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Pauline Op de Beeck, Art.3 "From linear to circular"

From last week’s article, we know that the complex environmental impacts of the apparel sector are entrenched in its current linear model. Fortunately, a lot of thinking has taken place on how this can be transformed to deal with the climate crisis. Namely, by moving away from a linear economy to a circular one.

The concept of circularity is in itself quite simple. Instead of making, using and disposing, we move to a circular system where waste simply does not exist. Regeneration rather than extraction. In this system, everything is designed and produced such that it can either be reused or recycled. Waste is removed from the economy and from our vocabulary[1]. Circularity is inherently less carbon-intensive than the current linear model.

This sounds fairly simple, logical even. And, to a certain extent, it is. Many have compared the principles of a circular economy, a new concept, to the principles by which previous generations lived by. It is only since the 20th century that companies have been producing more goods of lower quality, and in many cases built to be prematurely obsolete[2]. So, while much of the technology needed to re-engineer our economy towards circularity will require innovations that are under development or do not exist yet, the principles themselves have existed for hundreds of years. For the apparel sector, re-engineering to a circular economy will require a combination of structural changes and the development of new forms of consumer ownership. So what will this future look like?

Circular design

Circularity is in essence a design principle. Design in a circular economy is governed by the need to utilise a material in its best conditions for as long as possible[3]. For fashion this means:

  1. Designing for durability, so that clothing can be worn for a long time and by many;

  2. Using fibres that either already exist (i.e. recycled fibres) or natural fibres that come from regenerative agricultural systems that give back as much to the Earth as they take out;

  3. Sewing and assembling garments in an energy-efficient facility powered by renewable electricity, and

  4. Shipping through more efficient sea freight and even rail, as some production will have shifted closer to the point of sale and the sector’s slowing down will make faster air-freight less necessary.

Slow Fashion and new ownership models

Slower fashion means less seasons in a year, less consumption and more wears. If clothing breaks, brands will offer repair services, or we might even all learn to sew again like our grandparents did(!) This will extend the life of our garments. It will hopefully no longer be shameful to wear the same dress to five weddings in a row and post a picture of the same dress on Instagram. If we do buy something, we will wear it for longer, wash and dry it less, and then be able to resell it or lend it with ease.

Also, new ownership models will become the norm. Some consumers might stop purchasing clothing altogether and have subscriptions that allow them to switch out their wardrobe without having to purchase and discard their clothing. We might only rent garments for special occasions and no longer buy something to only wear once.

After a garment has been worn, lent, rented, fixed and resold many times over, we will be able to recycle it with the confidence that it will indeed become a new garment and not end up in landfill.

Is this realistic?

This may sound like a long way off. In some ways it is, because for this to work there will have to be a dramatic shift at a systemic level with a critical majority of consumers, brands and even governments participating.

But we are starting to see shifts towards a circular economy. Many large brands have circular economy and recycled content targets and are trialling rental and repair services. Today, many brands’ unique selling point already is that they build clothes to last, and they do not want you to buy their jacket more than once in a lifetime[4].

There is also a flurry of innovation and action in this sector. Chemical and mechanical recycling start-ups that can break down complex blends and spin these into new fibres are approaching scale[5]. Re-sale and peer-to-peer lending platforms are also gaining traction. Media and consumer engagement with the question of fashion sustainability is also at an all-time high[6]. Crucially, textiles are one of the four key sectors that the EU is focusing on in its European Green Deal. In fact, the proposed regulation centres on circularity[7]. These are all essential components of a circular economy and their development is very encouraging.

The road ahead

Two key catalysts are needed for these developments to transform into systemic change.

The first is collaboration. No brand, or even a collection of brands, can be circular in isolation. Circularity is a system and in order for systems to work they need a critical mass of players. This means that:

  1. innovation can scale, helping to finance energy efficiency and the switch to renewable energy in factories and bringing down the cost of recycled or recyclable materials;

  2. brands can work with governments to create the right regulation to develop recycling infrastructure and incentives to recycle, and

  3. systemic pressure can provide encouragement for enough consumers to recycle their clothing to develop sufficient stock of material to make new garments without further resource extraction.

The second element is financing[8]. All of these innovators need financial assistance to get to scale – there needs to be investment in recycling infrastructure so that enough clothing can be collected in the first place and there needs to be investment in factories and their processes. Brands also need to invest in training their employees in circular design thinking. We see these elements developing, but they will have to accelerate at an unprecedented pace in the next decade to keep this sector’s decarbonisation on track.

The road ahead is hopeful. So, what can we as consumers do today to keep our wardrobes sustainable and help change the system? Stay tuned for my next article and you’ll find out.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own as an individual.

[1] Ellen McArthur Foundation, Towards the Circular Economy, (2013) [2] BEUC, Factsheet Premature Obsolescence: When Products Fail too Quickly, (2018) [3] [4] [5] [6] Lyst, The 2020 Conscious Fashion Report, (2020) [7] European Commission, Circular Economy Action Plan: For a cleaner more competitive Europe, (2020) [8] Fashion for Good, BCG, Financing the Transformation in the Fashion Industry, (2020)


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