Circular Fashion: Are Brands Stepping Up?

Circular Fashion

“The current discourse about circularity depicts a society that can continue to make, buy and discard as much fashion as it likes,” explained Kirsten Brodde, a Detox My Fashion campaigner at Greenpeace, to the Business of Fashion’s Jasmin Malik Chua. And in a piece published on the online platform earlier this week, Malik Chua highlights how despite hundreds of fashion and apparel brands pledging to commit to a circular system, on closer inspection their focus has tended to be on initiatives designed to make the disposal of unwanted clothing more efficient, rather than on those that also look to prolong the life of what we wear. 

The circular economy refers to a value ‘circle’ where products and materials are recovered, regenerated and reused, in contrast to the traditional linear or ‘make, use, dispose’ model, and in the twelve months since the Copenhagen Fashion Summit called for the world’s fashion companies to commit to implementing a circular system by 2020, 93 or 12 percent of the global apparel market have pledged their support. However, as Malik Chua writes, systemic changes to aid reduced consumption have been few and far between, with the support of many brands essentially translating into marketing campaigns or capsule collections featuring recycled materials.

According to a 2017 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, some 87 per cent of the 53 million tons of clothing produced globally each year is either incinerated or dumped into landfills, with many environmental campaigners blaming the growth of fast fashion for the soaring volumes of clothing waste. And while Zara owner Inditex, Gap Inc, Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, Hugo Boss and Target are each cited in Malik Chua’s article as companies that are taking steps to encourage customers to recycle used clothes, as well as investing in the development of recycled textiles, as Francois Souchet, head of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, notes, we can’t “recycle our way out of this situation.”

And indeed, questions have been raised about the efficiency as well as the environmental impact of so-called recycled materials. Regarding the former, a study released in February by the ClimateWorks Foundation and metrics firm Quantis casts doubt on how much fiber recapture and reuse alone can whittle down fashion’s sizeable carbon footprint - even if the apparel and footwear industry attains its ambitious goal of recycling 40 per cent of fibers by 2030, it will only cut emissions by 3 to 6 percent. And environmentally, polyester derived from castoff PET bottles for example, like its virgin counterpart, can not only contribute to microplastic pollution in our waterways, but liquefying the polymers at high temperatures — a necessary step in the recycling process - can, according to Annie Gullingsrud from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a non-profit that promotes sustainable manufacturing, also release off-gas antimony, a plastic catalyst and suspected carcinogen.

Key to stemming the tide of overconsumption and implementing a true circular system, according to Gullingsrud, is keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible, and thus cutting down on the use of virgin materials, and Malik Chua herself suggests that the industry could produce higher-quality garments that last longer, promote clothing repairs, and perhaps partner with outlets such as Poshmark, The RealReal and ThredUp, which have helped to make secondhand clothing an attractive and viable option. “We need to stop thinking about growth and speed and start thinking about extending the lifespan of clothing to slow down and limit our excessive wasting of precious natural resources,” said Brodde.

While some question whether the current action being taken by fashion companies in the name of circularity is actually making the industry less wasteful, others feel that trying to do better is enough for now. “Don't let perfection be the enemy of good enough,” Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at Global Fashion Agenda, is quoted as saying. “It takes time to develop things, especially things that are as all-encompassing as circularity, which needs the whole ecosystem to work.”

Read the full article on BoF here.

Related Reading:
Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2018
Eileen Fisher: Transforming Reclaimed Clothing Into Reworked Collectables