Fashion + The Circular Economy

Fashion Will Never Be Circular if Consumers Don’t Change

The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions; 73% of garments produced every year ends up in landfill; washing clothes releases 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year. But that’s not new information, right?

Since climate change became climate emergency and sustainability entered our day-to-day dictionary, we all have learnt about the dark, polluting side of the clothing industry, but what about the solution?

According to many fashion industry high profiles, as Ellen MacArthur, McKinsey company, and H&M, there is a solution and it is called circular fashion.

Principles of circular fashion

Anna Brismar, owner of the consultancy firm Green Strategy, coined the term circular fashion in 2014, during a conference in Stockholm. After criticizing fashion’s linear production model (produce, consume, and throw away ), she presented circular fashion as the solution to fashion’s unsustainability. Her idea was simple: to reduce fashion’s footprint we must look at the whole life cycle of garments and prolong it as much as possible.

“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.”

Anna Brismar

Designing out of waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; regenerating natural systems. These are the key principles of a circular economy. Applying them to the fashion industry has the potential of maximising resources and minimising waste.

However, transforming the industry into a circular economy is a revolution, and revolution requires a collective’s effort, meaning that customers have a role to play. But what it is?

Ellen Macarthur, a high figure in the sustainable fashion community, highlighted three principles to follow to develop a circular fashion: “Made from safe and recycled or renewable inputs, used more, and made to be made again.”

“Made from safe and recycled or renewable inputs”

Everything starts with the right material but identify sustainable materials is not easy. In fact, switching to the less polluting version of conventional materials ( organic cotton instead of cotton, eco-leather at the place of leather) is not enough. They reduce the number of resources used in their manufacturing, but in the end, they still require limited resources that, sooner or later, will terminate. Using them buy us time, but we must not mistake them for the solution.

According to Macarthur, we should avoid virgin material and focus on made with recycled materials or renewable inputs. As polyester fabric obtained from recycled plastic or leather generated from pineapple skin. Using waste to create new materials is a way to solve two problems in one.

Biodegradable sources are also valid alternatives when we can not avoid virgin material.

“Used more”

Prolonging the garments’ life is fundamental if we want to pursue a circular fashion model. This means looking for durable garments that can be repaired.

With the recent popularity of minimalism, more and more consumers are adopting the motto “Less is More”. They are starting to pay attention to quality and refuse fast fashion items.

However, high quality is not always a synonym for high longevity. At the same time, low price-clothes don’t have to last for a short time. The recent figures demonstrate that modern average quality clothes can last “between 2-10 years” if treated with care.

The problem is not what we buy, but how. We buy too many products, and we barely wear them, with dire consequences. Due to this throwaway culture, 92 million tonnes of textiles end up in landfills every year. 

To create a long-lasting wardrobe the solution is not avoiding fast fashion altogether, but shop thoughtfully. Here it is a great advice from the journalist Elena Fishman to use the next time you will enter a store:

“Steer clear of obvious runaway knockoffs and aggressively trendy pieces, both of which you’ll likely get sick of after a couple of wears. Power past the sale and/or clearance sections, where it’s all too tempting to scoop something up just because it’s majorly marked down. Instead, look for pieces that incorporate current trends but also fit in with the rest of your wardrobe and can be worn for more than several seasons.”

Elena Fishman

“Made to be made again”

A stage entirely in the hands of consumers is the discard of the garment. Let’s be honest, no matter how sustainable conscious we become, there will always be a reason to dispose of clothes. It could be an uncleanable stain, a change in size, or simply we don’t like them anymore. So, what do we do with an “inactive” garment? 

Obviously, landfills or incineration are not part of a circular economy. They are both a resources’ loss and a cause for pollution. According to Macarthur, the solution is recycling. But, since current technologies allow us to recycle only 1% of the clothes annually sent to be recycled, this option is not feasible.

Resale and donation remain the most valid alternatives. In particular, with the boom of second-hand platforms, selling old clothes has never been easier. The most creative people can also try to transform old unwanted clothes into new objects.

Fashion won’t change if we don’t do it first

It is evident that consumers play a decisive role in a circular economy. On one side, we are the ones that can push the businesses to embark upon this revolution. On the other side, we have to be more involved, more responsible and conscious of our clothes. We need to rethink the way we interact with fashion, how and what we shop, but also the way we treat them when they are in our wardrobes because every item in our garments come from nature and will come back into nature. How and when depend on us.

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