The fashion industry generates a huge quantity of waste. One of the most quoted statistics about the environmental impacts of clothing is that 300,000 tonnes of clothing find their way to landfill every year in the UK. This statistic comes from the Waste Resources Action Plan (WRAP) in their excellent 2017 report ‘Valuing Our Clothes’. Unfortunately, even when we take clothes to charity shops, it doesn’t solve the waste problem, as charity shops receive far more in donations than they can hope to sell here in the UK. The circular economy has been proposed as a solution for this problem, not only for fashion but for a host of consumer goods sectors. But what is the circular economy, and can it really address the environmental horror show that is the modern fashion industry?
What is the circular economy?
I downloaded an academic paper entitled ‘Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions’ (Kirchherr et al., 2017). This could be a satire of academia – a world which loves to define concepts and then contest those definitions! While the precise definition of the circular economy (CE) is debated, most agree that it is essentially about reusing and recycling materials to extract their maximum value and minimise waste (Zink and Geyer, 2017). Within a CE, resources circulate within the economy for as long as possible. This is in opposition to the ‘take-make-dispose’ linear model whereby resources quickly end up in landfill or incinerators. Fast fashion exemplifies the linear approach perfectly: large amounts of resources are exploited to make clothing, either in the form of natural materials such as cotton which requires a great deal of land and water to grow, or in the form of synthetic materials which are derived from oil and come with a mighty carbon footprint. These clothes which have soaked up so many resources in their production are often barely worn. One credible estimate is that the average garment is worn just ten times before being discarded. Since most clothes are non-recyclable, most go to landfill or incineration.
The CE proposes that instead, goods should be kept in circulation and used by multiple people, or be recycled. The Ellen McArthur Foundation has been at the forefront of discussions about the CE. Their report ‘New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future’ (2017) has proved highly influential within the industry and among policy-makers. Their below infographic illustrates the changes that would need to take place to transform the clothing industry to a circular model:
Figure 1 – ‘Ambitions for a new textiles economy’ – Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2017, p. 23
Point 1 calls for clothing companies to move away from materials that pollute nature, specifically synthetic fabrics that shed microplastics into waterways through laundry. Point 2 is crucial to the CE: ‘increasing clothing utilisation’ means making sure that garments are worn a lot more than just ten times each. Equally important to creating a circular model is point 3, a step-change to the recycling capabilities we have for textiles. Currently, just 1% of clothes are recycled into new clothing since fibre-to-fibre recycling is technically very difficult. