Make Well, Buy Well, Resell – Circular Fashion by Sasha Cohen, June 14 2018, 0 Comments

Imagine a world where there is no waste, where materials and products are used and circulate for as long as possible, in an environmentally safe, effective and just manner; where “waste” is a resource or nutrients for another process. Natural resources (like energy) are used effectively and environmental impact is prevented or minimized.

What is Circular Fashion?

In 2014, efforts by H&M and Dr. Anna Brismar, Founder of the Swedish consultancy Green Strategy, introduced the term Circular Fashion.

Circular fashion is a concept that builds on the idea of a circular economy. In a circular economy, economic activity builds and rebuilds overall system health, creating a “restorative economy”. In opposition to the “take, make, consume and dispose” model, the goal is to re-design the way our economy works - designing products that can be 'made to be made again' and powering the system with renewable energy. It stems from the idea that our systems should work like organisms, processing nutrients that can be fed back into the cycle. 

The scientific community has long understood that we live within a circular, feedback system. There are links and dependencies in our environment, more similar to a metabolism than a machine: complex, interlinked and unpredictable.

Circular fashion is based on sixteen key principles, addressing the entire life cycle of a product, from design and sourcing, to production, transportation, storage, marketing and sale, as well as the user phase and the product’s end of life. Circular Fashion also seeks to change the paradigm from owning a fashion item to renting it.

Natural fibers made from food waste like banana peels and stalks, pineapple leaves, and flax and hemp stalk can be woven into garments, and could offer around 250 million tons of fiber each year, meeting 2.5 times the current global demand for fiber. In the move away from chemical production and waste, and toward a more sustainable and less extractive means of sourcing and manufacturing, ocean-bound plastic waste is being transformed into wearable shoes and credit cards, and leather is being replaced with more sustainable alternatives grown from fermented collagen and mushroom roots.

People and organizations which have been particularly successful spreading this concept and its principles include Dame Ellen MacArthur (at Ellen MacArthur Foundation), Walter Stahel (at the Product Life Institute) and Michael Braungart and William McDonough (partly through the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute). My colleague at EcoPlum, Ciarra Wentzel, has written about the MacArthur Foundation, “Make Fashion Circular” Initiative.  This Initiative is part of a movement joined by similar groups such as the “2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment,” led by the Global Fashion Agenda, and the “Fashion Positive PLUS” initiative.

Why is it important?

“Over the past 15 years, clothing production has doubled, while the amount of time we wear [these] clothes before throwing them away – usually to be landfilled or incinerated – has fallen dramatically,” says Initiative founder Francois Souchet. 

In the 1930s the average American woman had 9 outfits; today she has 103 pieces of clothing, adding 64 pieces annually...and only really liking 10%.  Add to this that less than 1% of clothing is recycled.  Modern fashion has also created 52 mini seasons!

Circular Fashion aims to create an economy where clothes are never seen as waste via better design, new leasing and resale business models. Concurrent goals are to (1) eliminate waste and pollution and (2) ensure products & materials can be re-used. 

Secondary clothing markets like thrift stores (Salvation Army, Goodwill, etc.) are well known, giving clothing additional lives while supporting charitable causes, incentivizing the public with the carrot of a tax rebate.

Luxury brands are seen in consignment stores, with some brands creating their own secondary market.  Eileen Fisher Renew, previously “Green Eileen”, takes back their brand clothing & refurbishes the pieces as needed – dying to cover stains, mending and re-sewing (to re-purpose clothes which are beyond repair). Similarly, Patagonia offers to repair its items.

"For Days will take back your "funkified" (torn, stained, etc) T-shirts and recycle them into new ones, using a monthly subscription model (and helping to reduce the 80 pounds of textiles the average American throws out annually!). They plan to buy carbon offsets to make up for all the shipping back and forth, partnering with BP's Target Neutral program.

Many companies have found success renting fashion as opposed to selling it: “Online resale segment is outpacing all other categories, including fast fashion, signaling a shift in the ways consumers are approaching their consumption of clothes.” (Mario Abad, journalist)  Examples are Rent the Runway, thredUP, ReSale and Poshmark.

Opposition and Challenges

Looking critically at circular fashion, one may ask if this is just the newest buzzword in the world of sustainable fashion. Is circular fashion re-branded slow fashion?  (Slow fashion, a term introduced in 2013, denotes the effort to understand the process or origins of manufacture; how things are made, where products come from, how they're constructed and by whom.)

Is the consumer market ready to support circular fashion? "We've found that people are more motivated by a personal impact rather than environmental," explained Freya Williams, CEO of sustainability consultancy Futerra North America.  Unlike food and beauty products, [sustainable] fashion lags behind food and beauty because there's less of a personal investment.  It is easier for people to conceive of and be concerned about harm done to one’s health from food, cosmetics and personal care items.  We come into immediate contact with these items by eating or application on our skin or in our bodies.  It is more difficult to motivate people to consider the environmental harm they may be doing as a single actor within a larger interdependent system.

The secondary market for clothing has been challenged by national interests of foreign countries which have historically received our second-hand or excess clothing. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda have all taken steps to ban the donation of used or secondary clothing from the U.S.  The goal is to eliminate foreign imports which usually sell for less than locally-made goods and instead promote the domestic fashion industry, boosting local manufacturing and creating new jobs.

Does circular fashion force consumers to pay more for clothing?  The price points are usually higher than average, but many brands state that the garment quality is much higher and thus the item will last longer. Add to that repair service and the search is on for clientele who are not bent on following every trend, but who will pay a premium for responsibly manufactured and long-lasting fashion.

Lack of standardization or third-party verification is also a problem in the world of circular fashion. Many efforts are in-house.  B Corps certification and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition have tools to measure fashion sustainability. These established tools and methods can be building blocks to create systems to measure and evaluate the growing field of circular fashion.

What can you do?

As a conscious consumer, be aware of the social and environmental footprint of what you purchase; give your clothing a second (or third, or fourth!) life.  Choose brands that participate in the circular economy.

Stella McCartney was the first brand to sign up to the “Make Fashion Circular” Initiative which now includes Gap, Nike, Primark, Burberry and H&M.  H&M has set itself the target of only using recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030. 35% of their garments are currently produced this way. Eileen Fisher Renew and Patagonia continue to incorporate circular fashion in their business model, exploring best practices and using their recognized brands to develop this marketplace.

In 2018, 30 major corporations with collective annual revenues of $1.3 trillion joined a circular economy initiative launched by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).  The goal is to reinvent how business finds, uses and disposes of the materials that make up global trade; remove barriers that exist and create scalable solutions so  resources are used wisely, processes create the greatest possible value, and nothing is wasted.

Circular innovation will be used to help fulfill the Paris Agreement and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).  Members of the new WBCS initiative include Accenture, Arcadis, ArcelorMittal, BASF, BCG, BMW, CRH, Dow, DSM, Enel, ExxonMobil, EY, Honda, IFF, KPMG, Michelin, Navigant, Novartis, Philips, PWC, Rabobank, Renault, SABIC, Saint-Gobain, Solvay, Stora Enso, Veolia, Yara and Yokogawa.