The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Can circular fashion help change this? What is circular fashion, anyway? And how does it work? It’s difficult to imagine the effects of our fashion choices on people and ecologies in other countries, but we need to fully understand the impacts of our choices on the environment.
- The Changes Brought by Fast Fashion
- How Fashion Became the Bad Guy
- What is Circular Fashion?
- Principles of Circular Fashion Design
- 1 // Is the garment long-lasting and of good quality? It needs to last for years to come.
- 2 // Is the style classic and non-trendy?
- 3 // Are the materials sustainably sourced?
- 4 // Can the garments be reused or repurposed in order to continue being in use?
- 5 // Is the manufacturing process fair trade?
- 6 // Are the factories eco-friendly?
- Circular Fashion Certification
- Environmental Benefits of Circular Fashion
- Circular Fashion and Fair Trade Fashion
- What Does Circular Fashion Mean for Us Consumers?
The Changes Brought by Fast Fashion
What is fast fashion? This term has been mentioned on this site numerous times, without actually delving into what it is. Fast fashion is fashion that’s cheap, trendy and disposable. Sounds good, right? Nope! Look closer, and you will notice some very disturbing aspects:
1 // Cheap Clothing
For one thing, clothes are much cheaper than before. This means there’s a lot of cutting corners throughout the production of those items of clothing. Workers are paid less, safety aspects are not followed strictly, material quality is compromised, environmental regulations are not considered, local laws are probably broken. It costs money to make something of good quality. And if the clothing item is really cheap, then quality has not been a priority for the company. After all, cutting corners is what led to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh (this is the worst example, yes, but is very indicative of the conditions that fast fashion workers work in. As you read this, 40 million workers are enduring terrible working conditions and earning unfair, inadequate wages to make clothing for the world).
2 // Trendy & Disposable Clothing
Fast fashion follows seasonal trends – and also sets them. This means fast fashion brands often overstock stores each season, while actively encouraging shoppers’ temptations to buy the latest thing. Once the season ends, the brands literally throw away unsold stock to make room for the new season’s products (brands such as Burberry have even burned unsold garments simply to deny their pieces to the discount market). Repeat next season.
Fast fashion thus encourages consumers to buy new clothes every season to keep up with fashion trends. It’s very useful that the clothes are cheap, so not many people balk at the price tag – cos, who cares, it’s only a $5 t-shirt! It’s a use-and-throw philosophy that has worked extremely well for the fast fashion businesses, to the great detriment of everyone and everything else. How? Let’s find out.
How Fashion Became the Bad Guy
What we’ve been doing historically is use raw materials (virgin resources) to make clothing. This was not a problem as long as clothes were purchased sparingly (perhaps a few times a year) and the fashion market was much, much smaller. But in the last couple of decades, especially, as fashion manufacturing moved to other countries, and more and more people began buying cheap, “fast fashion” clothing, the fashion industry has grown to become extremely destructive to the environment and to vulnerable communities worldwide.
What’s the situation now? Annually, we consume about 80 billion new pieces of clothing worldwide (remember, there are fewer than 8 billion of us). Plus, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is wasted every second, while less than 1% of the clothing is recycled into new clothes, according to the 2017 Pulse Report by the Global Fashion Agenda. The report went on to say that half a million tonnes of microfibres are released from clothes into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles (microfibres are impossible to clean up and have been found to enter food chains). At this rate, the fashion industry will consume a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.
Do we really need so many clothes? It is to counter the effects of fast fashion that ideas such as slow fashion and circular fashion have come into being.
The days of fast fashion and even seasonal trends need to end.
What is Circular Fashion?
Circular fashion is a pretty new concept (and term) and was, ahem, fashioned after the concept of the circular economy. The circular economy is based on minimizing waste (or even ‘designing’ it out), keeping resources and materials ‘circulating’ within the economy, and regenerating natural systems. It’s the antithesis of a linear economy, where the supply chains generally look like: raw materials → finished products → waste in the landfill. In a circular system, the ‘waste’ materials are recycled or regenerated into new or different products to be used within the economy. This continues for as long as possible, and then the final waste materials are disposed of responsibly – and not dumped in a landfill. The circular economy is about decoupling economic consumption from the finite resources we have on this planet.
Dr. Anna Brismar developed the idea of circular fashion in 2014 in Sweden as a concept to reuse resources and minimize harm to the environment. With circular fashion, according to Brismar, fashion products (clothes, shoes, etc) are designed with an eye on their entire lifecycle, and then returned safely to the environment at the very end of their life of use. It’s a regenerative and sustainable system that does not depend solely on the availability of virgin resources for manufacturing.
It’s clearly an idea whose time has come: 86 major fashion brands and retailers, from Nike and Reformation, to Lacoste, are signatories to Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment.
Fast Fashion vs. Circular Fashion Example
What are the differences between fast fashion and circular fashion products? Consider this: if you buy a dress costing $30 at a fast fashion brand, versus if you buy a dress for $150 at a local, sustainable fashion brand. The former uses non-organic cotton, pays their workers pennies on the hour, dumps their toxic dyes into the local drinking water supply, ships products across the world, and does not care about their products once the consumer has purchased it.
