a bid to maintain prestige, it suggests that too many unwanted goods are being produced – and also not being recycled. What’s more, ever-growing landfills of post-consumer clothing waste point to overconsumption – which of course is only made possible because of overproduction. What this shows is that the fashion industry is grossly inefficient and isn’t really addressing consumer needs. Brands need to better match supply with demand, and tools such as trend-predicting AI, interactive 3D prototyping, personalisation of products and single item manufacturing can facilitate this.
However, overhauling large brands built upon decades of cheap labour, poor materials, economies of scale, expansion and global domination won’t happen overnight. Smaller labels and startups with more room for experimentation therefore are very often the prime movers and important catalysts in the adoption of sustainable technologies and systems. Brands such as Thousand Fell, The Big Favorite, For Days and Silfir have built circularity in from the very beginning: with sustainable materials, lasting designs, in-house take-back schemes and closed loop recycling. To fund and support the development of innovative ideas, accelerator programmes like the H&M Foundation Global Change Award and Fashion For Good can scale these up, bring them to market faster and instigate collaborations with corporate partners.
In order to ensure that all brands, big and small, navigate towards circular business models, governments and policy makers must play a stronger role in creating a regulatory framework. This could mean limiting the use of virgin fibres, introducing environmental/pollution tax on garments made unsustainably, or perhaps even some sort of clothes rationing. But circularity alone is not the cure-all solution and can easily be hijacked as a frontrunner of the greenwashing agenda. Simply developing a circular system that recycles waste clothing or uses sustainable fabrics to make more new clothing will only perpetuate the overproduction/consumption cycle. Brands therefore need to produce less but also to produce better, and sell at a price that not only takes into account the production costs but also the social and environmental costs incurred. For this, transparency and traceability across the supply chain are imperative.
Transparency is essential for companies to understand how and where their products are made – from growing raw materials to textile and garment manufacturing – to ensure human rights are respected, working conditions are safe, materials are sourced from reputable suppliers and the environment is conserved. By making this information public, as in the Fashion Transparency Index compiled by global non-profit movement Fashion Revolution, brands can be held accountable for their actions – both positive and negative – which can then be used to measure a brand's ethical and sustainable performance. Technology like blockchain could play a significant role in keeping track of where, when and how products are being made; additionally nearshoring and onshoring operations shortens the supply chain, making them easier to monitor, while cutting down on transport routes and carbon emissions too.
Companies can also engage their customers in more meaningful dialogue by disclosing production costs. Transparent pricing, as put forward by D2C brands including Everlane, Maison Cléo, Hundhund and Iuiga, help consumers to better understand the costs involved in manufacturing, marketing and delivering an item, which allows for more informed buying decisions. This still does not guarantee workers across the supply chain are getting paid fairly or that sustainable materials/methods are used, therefore a universal certification and rating system should also be established so that both producers and consumers know how sustainably and ethically an item has been made.
The potential social and ethical impacts of circularity are often overshadowed by the environmental and financial benefits, but actions such as nearshoring textile production and garment manufacturing in Europe (which could help revive use of native plant fibres like hemp or linen and take the pressures off cotton and polyester production, besides re-establishing these industries and creating more jobs here) would give more room for the developing countries where so much of the world's clothing is made, recycled and disposed to focus on growing their own industries and providing for their communities by addressing more urgent domestic matters than the whims of the western fashion market. Once consumers truly understand that fast fashion only exists because the environment and cheap overseas labour is being exploited, hopefully this will make us all think harder about our purchases and the impact our choices make.
The end goal of the circular economy is to be truly zero waste – which means no cutting scraps, unsold goods or used clothing ending up in landfill. As a closed loop system, the release of plastic microfibres and toxins from dyes and finishes into the environment must also be considered. Simply replacing virgin fibres for recycled ones, particularly polyester, therefore is not so straightforward, but since they require less energy and resources to manufacture, they are at least a stopgap. In the long term, advances in chemical recycling promise regenerated natural fibres that are of an even superior quality than the original textile, and unless a viable solution for microfibre shedding can be found, then plastics may have to be phased out completely. To help brands keep up-to-date with the latest developments, consulting agencies such as circular.fashion (Berlin) and Green Strategy (Stockholm) can help them achieve their circular goals.
Circularity, transparency, technology, nearshoring, recycling, social justice – all these different strands need to be woven together to create true, lasting sustainable change, while non-profit organisations and brands must collate their findings and collaborate with governments and consumers to make this happen without delay. Although the consumer didn’t start the fire, as long as we keep buying things we don’t need – whether that’s another two dollar T-shirt or luxury handbag – we will only continue to fan the flames of late stage capitalism. Yet somewhere between the popularity of Marie Kondo’s cleanup method, sightings of celebrities wearing repeat red carpet outfits, and the Fashion Revolution #LovedClothesLast campaign, hopefully people are beginning to realise that they can be happy – or even happier – owning less stuff, and brands will have to cut down accordingly if they want to remain relevant and survive.
Written by Mairi Hare as part of a collaboration between Sourcebook GmbH and Texpertise Network.