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Circular Fashion Cycle

What Is Circular Fashion?

Circular fashion is a buzzy phrase in the fashion industry right now, with a global focus on the climate crisis and sustainability. For consumers, it might be a difficult concept to grasp, especially in terms of the impact the fashion industry has on the environment – they’re shopping at their favorite stores for pieces that were produced sometimes continents away. 

The 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment was signed by 86 brands and companies such as H&M, ASOS and Nike – still only around 12% of the fashion industry. Lots of work and education need to be done to truly start driving the change we need to become a sustainable industry.

What is circular fashion?

The term circular fashion is based on the principles of a circular economy and sustainable development. It encompasses all facets of the fashion industry, from apparel to shoes to home textiles. It’s about focusing the entire lifecycle of a product, through design and sourcing to the end of a product’s life, with the intent that that product is used and circulated for as long as is viable in its most valuable form. And when it’s run its course, it can be returned to the environment in the safest way possible. 

When a designer puts circularity at the front of their design process, a simple pair of jeans is about so much more than just a pair of jeans. Every step of the process must be considered:

  • How durable is the garment? Will it last for many years down the road?
  • How long will the customer wear it?
  • Is it a timeless design?
  • Will the source materials be sustainable or sourced in a sustainable way? Can the raw materials be disassembled and reused or biodegraded?
  • Are factory workers being paid a living wage with proper working conditions? Are they treated well?
  • Are the factories contributing to the pollution of their local community?
  • Once the piece is used up, can it be repaired or redesigned instead of tossed out or donated?

Circular fashion is a closed-loop system all about extending the use cycle of a piece of clothing by making it timeless and easy to repair or reuse for another use. 

Circular fashion vs. linear fashion

Contrast the idea of a circular fashion industry with a linear fashion industry. You can walk into an H&M, buy a shirt, and when you’re finished with it, you donate it or throw it away – usually well-intentioned – but the shirt will eventually find its way to a landfill, where it will stay. With circular fashion, it’s about avoiding the need to source or create new raw materials and new garments and using what’s already out there. So the shirt you buy will be designed with sustainable materials in a way that ensures its longevity.

Making circular fashion accessible

Brands and companies are steadily adopting new business models in an effort to become more sustainable and eco-friendly.

Dutch jeans company MUD Jeans have a jeans leasing program where consumers lease a pair of organic denim jeans and return them in exchange for a new pair. The old pair is either resold as vintage or recycled and blended with virgin fibers to create a new pair of MUD jeans. They also use a water filtration system that allowed them to decrease their water usage (7,000 liters of water per pair) by 78%

For Days, an L.A.-based clothing subscription company, recycles their used organic cotton products into new fiber to make new T-shirts. Women’s clothing brand Ann Taylor is jumping into circular accessibility with their clothing rental subscription, Infinite Style.

Repair & reuse

There is yet another approach to circular fashion: through repairing and reusing materials. Plenty of companies feature take-back programs where you return used garments for store credit or new garments. Your returned garment will be recycled or reused for a new product. Eileen Fisher does this and reuses each item by repairing, reworking, or recycling. ‘New’ items are sold through their secondary store, Eileen Fisher Renew.

For eco-friendly and outdoor apparel juggernaut Patagonia, repair and reuse are at the heart of its business model. They manufacture, repair and recycle products to last a lifetime. By focusing on repairing items, Patagonia ensures that its garments can last a lifetime. And, if a piece is no longer wanted, you can send it back, and Patagonia will re-sell it through Wornwear, thus opening a new revenue stream.  

In the next 10 years, the clothing resale market is projected to overtake fast fashion, with plenty of successful examples. Clothes sharing platforms and libraries are also taking hold, making circular fashion accessible to people from all walks of life.

The bottom line of circular fashion is to keep clothes in use, use renewable materials and turn used clothes into new clothes. If you’re interested in learning more, explore this guide from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and be sure to follow us on Instagram

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