The latter takes great care to set up responsible supply chains, uses organic cotton that’s been ethically sourced, pays fair wages to their workers, build relationships with their suppliers, partners, artisans and communities, does not pollute the local area, and ensures they have a recycle program where consumers can return used clothing items. They also make quality, long-lasting clothes, so instead of spending $50 every three months, you spend $150 once and it lasts for years.
Which option would you choose?
Principles of Circular Fashion Design
What does circular fashion entail, though? Circular fashion designers need to consider the following questions when designing their product:
1 // Is the garment long-lasting and of good quality? It needs to last for years to come.
2 // Is the style classic and non-trendy?
3 // Are the materials sustainably sourced?
4 // Can the garments be reused or repurposed in order to continue being in use?
5 // Is the manufacturing process fair trade?
Are the factory workers treated ethically, with fair wages, safe working conditions, etc?
6 // Are the factories eco-friendly?
Do they pollute the local ecosystem? (water, soil, etc)
The purpose of circular fashion is to not just minimize resource-use and waste, but also to consume less. After all, we don’t need so many clothes, do we? A limited number of high-quality, tastefully chosen items that were sustainably made (aka sustainable capsule wardrobe) will do for the vast majority of us. It’s actually how our grandparents lived!
But how do you know which brands satisfy the circular fashion criteria?
Circular Fashion Certification
The Cradle to Cradle Certified® is the global standard for products that are safe, circular and responsibly made. As opposed to cradle to grave….hehe. Look for this certification of circular fashion brands.
Environmental Benefits of Circular Fashion
Transitioning to a circular economy is a major endeavor, and promises a world of greater environmental resilience while protecting fundamental human desires. With more and more brands switching to a circular fashion model, the benefits to the environment are many:
- There’s a lot less waste in the landfill.
- There’s less extraction of virgin resources, allowing ecologies to recover.
- Renewable energy sources used by brands for their manufacturing result in less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and less air, water and land pollution.
Circular Fashion and Fair Trade Fashion
These two are not necessarily the same thing, but generally, when a brand is conscious enough to consider the environment and resource depletion (circular fashion), they also are very aware of the human rights and fair trade responsibilities of a fashion business, especially when compared to fast fashion brands. But, in any case, it’s always best to do your due diligence before committing to a brand of clothing that is truly ethical.
What Does Circular Fashion Mean for Us Consumers?
As consumers, we have been taught that we have the power. I don’t know about that – maybe if the advertising industry didn’t exist, we would actually have power over the producers, but I digress – but as a consumer, you can still do a lot to remain cognizant of the effects of your consumerism on the planet. You can develop healthier shopping habits and follow some of the principles of circular fashion.
1 // Don’t Buy
Your number one option should be: don’t buy. You already have enough clothes to manage with for the rest of your life! Ok, that’s an exaggeration. But you do have enough clothes. So, unless you need a new puffer jacket cos your old one is irreparably torn, or you need snow boots cos you just moved to Vermont, just don’t buy anything new.
2 // Buy Secondhand or Rent
Your second option should be: buy secondhand. Pre-loved clothes are not as bad as you think. In fact, you can score some extremely stylish pieces while thrifting that would put your trendy items to shame. This is also the budget option. I know the biggest lure of fast fashion is the price point. And I won’t tell you to spend more than you can afford on brand new ethical fashion (which, because it’s ethical, costs more. We’re paying the makers fairly for their hard work). But the trick here is to shop secondhand. Not only is it cheap, but it can be loads of fun.
If you need items for a one-off event, consider renting. Rent the Runway is excellent for just that purpose.
3 // Buy ethical, sustainable, circular fashion
Your last option is: buy new from circular fashion brands, ethical brands, sustainable fashion brands. If there’s no other option, then this should be your go-to choice if you can afford it. Luckily, this site has numerous posts on fair trade fashion brands, sustainable fashion, etc. Have a look around!;)
Also, buy from local fashion businesses as far as possible – no need to have your ethical clothing items shipped to you all the way from, for example, the Netherlands to Washington state.
4 // Learn to repair your clothes
Final point: Learn to sew and repair your clothes, so you won’t have to buy new ones for minor reasons. My track pants just ripped a long hole in the seam, and while I wore it like that a couple of times, the horrified look my mother gave me when she saw it was the turning point. I didn’t stop wearing it; I did the adult thing and sewed up the seam myself! I felt good about that, I spent zero dollars, and I continue to have a perfectly fine pair of track pants.
Also, learn to take good care of your clothes (washing, ironing, etc as per the material). Good maintenance of garments will result in their longevity. And, finally, when you’re done with them, sell your old clothes online.
If you’re interested in starting a circular fashion brand, check out this article. After all, circular fashion may become a $5 trillion industry. Check out Eleven Radius, a collaboration platform for circular fashion brands and service providers. And also Ellen McArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative.
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NOTE: All brand photographs belong to the respective brands/businesses.