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Moving Towards a Circular Fashion Economy

When you toss out your old jeans, have you ever wondered what happens to them?

The average American citizen will throw away 81 pounds of clothing this year. That amounts to 26 billion pounds of textiles and clothes ending up in landfills — but it doesn’t have to.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Interestingly, we can note in the graph above that the growth in clothing sales has been much steeper than GDP indicating a slow down in inflation (garment pricing). The chase for cheaper price and accelerated cycles to increase the number of new fashion collections in a year, that are at the heart of the fast fashion model, have fostered over production and over consumption.

According to a fact sheet published by the  U.S Environmental Protection Agency, in 2014 85% of used clothes were not recycled even though nearly all of them could be. This is a direct result of the bad habits we have acquired with our way of consuming fashion. It also highlights the impact of the linear fashion model.

Impact of Fast Fashion industry

Fast fashion is a modern-day phenomenon. It follows a “take-make-dispose” pattern, and enables companies to mass-market, manufacturers to mass-produce, and consumers to purchase the latest trends for cheap. Sounds like a win-win until we consider true cost. Textile production has become one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year. To keep up with this level of consumerism, natural resources are put on substantial pressure, causing high levels of pollution; including the use of toxic chemicals, dangerous dyes, and synthetics fibers seeping into water supplies and in our ocean. Over 60% of textiles used in the clothing industry are made in China and India, where coal-fueled power plants increase the carbon footprint of each garment.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The linear “take-make-dispose” model relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy, which is becoming more and more unfit for the reality in which it operates. While fast fashion is big business, it is killing the planet, and it is important to reconsider the fashion industry model and our purchasing habits.

What is Circular Fashion?

A circular fashion industry is defined as a regenerative system in which garments are circulated for as long as their maximum value is retained, and then returned safely to the biosphere when they are no longer of use.

In a circular model, products are designed and developed with the next use in mind. Less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothing. The best thing we can do is buy less and reuse more. If everyone bought just one used item instead of new this year, it would have a huge collective and positive impact on the planet.

Circular economy system

In simple words, fashion products should be designed with the notion of resource efficiency, non-toxicity, biodegradability, and recyclability in mind. They should also be sourced and produced with priority given to recyclable sources and ethical practices.

When the products are not suitable for recycling, the material should be biodegradable and used as compost for plants and other organisms in the ecosystem.

The ultimate goal of circular fashion is that the lifecycle of products should bring no socio-economic or environmental harm.

Principles of Circular Fashion Economy

Green Strategy, an innovation-driven and research-based consultancy firm specialising in sustainability and circularity issues of the fashion industry, has identified sixteen key principles to support and promote a more circular and sustainable fashion, apparel and textile industry:

  1. 1. Design with a purpose
  2. 2. Design for longevity
  3. 3. Design for resource efficiency
  4. 4. Design for biodegradability
  5. 5. Design for recyclability
  6. 6. Source and produce locally
  7. 7. Source and produce without toxicity
  8. 8. Source and produce with efficiency
  9. 9. Source and produce with renewables
  10. 10. Source and produce with good ethics
  11. 11. Provide services to support longer life
  12. 12. Reuse, recycle or compost all remains
  13. 13. Collaborate well and widely

The first 13 principles are defined from a producer’s perspective, and the other three are relevant to the consumer’s perspective.

  1. 14. Use, wash and repair with care
  2. 15. Consider loan, rent, swap or redesign instead of buying new
  3. 16. Buy quality as opposed to quantity

The Circular Fashion Economy wheel

Circular Fashion Wheel

The eco-friendly nature of circular fashion can be easily explained taking a look at the circular fashion wheel. With circular fashion, products should last in the ecosystem for as long as possible with no significant waste. The fashion products should be made with minimal and environmental-friendly resources and should be reused or recycled into a new product so that it keeps flowing through the wheel.

