Circular Fashion, fast fashion

Circular Fashion – What is it and Why Do We Need it?

‘Circular’ is the latest buzzword in the fashion industry. Any serious discussion on the business of fashion is likely to centre on how moving towards a circular model is the answer to the industry’s environmental crimes. Circular fashion is being marked as the only viable option for a sustainable future. 

But does it mean? What’s the reality behind the jargon? 

A circular fashion industry is one in which waste and pollution are removed from the production process. The idea is to keep products in use for as long as possible, and when they’re no longer needed, to support a system in which they’re reused and recycled. 

Addressing Fashion

By this definition, hasn’t fashion been circular for a long time? Don’t we already buy retro, or second-hand clothes? Haven’t older siblings, parents and grandparents given young people their ‘hand-me-downs’ for generations? The answer is yes and no. Yes, there have always been inherited garments and there have been vintage boutiques for decades. No, circular fashion is a very specific response to today’s market and its problems. Circular fashion, on the scale that is required, demands dramatic and institutional changes to the way the industry operates. 

The fashion industry’s functions by marketing an endless turnaround of new styles each season. At the end of a season, retailers use promotions and sales to move leftover stock, making way for brand new collections to sell. Fashion, through the catwalk, magazines, its sites and social media tells us that the only way to stay on top of current trends is to spend. If you want to stay relevant, then you have to discard last year’s outfits in the name of status and aesthetic appeal.

Thus, fast fashion is born. In an industry where an increasingly high number of collections are offered per year, often at lower prices, extreme overconsumption and waste is the consequence. That’s not to mention the exploitative and dehumanising conditions that are inflicted on sweatshop workers in the name of cheap production. That’s also not to mention the child labour and enslavement that has resulted from the demand for cheap clothing. The sad reality is that children, somewhere in the world, have likely had a hand on producing what you’re wearing now.

Truly, fashion’s make-to-waste model has created a dire and unsustainable situation, where 57% of all clothing ends up in the landfill. The synthetic fibres used in 72% of our clothing, are not only made from fossil fuels, but take nearly 200 years to decompose. All in all, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of annual global carbon emissions.

But is there really an antidote to remedy the harmful practises of this trillion dollar industry? Can circular fashion truly disrupt the market in a way that makes an actual difference?

Globally, the USD 1.3 trillion fashion industry employs more than 300 million people across its chain of production. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, producing cotton accounts for almost 7% of employment in some low-income countries. In the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled, yet clothing use has declined by almost 40%. Essentially, we’re buying more clothes only to wear them less. 

In order to make impactful change, drastic new business models and collaborations throughout the production chain are required. Not only is this change necessary, a careful and intelligent implementation is required. Vogue Business has recently reported that even the recycling of fashion could carry environmental risks unless the industry deals with chemicals used in production.

A Consequence of Covid

An unexpected consequence of Covid-19 has been the shutting down of the highstreet. Unsurprisingly, this has had grave repercussions on the fashion industry. As retailers have closed their doors, and online shopping has increased, this has not strictly led to an increase in digital fashion sales. In fact, as people have been working from home, have been unable to have a social life, or faced economic uncertainty, supply chains have plummeted. All the while, the immediacy of the environmental catastrophe is on the rise, as consumers demand more sustainability from brands.  

This accountability is forcing fashion retailers to take corrective action, to take circularity seriously. Nike has launched its ‘Reuse-a-Shoe’ programme, adding collection points at selected stores. Here, the rubber, foam, leather and textile components are taken from old shoes and are used to create new footwear. 

H&M, on the other hand, has it’s ‘Looop Machine,’ a recycling system that harvests the fibres from old textiles in order to make new garments. 

Scaling Up Circularity 

What needs to be done to upscale the circular fashion model? It’s true that it takes more than a few key brands with new initiatives to reshape the industry. 

Up to ninety percent of environmental impact occurs at the design stage of a product.

It’s crucial we change the way clothing is made. Companies are going to have to make a shift from traditional textiles, instead opting for more sustainable materials. 

Fashion brands are required to reskill designers and suppliers, ensuring they are educated on how to reduce waste in production. They are going to have to design with recyclability in mind. This means they must adopt single fibres over blends, ensure that the trims of garments are easily removable and that they have used recycle-safe dyes and finishes. 

To put it simply, there needs to be a collective effort to create better recycling solutions. Many people still lack resources for waste management and effective recycling infrastructure.

According to a World Economic Forum Survey in 2020, 61% of people do not have access to recycling facilities. 

Retailers will also have to take responsibility. They should be incentivising recycling schemes by offering discounts on future purchases. Stores can help remedy the waste crisis by increasing the number of collection points, both in and out of store and by packaging their products with sustainable materials. 

If fashion has faith in the consumer to adapt to ever-changing trends, surely they can trust us to embrace circularity as the latest sensation. Even fast fashion retailers should be adopting old school initiatives. For example, just as you would see a pre-owned section alongside the new releases at any video game store, fashion boutiques could provide second-hand clothing next to their latest lines. You can find second hand shops across the world. Clearly the consumer has no problem wearing pre-owned clothing. Once an item’s return period has expired, why shouldn’t it be bought back by the supplier so it can be resold? Is it really that shameful to wear last season’s must haves at a knockdown price? 

Fashion retailers can also follow the lead of many high-end tailors and offer clothing rentals. If people are only wearing an outfit once before it gets trashed, then why not wear an outfit once before it gets returned? This shouldn’t be limited to just occasion wear (who’s partying at this time anyway?). Instead, this service can be offered for types of clothing that aren’t designed to be worn for long periods of times, such as maternity, school or babywear. 

By helping customers to repair, return, rent and trade in their clothing, retailers are not only making a bold statement about the need for circularity, but sharing its values. It will take collaboration to get circular fashion rolling and it’s going to take the entire industry to make sustainability as attractive as the next ‘it’ item.

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