Have you heard the term circular fashion?
Maybe you’ve seen fashion brands advertise their “circular collections” or talk about their vision for circularity. Or perhaps you’ve seen words like upcycled, recycled, renewed, and repurposed, and are feeling a bit lost in the sea of confusing terms.
This post will break down what you need to know about circular fashion: what it is, the various approaches to it, some of the greenwashing of circularity going on, and what it will take for the fashion ecosystem to become circular.
Prefer to listen? Check out the podcast version!
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app.
What is Circular Fashion?
Circular certainly sounds great — but what does it actually mean?
Well circularity is not a new concept.
The earth operates in a circular system. Nature is circular. Everything is reused and repurposed. There is no waste.
And many cultures today still operate within this circular framework like BIPOC communities and low income communities. I’ll be bringing on guests talk about that more, but I wanted to make sure to put that out there before we started getting into the nitty gritty of circular fashion.
For now, I’d like to start with talking about what a circular economy is and then how that relates to fashion.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “in contrast to the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, a circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.”
So, what does that look like in practice? Well, Ellen MacArthur Foundation goes on to explain that there are three main principles to a circular economy:
- Design out waste and pollution
- Keep products and materials in use
- Regenerate natural systems
Let’s break each of them down.
The first is to “design out waste and pollution”.
This is about ensuring that during production, there isn’t waste being created and there is no pollution of the air, land, and water along the way.
For fashion, this might be about designing pieces that use existing textiles and/or make use of every scrap of fabric.
[For more on this, check out what is zero waste fashion?]
It’s also about producing garments (and accessories and everything else) with eco-minded materials, dyes, and components that don’t pollute the environment. And of course, about using cleaner energy sources and not using fossil fuels.
The second principle is to “keep products and materials in use”. So basically, this is about ensuring things are lasting as long as possible. It’s about repairing, restoring, refurbishing, and as a last resort, recycling them.
But this is only fully possible if from the very beginning when the product is being designed, the designers are thinking about the full lifecycle of the product to ensure that the product is durable, repairable, recyclable, compostable, et cetera.
In the fashion industry, the most obvious example of keeping materials in use is secondhand fashion. So thrifting, buying vintage, borrowing, sharing, getting hand-me-downs, and so on.
But we could also extend this principle to mean brands designing higher quality products and having repair programs. It can mean improving sewing literacy so we can mend our clothes, and it could mean encouraging the upcycling and creative use of existing textiles.
The list goes on and the rest of the post will go into these approaches in much more detail.
For now, let’s get into the third and final principle, which is “regenerate natural systems”.
This is the one that is most often left out of the circular economy discussion, but a truly circular system cannot be reliant on non-renewable resources. And, a circular economy is about not taking more from the earth than you give back.
So this one is about first, stopping the extraction of fossil fuels and prioritizing the transition to renewable energy sources. And secondly, it’s about replenishing and restoring the soil and the earth.
In fashion, this means no more synthetic fabrics, no more plastic fabrics like polyester and nylon derived from fossil fuels. It also means that the production and transport of items is powered by renewable energy sources. There’s still a long way to go on both of these!
It’s also about thinking about ways that fashion can be produced in a regenerative way. The most clear example of this is growing or raising fibers for fashion using regenerative, traditional farming practices.
Fibershed is a great resource to learn more about regenerative fiber systems and I will have guests on the Conscious Style Podcast to talk about this in more detail.
Four Steps to Circular Fashion
Taking all of this into account, here is a breakdown of the various steps that would be required for creating a truly circular fashion system.
- Produce and Buy Less
- Design Out Waste and With the End in Mind
- Extend a Garment’s Life as Long as Possible
- Manage a Garment’s “End” of Life
1. Produce and Buy Less.
This is the step that very few brands want to talk about, but it’s absolutely necessary if we ever want to reach a truly circular system.
Right now, we are simply producing too many clothes — and shoes, and bags, and jewelry and everything else.
According to the Ellen MacArthur foundation, over 100 billion garments are being produced annually.
As the often quoted stat goes, from 2000 to 2014, clothing production roughly doubled, yet people are keeping clothes half as long.
Fashion brands have gone from releasing new clothes a couple times per year or once per season to launching new styles weekly or even daily.
Ultra-fast fashion retailer Shein even advertises that they drop at least 1,000 new styles every single day. Some days, the retailer drops over 6,000 new products daily.
