Using Circular Economy to design products and businesses that benefit both people and our planet. Alexandra Reece investigates.
Clothes are a fundamental part of our everyday life, used by many as a form of self-expression, but clothes are also killing our planet. In the current linear textiles economy, total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production amount to 1.2 billion tonnes annually, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined (1). The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent ‘Fixing Fashion’ report has brought the idea of a need for systemic change in the fashion industry to the mainstream. A new economic model is necessary for fashion to end an era of clothing sales that are focused on profit maximisation only rather than environmental and social empowerment (2). The circular economy design might be the answer.
Major problems exist with the current textiles and fashion system. Over the last 15 years production rates have doubled to quench consumers’ thirst for the latest trends (1). Around 300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in UK household black bins every year, which is sent to landfill or incinerated (2). Low rates of recycling (less than 1% of materials used) spell disaster for the environment, society, and economy.
While retail giants, such as H&M with their in-store collection boxes, would have you believe that your old donated clothes are turned into new garments, the reality is not that simple. Most donated items are not transformed into new pieces of clothing but are resold. Donated clothes are often sold to countries in Africa and Central and South America, flooding their economies with second-hand goods and stunting their domestic textile industries (3) (CBC News, 2018). Only an average of 13% of total material input is actually recycled after clothing use, most of which is transformed into lower-use applications which are difficult to recapture after use (1).
According to the Government agency WRAP, approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at design stage (4). There is need for a textile system that delivers better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes by looking at increasing opportunities for reuse, repair, and reduction of virgin materials. The circular economy could do just that.
The linear economy refers to the system of ‘make, use, dispose’ that exists in the fashion industry today. Large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are used for a short period of time and often end up in landfill or incineration after use. Landfilling clothing and household textiles costs the UK economy around £82 million every year1. Disposal isn’t cheap but it is a reality of the current system.
Image: A new textiles economy by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
A circular economy offers an alternative approach in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life (4). In a circular economy clothes, fabric and fibres are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy after use, never ending up as waste. By regenerating capital, designing out pollution and using renewable resources the circular economy could capture $500 billion annually (1).
There are 3 principles of the circular economy: Design out waste and pollution; Keep products and materials in use; Regenerate natural systems (avoids using non-renewable resources and energy).
Creating this new textiles economy requires several stages (1):
- Phase out substances of concern and microfibres release.
- Transform the way clothes are designed, sold and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature by scaling up clothing rental schemes, making durability more attractive, and increasing clothing utilisation.
- Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing (5).
- Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs.
Designers can contribute to this thinking through the design concept of ‘Cradle to Cradle’. Cradle to Cradle is inspired by nature where products are created according to the principles of an ideal circular economy. The concept distinguishes between the biological and technological cycles of materials (6). In Cradle to Cradle design the value chain is viewed from raw materials to the remanufacture of the product with the aim of keeping materials in circulation.
Another way in which designers can think about the importance of circular economy design is through the Doughnut Economy. Doughnut Economy principles show that between social and planetary boundaries lies an environmentally safe and socially just space where humanity can thrive (7). It aims to change the idea that progress can be measured with growth and instead suggests progress is when there is a balance between using resources to meet our rights and protecting the planet’s resources (8).
The shift to a circular economy requires innovative business models to replace existing ones and to seize new opportunities. Leading companies, including Bestseller, H&M, Kering and Inditex, have signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment (9). This is an encouraging step by brand leaders who will likely play a big role in systemic change. Developing a profitable and popular circular economy requires innovators and entrepreneurs to lead the way and encourage others to adopt circular economies.
Businesses are naturally placed to play a key role in the transition from a linear to a circular economy. After all, brands and retailers are the ones who design and sell clothing and can drive change through influencing purchasing behaviour. Below is a list of just some of these innovators who are adopting circular economy principles.
RubyMoon showcases how it is possible to reduce the need for non-renewable inputs by choosing sustainable materials to create quality swimwear – ECONYL® nylon yarn from used fishing nets and other regenerated material. As a committed partner to healthyseas.org we collect ‘ghost’ nets, which make up 48% of the waste deposited at the great Pacific Garbage Patch. The fabric RubyMoon uses has been developed with the circular economy in mind to last longer, be stronger and more resistant to chlorine, salt, sun and sea water because the greatest environmental and economic impact consumers can make is to prolong the life of their garments. RubyMoon are dedicated to the full circular economy and also reclaim used swimwear and other stretch fabrics to reuse.
Christopher Raeburn is a designer who is pioneering the reworking of surplus fabrics and clothing to create distinctive and functional garments. Items are ‘RÆMADE’, reworking surplus materials and products into new limited edition designs. The brand aims to make sure waste is ‘RÆDUCED’ by reworking surplus materials and pre-existing materials are ‘RÆCYCLED’ and green technologies harnessed in the production process.
Slow RePurpose’s mission is to make fashion circular by repurposing old garments into new personalised clothes. Rather than binning or recycling clothing, Slow RePurpose offers consumers the opportunity to upcycle by turning their unwanted garments into new pieces.
American in origin, thredUP is a great example of engaging in the new economic opportunities the circular economy presents. Through selling second-hand online in curated collections, thredUP seeks to inspire a new generation to think secondhand first and transform the way people think about secondhand to make it a convenient and fashionable way to shop. It won’t cost the earth with items featured on the site up to 90% less than their original retail price, and its contribution to reducing the use of finite resources on the planet by lengthening the life of clothing.
