How To Make Fashion More Circular
Whenever we are finished using a product, the initial reaction is to throw it away. This is what has been set as the norm in our society. However, as stated by economist E.F Schumacher “Infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.”
This is where the principle of circular economy comes into play. A circular economy is an economy based on the goal to produce as little waste as possible and make the most of resources. This regenerative approach is in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which has a 'take, make, dispose' model of production.
The concept of circular fashion is based on the same principle. But although sustainability has been an issue in the fashion industry for decades, the term ‘circular fashion’ wasn’t used until recently in 2014.
Since then, circular fashion has become an increasingly popular topic. According to Dr. Anna Brismar who used this term for the first time “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.”
The need to make the Fashion Industry more circular and less wasteful is absolutely essential. The rise of fast fashion over the past 15 years has considerably changed the fashion industry and the way we dress. The world today consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every year. This is 400% more than the amount we consumed just two decades ago. According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the U.S alone generates an average of 25 billion pounds of textiles waste per year, which is about 82 pounds per US resident. So how can we transform this waste into a ressource?
For circular fashion to work, everybody has a role to play. The current #wearnext campaign, a collaboration between New York City Department of Sanitation, New York City Economic Development Corporation, collectors, recyclers and resale companies, is a great example of how fashion players can collaborate.
So what is the role of brands and consumers? How can we all collaborate to make fashion more circular?
If we want to make fashion circular, all products should be designed with the goal that they are either biodegradable, recyclable or a combination of both. While natural materials are generally biodegradable, synthetics fibers are not and therefore must be recycled.
The design plays a large part in determining how complex recycling will be. The more detailed the design is, the harder it may be to recycle because additions such as zippers, buttons, belts, embellishments, etc. need to be separated from the fabric first. This doesn’t necessarily mean a design has to ban all details, but these elements can be added in a way that allows for easy disassembly during the recycling process. Another thing to keep in mind when designing a garment is that blends of fabrics are often more difficult to recycle or may not be recyclable at all.
This is where the largest chunk of waste usually comes in. This is a stage where an extraordinary amount of water, chemicals, and energy is used to create each item. As an example, it takes 2,700 liters of water to produce just one t-shirt. That’s enough for one person to drink for 900 days. Some new technologies that use no water during textile dying are being developed such as AirDye, ColorZen, and DyeCoo and have started to be used by companies such as Adidas and Nike.
Dying processes are also known for incorporating many toxic chemicals such as azo, NPE or formaldehyde that are harmful for the environment but also for humans to wear. Opting for natural dyes is a much safer and eco-friendly option.
Another source of waste in the production of a garment are the scraps left after cutting fabric. Most of the time, these scraps are discarded of in the trash. However, some manufacturers have started to incorporate recycling programs for scraps as an alternative to sending them to landfills. This is largely due to brands challenging manufactures to contribute to circularity in response to consumer demand for these practices.
The customers have complete power over the fate of each product they buy. They are the ones that decide whether to end a garment’s life by throwing it away, or let it live a second life by selling it, donating it or even swapping it!
There is no doubt that the best way for consumers to contribute to circular fashion is to lessen their consumption in the first place. This means purchasing essential wardrobe items that will last for years. The average woman uses a garment seven times before getting rid of it. There should not be a need for anyone to go through their closet every season to toss ‘old’ clothes away. Better quality clothes will last longer and be easier to sell or pass on as opposed to their fast fashion counterparts, which are designed to be worn just a few times before falling apart.
Clothing swaps are also becoming increasingly popular. This is a great way to renew your wardrobes, participate in the closed loop system and get new clothes all without spending any money!
Buying second hand is another great way to support circular fashion. Platforms such as Poshmark, Ebay or The Real Real make it easier for consumers to sell clothes and accessories they no longer want. To encourage customers to participate in a circular economy through consignment, The Real Real has recently announced a partnership with Stella McCartney. Stella shoppers who sell an item on The RealReal receive an immediate $100 credit to Stella retail stores and McCartney’s website.
Thrift stores are also an easy way to bring a second life to the clothes we no longer want. However, organizations like Goodwill or Salvation Army receive an overflow of clothes and end up having to dispose of most of them. According to their Director of Communications, Jose Medellin, Goodwill stores in just New York and New Jersey collected over 85.7 million pounds of textiles in one year. Only a small amount of this bulk is sold in the company’s thrift stores while many of it is sent to landfills.
Fashion brands have started to adapt marketing campaigns that promote their own “recycling” programs, in order to better their public image and continue to move new products into our wardrobes. But when we look closer, we realize that these programs actually have very low recycling rates. Out of the 56,000 tons of textile H&M has collected globally since starting their recycling initiative in 2013, it is estimated that only 5 to 10 percent of the collected clothing was recycled into fibers that ultimately made new clothes.
As much as we love the idea of recycling, it is realistically impossible for any recycling program to make a dent in the giant pile of castoff clothes fast fashion brands create. The best approach to slowing down fashion and the waste it produces is to make and buy quality clothes that don’t need to be recycled as often, but are capable of being recycled when the time comes.