There’s no way that this overproduction and over-extraction of resources could ever be circular. Even if we switched to using all renewable sources for fabrics, dyes, etc. we’d be producing faster than those resources could renew.
And given the state of textile recycling technology today and the amount of time and energy textile recycling takes, we also could not possibly recycle all of those clothes.
We can only create a circular system if we are producing less in the first place.
Also, of course, one of the elements of a circular economy is about making durable things that last and can be used continually. Certainly, if a brand is producing hundreds of millions of clothes every year (Zara produces 450 million garments annually), you’re not considering longevity.
Not only is the clothing not designed to be durable but the only way people are able to buy so many clothes is if they are replacing their existing garments. Our closets are only so big after all.
Overproduction and overconsumption is very reliant on there being a significant amount of waste. Anytime you are producing trendy garments that come and go within months or sometimes even weeks, you’re not designing with circularity in mind.
Many experts argue that being a truly circular brand means decoupling sales volume from profitability. In other words, brands will NEED to find other revenue sources outside of new production if they want to actually be circular.
So, degrowth and reduction in the production of new garments must be the first step to a circular fashion economy!
2. Design Out Waste and With The End in Mind
This is something that the Ellen MacArthur foundation talks about in their approach to a circular economy and it’s a very important element.
We can try to extend the lives of garments and other items (which I’ll touch on in step 3) as long as possible, but it helps if these pieces were designed in a way that made it easy to repair them or keep them.
So, this means designing for durability: Using quality fabrics, reinforcing the seams so the seams don’t rip, using quality components like zippers and buttons.
It’s also about designing with really great fit so people want to keep wearing that garment. When it’s too loose or tight in the wrong areas, or falling off our shoulders, or is just uncomfortable, people won’t want to keep it. In fact, eighty percent of consumers have reported difficulties finding well-fitting garments.
And this is something that fast fashion is really bad about. I mean these brands are launching hundreds or thousands of new garments every week. There’s no way they are thoroughly testing the fit on every single piece. It’s just not possible.
And beyond designing for durability, designers need to also have the end in mind.
So, for instance using 100% of a fiber instead of a blended fabric to maximize recyclability.
Or using 100% natural fibers and dyes and components so that the piece is compostable.
Or maybe designing a handbag or pair of shoes in a way that makes it very easy to repair if something were to happen to it.
3. Extend a Garment’s Life Through Reuse and Repair
As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explained in their three principles of a circular economy, extending the life cycle of items is a key part of circularity.
There are so many ways to do this with fashion!
This means first and foremost, making the most out of your closet. For plenty of tips on this, listen to episode 7 of the Conscious Style Podcast with Jess Atkins, the co-creator of the wardrobe app, Stylebook.
The most sustainable garment is the one that you already have in your closet. Don’t be afraid to be an outfit repeater and get creative with new outfit combinations with the items that you’ve got!
When you do need something else or you are really wanting a piece, the second most circular or sustainable option is to make the most of what already exists in general. In other words, looking pre-loved.
For more on secondhand fashion, tune in to episode 10 of the Conscious Style Podcast with Emily Stochl of the Pre-Loved Podcast.
There are a lot of ways to find pre-loved garments! Here are some of the ways:
- We can swap with friends and family, or maybe look for a swap party happening in our community on a site like meetup.com or on Fashion Revolution’s community event calendar.
- If we just need a piece for a one-off occasion like prom, a wedding, or a work interview, we can see if we can borrow a piece or use a peer-to-peer rental app like ByRotation (you’ll get to hear from ByRotation’s founder, Eshita in Season 2 of the Conscious Style Podcast!)
- You can go to local thrift stores or check out online secondhand fashion marketplaces like Poshmark, ThredUP, Depop, and Swap.com.
- There are also a lot of places to find vintage clothing. You can search in your local area or there are also a bunch of vintage shops selling through Instagram and Etsy.
- And if you want to splurge on a designer item, there are also consignment stores. So again, you can look locally or go online on a site like Vestiaire Collective or The RealReal.
The second R of this step is repair and this is something that has been gaining more and more traction in the sustainable fashion space, which is exciting to see!
Fashion is too often treated as disposable. When there’s a rip, tear, a missing button, a stain… that piece is tossed or “given away”.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many of these issues can be mended or repaired. Either by learning through YouTube tutorials ourselves or by taking the garment to a nearby seamstress. Many Dry Cleaners will also take on a tailoring or mending project.
