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How to attain circular economy in fashion industry?

The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry (after the oil industry). This is due to the high water footprint, land footprint, high use of fertilizers and pesticides. The industry is also responsible for 10% of the global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide due to its long supply chains and energy-intensive production. As the population grew consumerism has created a mass market for cheap apparel where products are perceived and treated as disposable. This has given birth to the notion of ‘fast fashion’, which represents low-quality products that are mass-produced for easy consumption. A staggering 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed each year which represents an increase of 400% from the 1990s.

Understandably, fast fashion leads to mountains of wastes. On average, consumers throw away (versus recycling) 31 kg of shoes and clothing per person every year. These items end up in landfills where 95% of the textiles could be recycled. When people donate the clothes to charity or thrift stores only 10% of it gets sold. The rest again ends up in landfills. According to EPA, landfills received 11.2 million tons of textiles in 2017 which was 8% of all landfilled textiles.

What does the future of fashion look like?

The fashion industry has a growth rate of 4-5% every year and is projected to reach $3.3 trillion in 2030. This creates a huge challenge for the industry that is chasing sustainability. It is reported that the industry’s sustainability efforts are already stalling as it keeps increasing in size. Therefore, the only way the industry can address the environmental catastrophe is by slowing growth which also comes down to the consumers. Models of the circular economy have worked for the industry, but no amount of reusing or recycling can offset the continuous growth of the industry as it stands. According to the Ellen McArthur Foundation, 87% of the produced fashion goods will go on to be landfilled or incinerated. For example, in 2018, H&M alone had $4.3 billion in unsold products which shows the issue to waste within the industry.

What is Circular Fashion?

In the fashion industry, the concept of a circular economy is usually achieved by designing long-lasting, timeless pieces and many “RE-s:” repair, reuse, recycle, refurbish to extend the lifetime of an item. In such a system high-quality, affordable and individualised clothing is produced versus the low-quality of fast fashion. The current mentality of the business world is a linear which represents a ‘take, make, dispose’ model. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation talks about how a circular model would be ‘restorative and regenerative by design and aim to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times’. The idea is to keep products indefinitely and effectively cycled through a connected loop within and across industries transparently and economically.

Figure 1 An illustration of the circular fashion industry.

Figure 1 illustrates a simple model of how circular fashion works. After the products are used, they are returned to be re-worn, reused or recycled. They start a new cycle of utilisation and their value is not decreased to zero. On the other hand, Figure 2 illustrates the current linear clothing system where are one use the products are thrown into landfills. This system also leads to high environmental degradation as discussed above.

Figure 2 A representation of how the current linear clothing system functions.

What are the Principles of Circular Fashion?

Green Strategy, a research-based consultancy firm has identified sixteen key principles to promote a more circular and sustainable fashion industry. These principles can be used by any brand to make it more circular and sustainable. These are:

1. Design with a purpose

2. Design for longevity

3. Design for resource efficiency

4. Design for biodegradability

5. Design for recyclability

6. Source and produce locally

7. Source and produce without toxicity

8. Source and produce with efficiency

9. Source and produce with renewables

10. Source and produce with good ethics

11. Provide services to support longer life

12. Reuse, recycle or compost all remains

13. Collaborate well and widely

14. Use, wash and repair with care

15. Consider loan, rent, swap or redesign instead of buying new

16. Buy quality as opposed to quantity

How has Circular Fashion worked in the past?

H&M Drop Off and Looop:

H&M has gathered more than 32,000 tons of garments through its garment collective initiative, which was launched in 2013, to give them a new life. This is equivalent to more fabric than in 100 million t-shirts. In this initiative, the consumers drop off their old garments in the stores which are collected and sorted into three categories: re-wear (clothing that can be worn again to sold second-hand), reuse (old clothes and textiles to be turned into other products, such as cleaning cloths) and recycle (everything else, to be turned into textile fibres). Their ultimate goal is to find a technological solution which can fully reuse and recycle all donated textile fibre. The next step into achieving this goal is their recently developed machine, Looop. They have designed a machine which disassembles old clothes put in it by customers, shreds it into fibres that are then used to create new clothing. Figure 3 shows the Looop machine which does not use any water or chemicals, thus reducing the environmental impact when producing new garments from scratch. The Looop machine began its first program on Monday (12/10/2020) in Stockholm. H&M aims to have all materials to be either recycled or sourced sustainably by 2030. Last year that figure was at 57%.

Figure 3 The Looop machine dissembles old clothing, shreds it and turns it into new clothing.

