The Circular Economy and the Fashion Industry

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Source:Startups: Clothing the height of Mt Everest is sent to landfill every 7 minutes

The circular economy is a buzzword that has been mentioned a lot in recent years, and its link to fashion is an interesting intersection. It is an ideal economy where there is almost no waste and materials get passed around. This model would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2050. Whilst this statistic alone is shocking, critics highlight that the feasibility of a fully circular economy in all sectors is not so possible, but some sort of a circular economy in some sectors may be practical. The fashion industry is a sector that is moving towards a circular economy, and new sustainability initiatives are constantly being implemented. However, before fixating on a certain viewpoint, it is important to understand what exactly the circular economy is and its links to the fashion industry, its costs and benefits analysis, and input from a primary source. Through these points, it is clear that whilst a circular economy in the fashion industry may take time before it can be properly implemented, it will be of great benefit.

Currently, the fashion industry follows a typical linear model, where the production and consumption of clothing are maximized. With a circular economy, clothing is diverted from its traditional role as a one-person use item and prevented from ending up in landfills. This way, new materials are made out of old materials, focusing on reducing, reusing, and recycling. For example, recyclable cotton, also called regenerated cotton or reclaimed cotton, is a new mechanical process that creates a new fabric from pre-consumer cotton and post-consumer clothing items. However, the majority of the materials used to create recyclable cotton are from pre-consumer cotton, such as waste from processing raw materials, products not finished along the supply chain, and excess scraps. Excess scraps are a big contributor to the creation of traditional cotton, as the cotton waste rate is 45%. There are six steps that help make recyclable cotton: gathering cotton waste and garments, sorting, cleaning, shredding the cotton into fibers, blending with other fibers, and lastly, spinning it into yarns. The final product is a versatile yarn made from recycled cotton, and this yarn can be woven, threaded, or finished in any way to create a final product. Through this method, the circular economy can be implemented in the fashion industry, hopefully mitigating the environmental impacts of the 27 million tons of cotton produced globally in a year.

Americans discard around 12.8 million tons of textiles annually, and this translates to 80 pounds for each female, male, and child. However, some companies are looking at new initiatives to help reduce this number. For example, Wolven Threads is a Los Angeles-based clothing company that uses recycled cotton, which they call reclaimed waste cotton, in their clothes, and this gives the wearer a very breathable experience. In fact,  reclaimed waste cotton garments are known to last longer than traditional cotton garments. Furthermore, Wolven Threads’ swimwear is made from 84% recycled polyethylene terephthalate, which is essentially plastic water bottles. Not only this, but Wolven Threads offers items featuring sustainable technologies, including water-resistant jackets and shoes made from recycled materials. They also donate a percentage of their profits to organizations that advocate for recycling. This really highlights their commitment to making the fashion industry more circular and sustainable. Patagonia is another brand that has made headlines in the news due to its efforts regarding sustainability in the clothing industry. For example, Patagonia’s Capilene® base layers are created with the concept of a circular economy in mind. Patagonia collects customers’ used baselayers and then recycles them to create an almost-new polyester material. This is similar to the approach taken with recyclable cotton, but just with polyester. Since polyester is created from petroleum, Patagonia’s sustainable initiative helps reduce the need for petroleum and thus mitigates the reliance on a nonrenewable resource. It is crucial to highlight how Wolven Threads and Patagonia are prime examples of how sustainable fashion can be bought by anyone – it does not have to be a luxury privilege. Through these company case studies, it is clear that the circular economy and the fashion industry can be interlinked to help improve global sustainability.

On the other hand, fast fashion companies rapidly produce clothing items and discard anything unsold. Since fashion is a constantly evolving industry, with new garments coming in and out of style daily, this waste amounts to a large amount. Shein, an online fast fashion retailer worth $100 billion, produces anywhere from 35,000 to 100,000 items daily, thus contributing to the world’s high carbon emissions. In fact, 6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere each year by Shein, as Shein’s unused textile pieces are dumped into landfills – especially returned products from customers. Fast fashion companies are a direct contrast to companies such as Patagonia and Wolven Threads, which are companies in a linear economy that are able to achieve success, compared to clothing brands that do not focus on sustainability. This helps make the goal of a fully circular economy more tangible, as if some sort of a circular fashion model can exist in the current linear economy, achieving a circular economy for the fashion industry is definitely within reach.

Kira Stoll, the Chief Sustainability & Carbon Solutions Officer at UC Berkeley, highlights how “in order to achieve zero waste, we can look at the circular economy model. Through this model, we can see the importance of not just what happens downstream of our procurement choices, but also more on if we are sending materials to landfills, or if we are composting and recycling them. We also have to think about the problems more strategically, and how much from our suppliers we are procuring. In this procurement category, we should reflect on whether we really need the products; are we buying durable goods?” Stoll then goes on to analyze further, conveying how “depending on the buying audience, at UC Berkeley, consumers would be very interested in sustainably sourced recyclable clothing. Price point is something they can manage – they would be willing to pay a bit more because of sustainability.”

There are a range of advantages that are associated with making the shift to a circular economy. Whilst it primarily helps reduce waste, negative externalities, reliance on nonrenewable energy sources, and the negative impacts on the environment, there are other benefits to the circular economy model. For example, it makes use of the complete worth of clothing before and after its initial use, companies that focus on Corporate Social Responsibility and circular fashion will have a better brand image, the promotion of safer materials, and it could create a US$560bn economic opportunity. Therefore, it is evident that the fashion industry should transition to a circular economy so that it can benefit from these advantages.

Whilst there are a range of advantages associated with making the fashion industry more circular, it is important to consider the costs associated with this decision. Firstly, since government regulations are based on linear economies, the regulations do not explicitly provide enough reference to circular economies. This gap can lead to barriers in the transition from a linear economy to a circular economy. In addition, sustainable fashion garments typically cost more to produce and are often less efficient than their non-sustainable counterparts. This is usually reflected in the price of these garments. As a result, not only may firms face financing issues, but consumers may not be as accepting of the fashion industry’s switch to a circular economy. Furthermore, businesses need to ensure that all the stakeholders’ requirements are met, and with the transition to a circular economy, this may be compromised. Thus, the switch from a linear economy to a circular economy, whilst appearing ideal, may have issues with feasibility and implementation and may take time to implement.

Therefore, whilst the implementation of the circular economy for the fashion industry has some costs and negative effects to be wary of, such as how government regulations are broad on this topic, how some sustainable garments may be more expensive than traditionally made ones, and stakeholder conflicts, the benefits of a circular economy outweigh the costs. It is already being implemented by companies like Wolven Threads and Patagonia, and these brands have seen great success in their circular economy transition and innovative techniques. Furthermore, the increased brand image through a focus on Corporate Social Responsibility, the reduction of negative externalities and environmental impacts, the use of safer materials, the better use of garments, and the large economic opportunity all contribute to why a shift to a circular economy for the fashion industry would be ideal.


Source: 17 Most Worrying Textile Waste Statistics & Facts

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The Circular Economy and the Fashion Industry
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