From Waste to Wardrobe: Circular Economy in the Fashion Industry

Textiles and clothing are a fundamental part of everyday life and an important sector in the global economy. Each year millions of tonnes of clothes are produced, worn, and thrown away. Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. The fashion industry is one of the major contributors of plastic microfibres entering our oceans. Without doubt, clothing represents a basic human need. It is therefore understandable that the consumption of apparel has grown massively with population growth and human development. As such, the per-capita consumption of textile fibres as the main constituent of apparel has increased from 5.9 kg/capita in 1970 to 13.0 kg/capita in 2020. This growth is particularly exorbitant for fibres based on synthetic polymers, which are not sustainable per se, when produced from fossil resources. If this growth continues, the production volume will have doubled by 2032 compared to 2020, and in 2039 it will even break through the 200 million tonnes mark. The massive increase in per-capita consumption in mature markets in recent years is mainly due to the fast fashion business model. Fast fashion refers to a business model in the fashion industry characterized by the rapid production of inexpensive, trendy clothing that quickly responds to current fashion trends. This approach emphasizes quick turnover of designs, enabling retailers to bring new styles to market rapidly and at affordable prices. Fast fashion brands often prioritize speed and low-cost production, leading to shorter production cycles and a constant influx of new collections. While this model allows consumers to stay on top of the latest trends inexpensively, it has significant environmental and ethical implications. Fast fashion is associated with increased resource consumption, environmental pollution, and labor exploitation, as it encourages a culture of disposability and rapid turnover in clothing. Together, brands, mills and manufacturers from high street to luxury retailers have proven that circular design for fashion can become the norm. This deep dive explores how the principles of the circular economy can be applied to the fashion industry, beginning by covering why the fashion industry of today is not fit for purpose. Now, we must not only redesign the products of the future, but also transform the systems that deliver them and keep them in use. Dismantling the Threads: Unraveling the Flaws in Our Clothing System In a blink, another truckload of clothing meets its demise, either buried in landfills or engulfed in flames. The current clothing system operates on a linear trajectory, extracting copious nonrenewable resources to birth garments with fleeting lifespans. Often, these fashion creations enjoy a mere moment in the spotlight before succumbing to the ignominious fate of landfill or incineration. Shockingly, over half of the fast fashion frenzy faces disposal within a paltry year. This linear paradigm not only squanders economic opportunities but also exerts undue strain on resources, leaving an indelible mark on the environment and its delicate ecosystems. The repercussions echo far and wide, manifesting in pollution, degradation, and a plethora of societal woes at the local, regional, and global levels. The time has come to untangle the knots of this unsustainable system, weaving a new narrative that embraces circularity, sustainability, and a fashion ethos that transcends the transience of trends. In the dynamic landscape of the fashion industry, a glaring issue takes center stage: the massive underutilization of clothing. While certain low-income countries witness a commendable rate of clothing utilization, the narrative shifts elsewhere. Take the United States, for instance, where garments are donned for a mere quarter of the global average. Astonishingly, on a global scale, customers forfeit a staggering USD 460 billion worth of value annually by prematurely discarding clothes that still have a journey ahead. Some garments face abandonment after a meager seven to ten wears, painting a vivid picture of a wasteful trend that calls for a transformative shift in our approach to fashion consumption. An immense footprint The textiles industry casts an enormous ecological footprint, devouring a staggering 98 million tonnes of non-renewable resources annually. From oil powering synthetic fiber production to fertilizers nurturing cotton growth, and a chemical symphony for dyeing and finishing, the industry's voracious appetite for materials intensifies environmental strain. In a wasteful, linear system marked by minimal recycling, this colossal demand for resources perpetuates an ever-expanding problem. The industry's environmental impact transcends the consumption of raw materials, painting a stark picture of unsustainable practices and the urgent need for a paradigm shift. Catastrophic potential In the looming shadows of environmental peril, the fashion industry stands at a crossroads. If the current trajectory persists, a staggering 26% of the carbon budget linked to a 2C global warming limit could be devoured by this insatiable giant by 2050. The urgency to avert this catastrophe is crystal clear – breaking free from the shackles of the prevailing linear and wasteful textiles system is not just a choice; it's an imperative stride to safeguard the attainability of the 2C average global warming limit. The time to redefine our fashion narrative is now, as we stand on the brink of a pivotal environmental showdown. The vision of a circular economy for fashion Fashion's future lies in transformative business models—ones that restore and regenerate. Imagine a circular economy where clothes and textiles maintain peak value, never becoming waste, but seamlessly re-entering the cycle after use. It's more than just sustainable; it's an all-encompassing vision that benefits businesses, society, and the environment. The allure of a fashion industry that perpetually works, leaving no room for waste, is undeniable. Imagine a fashion system with these game-changing features: Accessible Style for Everyone: • High-quality, personalized clothing is within reach for all. • New business models offer flexibility and affordability beyond traditional sales. • Clothes are designed to be durable, versatile, and tailored to individual preferences. Maximizing Clothing Value: • A circular fashion economy extends the lifespan of clothes. • Value is fully captured by using clothes more frequently. • Recycling processes ensure materials retain value, aligning with today's capabilities. Renewable-Powered Fashion: • Fueled by renewable energy, a circular fashion economy boosts resilience and reduces resource dependence. • Utilizes renewable resources where input is necessary, from feedstock for plastic fibers to eco-friendly farming practices. • Embraces a shift to renewables, ensuring lower energy consumption and resource usage. True Cost Transparency: • Prices in a circular fashion economy reflect the comprehensive costs of production, including environmental and societal impacts. • Thorough analysis and reporting of costs precede transparent reflection in product prices. Nature-Regenerating, Environment-Friendly: • Extracts renewable resources through regenerative methods, rebuilding natural capital. • Prioritizes regenerative agriculture for biological inputs like cotton and sustainable forestry for wood-based fibers. • Ensures no leakage of harmful substances into the environment, preventing risks to workers and users. • Mitigates pollution, including the release of plastic microfibers, and designs out greenhouse gas emissions. Distributive Design for Thriving Ecosystem: • A circular fashion economy fosters inclusive growth, creating opportunities for enterprises of all sizes. • Retains and circulates value within the system, enabling businesses and employees to fully participate in the broader economy. • Promotes overall system health through a distributive design. A circular fashion economy offers a sustainable, inclusive, and regenerative path forward. It transforms the industry, aligning fashion with renewable energy, transparent pricing, and nature regeneration. This shift not only mitigates environmental impact but also fosters a thriving ecosystem of enterprises. It's a call to create a future where style is synonymous with sustainability and responsible choices.

Textiles and clothing are a fundamental part of everyday life and an important sector in the global economy. Each year millions of tonnes of clothes are produced, worn, and thrown away. Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. The fashion industry is one of the […]