Vestiaire Collective:

After closing its second round of funding in early April the start-up has raised more than €209 million in total. Vestiaire Collective is a marketplace of pre-owned fashion items where users can both buy and sell clothes and accessories. The start-up now has about 9 million members across 90 countries. Their model of circular economy has proved to be successful because as the pandemic arrived more people were looking into online platforms to shop. With the sustainability motto of the company, a lot of people prefer to shop with such companies over the more mainstream giants. Another aspect of the company that proved to be a successful model was direct shipping. Customers instead of shipping everything to their warehouses were allowed to ship directly to each other. The direct shipping model was experimented in Europe but due to its success in the last year, the U.S. and Asia are likely to direct shipping as well.

Figure 4 Vestiaire Collective portraying the ideology behind their brand.

The RealReal:

The RealReal is the world’s largest online marketplace for authenticated, consigned luxury goods. They aim to give life to luxury goods and keep them circulating in the economy. They have shown incredible dedication to circular fashion and sustainability. The brand has also announced that they will be carbon neutral in 2021. They are committed to accounting for, reducing and offsetting all emissions associated with the business. At the beginning of October, the company announced its partnership with Gucci to launch an online shop where Gucci items would be bought and sold to promote circularity for luxury fashion. They are also working with One Tree Plant to plant a tree for all Gucci purchases made through the online shop.

Figure 5 The RealReal x Gucci launch circular economy partnership


thredUP is the world’s largest online thrift shop where people can buy and sell high-quality second-hand clothes. Their mission is to inspire a new generation of consumers to think second-hand first, circulating the clothing items in the economy. The company is known for its use of AI to bring efficiencies and scale to every area of its operations. For example, they have used AI for sorting clothes and pricing them efficiently at scale. In 2018, the company upcycled 576,000 fast fashion items.

Everlane’s ReNew Line:

As plastic pollution has become a major concern many companies have come up with innovative ways to recycle plastic and make clothing items from them. Everlane, which is known for its “radical transparency”, had started a new sustainable material called ReNew. ReNew is a fleece made from recycled plastic bottles. The brand had also announced to replace all materials with recycled plastic bottles and renewed materials by 2021.

Figure 6 Everlane’s ReNew collection made from recycled plastic bottles.

Adidas x Parley:

In 2015, Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans, a non-profit organization set to remove and recycle waste from the ocean, to make a sneaker that was made entirely from recycled ocean waste and illegal deep-sea gill nets. They had brought out another shoe called Parley x Adidas Ultra Boost which became more popular and available to the public compared to the previous version. It is estimated that each pair of shoes used the equivalent of 11 plastic bottles, suggesting that Adidas had recycled about 55 million plastic bottles in a year.

Figure 7 Adidas X Parley shoes made from recycled ocean waste.

Stella McCartney – Re.Verso:

Stella McCartney has always pushed the boundaries of sustainability within the industry. Their most impressive undertaking is brand Re.Verso. A recycled cashmere made from post-factory cashmere waste in Italy. It is the first and only platform which uses recycled cashmere materials for fashion. Their method to use this cashmere has reduced the environmental impact by 95% of the traditional cashmere production. Their other sustainability projects include fibres from forests, fur-free-fur, recycled nylon and polyester and vegan leather.  

Figure 8 Stella McCartney’s Re.Verso collection made from recycled cashmere.

Over the years, many other brands have developed different forms of circular fashion models in companies. For example, Allbirds’ Sugar Zeffer flip flops, Reebok’s Cotton + Corn sneaker, Reformation’s recycled lace collection, Aday’s SeaCell (fibres made from seaweed), Salvatore Ferragamo’s orange fibre and Hugo Boss’ pineapple leather.

The fashion industry has many more examples of similar efforts towards promotion of circular fashion but by large, it remains one of the most polluting industries on the planet. The industry’s main problem is waste and the solution is to reduce the production of clothes and establish circular models throughout the industry. Understanding the consumer demands and predicting it is very important to avoid unsold products. As illustrated, there is plenty of inspiration within the industry for circular fashion which can be adopted by other brands. It is estimated that about 40% of the fashion companies have not even begun to consider sustainability and circular models. And of the remaining 60%, it is the small companies which are making a difference. The big giants of the industry are yet to consider circular fashion. This limits the growth of the circular fashion ideology despite its effectiveness. But when both the principles of reduction in production and circular fashion are applied on a large scale, the unsold waste generation and the waste generated by the consumers is reduced significantly.


Published by Pranshu Patel

I am an ambitious environmental science graduate who is passionate about climate change and decarbonisation. I enjoy researching and writing about sustainability and climate change.

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