Here’s how the steps of the circular fashion wheel go around:

  • – The designers create and source products with low impact materials and a proper purpose.
  • – Products are transported in ways which have low carbon footprint and are then sold or are given for lease to reuse, redesign or repair.
  • – If there is an end for product, it is disposed or recycled in an environmentally friendly way.

Advantages of Circular Fashion Economy

The four key advantages of circular fashion include:

  • – Reduced dependency on imported raw materials.
  • – Creation of eco-friendly industries and jobs.
  • – Eco-friendly brands benefit from a better public image.
  • – Reduction in environmental damage caused by resource extraction.

Limitations of non-linear fashion

While we saw several advantages in a circular fashion model, there are some limitations in this cycle as well:

  • – Dependency on the consumers’ actions.
  • – Creating a new business model on the basis of recycled goods is tough.
  • – The entire cycle requires integrating product life cycle from raw material to disposal.

Brands embracing Circular Fashion

Not only independent or eco-friendly clothing brands are embracing circular fashion economy. Big players are also acting; on January 2018, 64 of the world’s leading fashion companies such as Adidas or Inditex signed a commitment to accelerate the transition to a circular business model.


To set a direction for this transition, the companies committed to improve four immediate action points:

  • – Implementing design strategies for cyclability.
  • – Increasing the volume of used garments and footwear collected.
  • – Increasing the volume of used garments and footwear resold.
  • – Increasing the share of garments and footwear made from recycled post-consumer textile fibers.

For example Adidas decided to tackle the issue of materials through progressively implementing a 3 Steps Loop Strategy, whereby Step 1 is using recycled materials, Step 2 is making those recycled materials part of a loop that you can use over and over again, and Step 3 is to bio-fabricate or engineer the materials of the future so when they come out of the loop they are biodegrable and can go straight back to nature without harming it. 

James Carnes, Adidas’ VP of Brand Strategy and Sustainability talks about how sustainability has shaped Adidas in the last few years; explains their materials 3 Steps Loop Strategy, and how they value partnerships and collaboration for innovation with their ecosystem.


Inditex (owner of Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull and Bear and Stradivarius) pledged that by 2020 its 2000 stores will partner with local organisations to redistribute and recycle garments.

Smaller brands like Rapanui Clothing are using the “cradle to cradle approach” that consists in encouraging their customers to send back their used Rapanui products to recycle, reuse or remanufacture them.

This also implies that companies will need to invest more and more on training industry experts on sustainability in fashion

Is Circular Fashion just another trend?

In May 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Make Fashion Circular initiative. The main goal of this initiative is to foster collaboration among the leaders of the textile industry, brands, innovators and stakeholders to move towards a circular fashion economy.

According to this initiative, the entire fashion industry needs to re-design its operating model. As the industry transforms into a circular system, it will be able to unlock various economic opportunities.

However, this transformation is not possible with a single brand or individual. To actually make fashion circular, businesses, governments, citizens, and innovators have to join forces.  Make Fashion Circular initiative has already brought many industry leaders together including GAP, Burberry, H&M, Nike, and Stella McCartney.

The Make Fashion Circular initiative is yet another signal that circular fashion is not just a trend, but a shift in the industry

The importance of Circular Fashion for the planet and the industry

With the global population set to reach nine billion people by 2030, nature will struggle to meet human demands like never before. The goal of circular fashion is to ensure that clothes are made from safe and renewable materials, new business models increase their use, and old clothes are turned into new. We want to evolve the apparel industry to a future where every material is used and reused safely, where ecosystems are protected and where people are provided with dignified work. This is the philosophy of circular fashion, and the why it is critically important.

Clothes are an external expression of our personalities, while the importance of choice should not be overlooked, we should be more mindful of how many we truly need and where they come from. 

As a professional in the industry, play your part in the Circular Fashion movement by upgrading your skills. Join the self-paced Motif’s Sustainability in Fashion Course.

Sustainability: Concepts, Practices and Applications for Fashion

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