Style Lend is another American company that shows people they have the ability to make a positive impact on the world by consuming fashion in a different way. The business is an online platform where women can share their style by choosing to rent unique designer items. You can get paid for leasing items from your wardrobe. The platform recognises that trend-driven or seasonal pieces could greatly benefit from renting10 and is aimed at women looking for outfits for a special occasion, providing a way for them to be fashionable without wasting resources on a one-off outfit.
SuperLooper offers Brighton parents who want to cut down on maternity and baby clothing waste, simple and workable ways to live a more sustainable life. The company seeks to extend the useful life of the estimated 183 million pieces of outgrown baby clothing stored in UK homes11. Parents can rent maternity and baby garments for as long as they are needed and then give them back to be cleaned and prepared for the next baby, while receiving a garment the next size up.
MUD Jeans is pioneering a lease model for organic cotton jeans. In the EU only around 25% of textiles are recovered each year (12). A reliable way of retaining control of materials is to lease jeans rather than selling them. Customers can lease MUD Jeans for €7.50 a month then after 1 year have the choice of swapping the jeans for a new pair, keeping the jeans, or ending the lease by returning the jeans and receiving a voucher for a new purchase. Free repairs are included in the offering and there are incentives for return. The lease model demonstrates to big fashion business that cycling clothing is possible and profitable to the business.
Collaboration is key to changing the system (10). It’s necessary to use our consumer power to ‘vote’ for change, reward the businesses that are making a difference and making sure we are not complicit in the problem of 235 million clothing items being sent to landfill each year in the UK (13). Here are some tips to help you make a difference:
- Support businesses that have already adopted circular economy principles:
- Be an active consumer and create growth in companies that are working to a circular economy model by using your consumer power as a vote for change.
- Stimulate demand for recycled materials by buying from businesses that use recycled, such as RubyMoon. Using recycled means not adding to resource scarcity and pollution levels.
- Talk about the success of the circular model. Positive stories can reinforce positive impact and ensure wide promotion of the vision of a circular economy.
- Reframe what consumption means to you and the way you participate in the fashion system:
- Consider whether you need to buy a new outfit for the next occasion.
- Buy secondhand rather than brand new and create a more individual style.
- Increase clothing utilisation. When making a purchase always think about how often you are likely to wear the garment.
- See how clothing rental could work for you. Could you live with renting your jeans for a year? Do you require a new dress for a one-off occasion? Is your baby quickly outgrowing clothes?
- Go to a clothes swap and refresh your wardrobe without spending money, and give your old items a new lease of life. By keeping clothing in the loop, clothes swaps enable you to be a conscious consumer without the price tag of new sustainably and ethically made clothing. Check out Revival Collective to find out about clothes swap events going on in Brighton.
- Reduce, reuse and recycle:
- The most sustainable garment is the one we already own and repairing and reusing what we have is preferable to discarding clothes (2).
- Buy quality. Something that will last longer and fits better is much more likely to remain a part of your wardrobe in the long term.
- Re-purpose clothes instead of recycling or discarding them. Companies such as Slow-Repurpose can do the alterations on your behalf to personalise an old item of clothing for you.
- To reduce leakage of materials out of the system at the recycling stage, try to buy clothing that is not made from mixed fabrics.
- Recycling is a very important component of closing the loop to create a circular economy. Get involved in petitions and lobbying to improve recycling systems to keep more of the value of end-of-life products. There are lots to be optimistic about here. If the 1p charge per garment for producers is implemented, as suggested in the recent Fixing Fashion report, then £35 million a year could be raised to invest in improving recycling facilities (2).
Fashion is a form of self-expression. Through it you have the ability to express your way of thinking about the world and the importance of a more socially, economically and environmentally just future economy. Think about what you could do for the circular economy and what the circular economy could do for you.
- Ellen McArthur Foundation (EMF) (2017) ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ Ellen McArthur Foundation https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report.pdf
- Environmental Audit Committee (2019) ‘Fixing Fashion: Clothing Consumption and Sustainability’ UK Parliament https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmenvaud/1952/1952.pdf
- CBC News (2018) ‘What really happens to old clothes dropped in those in-store recycling bins’ https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/clothes-recycling-marketplace-1.4493490
- WRAP (2019) ‘WRAP and the circular economy’ http://www.wrap.org.uk/about-us/about/wrap-and-circular-economy
- Circle Economy (2019) ‘Making sense of the circular economy – The 7 key elements’ https://www.circle-economy.com/the-7-key-elements-of-the-circular-economy
- EPEA (2019) ‘Cradle to Cradle’ https://epea-hamburg.com/cradle-to-cradle/
- Raworth, K. (2017) ‘Exploring Doughnut Economics: What on Earth is the Doughnut?’ https://www.kateraworth.com/doughnut/
- Raworth, K. (2014) ‘Why it’s time for Doughnut Economics’ TEDx Talks, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=1BHOflzxPjI
- Fashion United (2018) ’64 Brands set 143 Targets for a Circular Fashion Future’ https://fashionunited.uk/news/business/64-brands-set-143-targets-for-a-circular-fashion-future/2018011827747
- Business of Fashion (2018) ‘How can fashion embrace the circular economy?’ https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/voices/how-can-fashion-embrace-the-circular-economy
- Jones-Hughes, C. (2018) ‘Can we reduce waste in baby clothing? YES WE CAN!! Introducing SuperLooper’ http://www.brightonmums.com/can-reduce-waste-baby-clothing-yes-can/
- Ellen McArthur Foundation (EMF) (2019) ‘MUD Jeans: Pioneering a lease model for organic cotton jeans’ https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/pioneering-a-lease-model-for-organic-cotton-jeans
- The Guardian (2017) ‘Britons expected to send 235m items of clothing to landfill this spring’ https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/06/britons-expected-to-send-235m-items-of-clothing-to-landfill-this-spring