And something I’m a big advocate of is pushing brands to have repair programs where shoppers can bring back in their products and get them repaired for free or for a very small fee.
4. Manage a Garment’s “End” of Life: Repurpose and Regenerate
There are a couple more R’s I want to talk about and these have to do with the sort of final stage of a garment as it currently is.
I hesitate to say “end-of-life” because that’s a terminology in the linear economy that assumes there is an end. And the point of a circular economy is that there isn’t an end; everything stays in use or gets used as something else.
But, there comes a time when a piece will be beyond repair or perhaps is unwearable or undesirable. In this case, that piece may need to be transformed so that the components or materials stay in use.
One way to do this is to repurpose it.
Repurposing might mean cutting it up and creating an entirely new item out of it. It might mean using the fabric scraps for creating something small like a scrunchie.
Or, when all other avenues have been exhausted, downcycling that textile to use for something like insulation or couch cushions. This is really a last resort for fabrics that are just totally soiled.
And then another approach to handling a garment or other textile at the end of its as-is-life is to compost it and use it to regenerate new life.
So, right now this isn’t really very common. But the potential here is huge because it doesn’t require expensive recycling technology and it doesn’t require fossil fuel energy or anything like that.
The problem is that almost no clothing right now is 100% compostable because a lot of clothing is made from synthetic fabrics.
And even if the fabric is natural, maybe there were synthetic dyes used, or there’s a small percentage of synthetic fiber blended in to add a stretch, or there’s elastic, or something along those lines.
But creating compostable clothing is very in line with earth’s natural circular systems. This is the direction we should be going!
There will be episodes on all four of these R’s: reuse, repair, repurpose, and regenerate in season two of the Conscious Style Podcast!
Myths of Circular Fashion
Circularity seems to be one of the biggest buzzwords in sustainable fashion today. It’s easy to see why: minimizing waste and maximizing existing resources hits on many sustainability goals.
The problem, though, is that this word is being overused and misused. So this section is dedicated to breaking down some of the myths of circular fashion.
Myth 1: Textile Recycling is the Solution for Circularity
This is one you’ll see a lot from fast fashion brands like H&M that believe that we can recycle our way out of our waste and climate crises.
As we’ve covered earlier, recycling is a last resort option when none of the other avenues are available. It is not THE solution. Recycling still requires vast amounts of energy and other resources. Plus, most materials will lose quality each time they are recycled.
Myth 2: Buying Clothes Made From Recycled Materials is Circular
This one is similar because it again focuses on just one element of the clothing life cycle. This time it’s focusing on only the initial production.
While it can be useful to use recycled and upcycled materials for clothing, that’s not the end of the story. We also have to talk about how long that clothing is going to be used and what’s going to happen to it when the person is done wearing it.
Circularity is about the entire process; the entire life cycle.
Myth 3: Circularity Means We Can Keep Up Current Production Levels
A lot of brands, particularly at industry ‘sustainability’ conferences, are leading the industry to believe that they can keep up current rates of growth — of profit and production — simply by making it more “circular”.
But recycled materials and resale programs are not enough alone to make the system circular, let alone sustainable.
And this myth might just be the most dangerous of them all.
One study actually found that people are more likely to use more resources when recycling is an option versus when it is not available to them.
So we really have to be careful with this greenwashing of circularity and recycling.
When fashion brands promote their collections as “circular” in an effort to keep up current rates of production — or even worse, increase them — that totally misses the point!
The biggest potential benefit of circularity is that we reduce new production. So anytime a brand is talking about circularity *without* talking about degrowth and minimizing production of new stuff, that’s greenwashing.
Final Notes About Circular Fashion
As you can see, circular fashion is a complex topic that involves many steps because it considers the ENTIRE life cycle of a piece.
It’s about degrowth or decrease in new production. It’s about considering the entire life cycle of a product during the design and production stage. It’s about extending the life of what has been produced. And it’s about responsible consideration for a piece’s so-called “end” of life.
We cannot just do one of these things. It’s all a circle and we need all of it. We can’t just recycle our way out of this mess.
And in many ways, these steps are connected. For instance, we can’t get to degrowth if we’re not thinking about extending the life of what’s been produced.
And the final step of responsibly repurposing or regenerating a piece is going to be very difficult if we don’t have the second step where designers are considering the full life cycle.
Circularity is not about just addressing one piece of the product life cycle — it’s about creating a continual cycle, or well, circle.