It’s cheaper, greener, and more logical. But why isn’t circular fashion the norm yet?
By Claire Roussel
A circular fashion economy based is one that moves away from the typical linear fashion business model, where clothing is made, sold, then thrown away. Instead, circular fashion is the process of not only recycling and upcycling materials, but also of designing and producing garments with the intention of keeping them in a ‘circle’, where no clothing ends up wasted, ever. With circular fashion, products are either reused indefinitely or returned to nature if biodegradable. Of course, circular fashion also regenerates ecosystems and doesn’t pollute the environment.
In this sense, it can be considered to be the ultimate sustainable fashion system, and could revolutionise the industry. Recently, discussions about fashion’s social and environmental responsibilities have multiplied. And that’s a good thing: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that one truck of clothing is burned on landfills every second! Change needs to happen, and fast. So, given this fact, why isn’t circular fashion the norm yet?
Below, I investigate this subject.
Why isn’t circular fashion the norm yet?
Fashion is an industry rooted in unsustainable practices. And whether we like it or now, fashion’s leaders are the mega brands. Their supply chains are often extremely divided, opaque, and complex. These giant players of the industry and the powerful groups that own them are often not so keen about sharing information about their processes or their environmental impacts. As a result, they make it hard for us to consider tangible solutions.
This has been changing for a few years now, thanks to the shift in consumer behavior and activism from associations for the environment and workers’ rights. Famous luxury group Kering, for example, created an important sustainability hub inside their corporation and are actively collaborating with scientists to find sustainable solutions for fashion.
Still, completely transforming thousands of supply chains is a very complicated and expensive process. Another problem generated by fashion brands is greenwashing. This refers to the tendency to lie about or exaggerate a brand’s sustainability and to not acknowledge what needs to be improved. This confuses consumers, slowing down the discussion on the dysfunction of the fashion industry and making it harder for everyone to improve things for real.
In other words, there’s not going to be much demand for brands to change to a circular fashion model if consumers believe they are ‘green’ in other ways.
Consumers are more aware, but it’s still not enough
And speaking of fashion consumers….even though they are more aware and educated about sustainability than ever before, this isn’t enough. For example? The Circular Fashion Report 2020 found that 63% of Gen Z and Millenials are careful about a product being sustainable. Compared to the 2019 numbers (only 29%), this is massive progress. Still, these statistics indicate that 47% of young consumers are not interested in sustainable fashion. And that’s not even mentioning the older and often richer generations who are known to be less sensitive about these issues. If consumers don’t care why circular fashion isn’t the norm, why should brands?
To solve this issue, consumers can show their values and demand more transparency from the brands, be more vocal and spread their ideas. Consumers can also be educated by brands themselves, when they are more transparent about their practices and share their knowledge and difficulties with the public. This way, a larger amount of people will learn about and understand the fashion industry’s challenges, and will care more about solutions.
A lack of legislation
Governments and states have a very important role to play in making circular fashion the norm. Just as they have set ecological standards for corporations in many countries, governments could push for laws to help circular fashion initiatives.
The European Commission actually adopted a new Circular Economy Action plan earlier in 2020. The plan aims to reduce the EU’s consumption footprint, double its circular material use rate, and contribute to economic decarbonisation. The problem is that governments from European countries might not really apply these rules for budgetary or other reasons.
In any case, new legislation could still make a tangible difference. This can be executed with voting for people who will push circular political agendas, or by actions like protests, lobbying or online activism.
A complex technological challenge
The last – but perhaps the most important – reason why circular fashion isn’t the norm is related to technology. To achieve a circular fashion economy, we need massive scale technologies to be set up in order to recycle products. Even to design them to fit into circularity in the first place, we need such innovations applied on a global scale.
Thankfully, many tech start-ups are making wonderful progress towards circularity. The only way to make these sparse technologies more common is for big brands and fashion groups to finance research and development, and for governments and political forces to push legislation that will hold industries accountable for their waste.
How can we make circular fashion economy stronger?
Fashion industry members already started moving toward circularity, with 86 companies signing the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, representing 12.5% of the global fashion market. These companies are committing to focus on circular design, clothing collection and recycling. But whether they will reach the targets they have committed to is unsure.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy relies on:
- new business models that increase clothing use
- safe and renewable inputs
- solutions to turn old clothes into new ones.
We don’t need corporations to do that for us, necessarily.
For example, the first aspect can be achieved by empowering better clothing care, and encouraging the secondhand and rental markets. The Circular Fashion Report 2020 insists that it can be achieved through clothes swapping and take back programs, such as H&M’s, as well as on-demand manufacturing.
The second aspect requires more transparent supply chains and fashion houses being mindful of their materials. This could be by either using biodegradable resources, or by developing synthetic fibres that can be completely unwound and reused. For example, start-up Renewcell in Sweden recycles clothes by dissolving old cotton and viscose garments, turning them into Circulose®, a biodegradable raw material.
A circular fashion industry could amount to a 5.3 trillion dollar opportunity for companies engaging in it. This model clearly has huge potential, and could represent the future of fashion. A future where the industry thrives economically on a sustainable cycle that will be considered the norm.
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