Circular Fashion: the What, the Why and the How

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Something very exciting is happening in the world of sustainability: fashion is going circular (or trying to, it’s tricky).

You already know that the terms sustainable and sustainability are very broad and sometimes they become very vague, which is dangerous because that’s when greenwashing can easily swoop in.

Does sustainable mean eco-friendly? Ethical? Vegan? Slow? All of the above? None?

Well, the magic of circular fashion is that most of us do agree on what it means, we know the steps we need to take to make it a reality and it kind of creates a roadmap to transform the fashion industry.

The key to circular fashion (and circular economy) is a complete redesign of pretty much everything in our production and consumption culture and one of the main goals is reducing waste in the fashion industry.

Daunting? Yep. But promising.

What’s the problem with fashion waste?

I love this quote: “waste is a design flaw.”

This next sentence might sound weird but bear with me. Right now, consumption almost always equals production and that’s a problem.

This simply means that almost always we’re producing something new that has been made from scratch – not reused, recycled or upcycled. And that implies the creation of huge amounts of waste.

In super simple terms, circular fashion (and a circular economy) want to eliminate waste from the equation and make fashion regenerative.

Look at these figures (all via Fashion Revolution and can be found on this post as well)

  • On average, we buy 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year worldwide
  • A garment is worn on average 4 times
  • 95% of clothes that we discard end up in landfills, even when they can be recycled
  • Only in the US, every year 10.5 tons of clothing are sent to landfills

Also, remember that when we talk about waste we’re not just talking about the waste of final products, but also the waste of all the resources that went into making them – like the more than 2500 litres of water we need to produce a cotton t-shirt.

So, instead of settling with this profit-centric producing-using-throwing away model, the circular economy wants to keep everything in the loop.

Circular economy vs linear economy

Currently we live in a linear economy where we produce, use and dispose of things. In short, a circular economy is a production and consumption model that revolves more or less around:

  • eliminating waste from the production and consumption cycle
  • closing the loop of supply chains by using, reusing, repurposing, upcycling and, as a last resort, recycling or composting
  • using renewable and regenerative materials

Changing our linear economy for a model like this will be hard but probably it’s the one chance we have to make things right for our planet.

There are many other things we have to take into account beyond redesigning how we produce. To name a few:

  • our consumption habits
  • who makes our stuff, where and how
  • producer-consumer relations
  • innovation in recycling

Looks scary, I know, but I think circularity is a very promising change that feels more like a permanent solution to all the problems of the fashion industry and not just a band-aid remedy.

So what’s circular fashion?

Now, circular fashion is all about applying the principles from circular economy to the fashion industry.

And these are a few of the things we need to change to make fashion circular.

1. Using more the clothes that already exist

The modern idea of fashion is dangerous because it revolves around trends. Trends come and go at the speed of light, literally weekly in some cases with the arrival of new collections to fast fashion stores.

And, for those who care exclusively about owning trendy clothes, fashion becomes quickly outdated.

We, as consumers, need to change our relationship with clothing, which also means that brands need to make clothes that last.

And they need to be made to last physically and emotionally.

Physically because we want them to keep up with the wear and tear. We need quality materials, solid construction and ways to repair our clothes if it were necessary.

Emotionally because we want them to stay relevant and loved throughout the years, regardless of any trend coming and going. Here’s another quote I love by Orsola de Castro: loved clothes last.

2. Finding ways to repair, reuse and upcycle materials

This includes having options to upcycle, remake, repair and repurpose clothes and materials once they’re not wanted anymore instead of having to throw them away.

Once again, to make this possible, materials should be made to last.

There’s a Youtube channel I love called coolirpa. She takes old clothes, usually thrifted, and she turns them into literal works of art. I know that the idea of thrifting to remake is controversial, but imagine being able to do that with clothes you or your loved ones already own.

3. Having options to recycle and compost

First things first: yes, you can compost clothes. They need to be natural materials without chemical dyes or treatments and not blended with synthetic materials. A common example is wool but you can also compost algae shirts, orange peel leather and other wonders like them – and if you had never heard of these that means you need to subscribe to my newsletter where we discuss these cool materials weekly.

According to all these circular economy principles, recycling and composting should be your last resort.

Why? You may ask.

If you’ve been raised like most millennials, you’ve been taught that recycling rocks. Now we know that other Rs are way more important than that one: reduce, reuse, remake, repurpose, reuse, repair, rethink,… all that good stuff (GenZ knows).

Anyway, it should be easy to disassemble our clothes to recycle or compost the different parts properly if we need to throw them away. For example, the polyester linin from a wool coat should be taken off and recycled as a synthetic, while the wool might be composted or recycled to receive a second life as a cute sweater.

And don’t forget that we need a lot of innovation and high investment in recycling. Right now only about 10% of the clothes we send to be recycled are actually recycled and this definitely needs to change.

4. Redesigning design

I guess the transition to circular fashion is in itself this huge redesign of the whole production and consumption system.

But we also have to think of this concept in the sense of how clothes are designed.

We have already said that they have to be made to last and easy to fix and upcycle.

In a perfect circular system, we would avoid using virgin materials as much as possible because we want to weaken that link between production and consumption that we were talking about at the beginning of this post.

This means that we want to prioritize renewable materials or post-consumer recycled fibers like recycled PET (not ideal but way better than virgin PET), recycled wool, recycled cotton,…

This also means that we should encourage zero waste design. It’s a thing, check it out.

5. Creating and supporting circular businesses

The whole idea is to create the perfect environment for circular businesses to thrive, like second hand and vintage stores and clothing rental services.

A perfect example of this business model is Recycle2Riches. They want to be a part of this change and one of the ways they’re doing their bit is by helping you mend and repair your clothes so that they can stay in the loop.

These types of businesses are amazing for the planet because they aren’t resource-intensive and they promote circularity.

But they’re also your best sustainable ally. Brands like R2R, second hand stores or clothing rental services can help you follow the “new for me” approach so that you can extend the life of pre-loved clothes and give clothes you don’t want any more a second chance

You know that here we’re very pro-outfit repeating, but a sustainable closet refesh is never bad.

And how do we go about this?

Our ultimate goal is creating a fashion industry where nothing can be harmful or unethical and where sustainability is a no-brainer, it just happens.

This is a whole different post, but let’s start by saying that it’s (obviously) not your responsibility as a consumer to carry all the weight from this massive systemic shift.

And of course, this change is going to need huge investments, thousands of brilliant thinking-brains to find innovations the industry needs.

We all have our role:

  • governments need to create policy frameworks that make all of the above possible and have to make sure that they are respected. They also need to promote transparency and traceability that are respected internationally so that certain nations can’t take advantage of others.
  • businesses need to commit to sustainable models and practices. I mean it. Fast fashion needs to go. And finding a new way to do business based on constant change and growth is a challenge, but an exciting one.
  • and you and I. We need to relearn how to consume fashion and be aware of the impact the fashion industry has on the environment and on people. We need to make smarter choices and vote with our $$. Businesses and our governments, believe it or not, sometimes do pay attention to the things we ask for, so let’s see if they listen with this one.

What do you think?

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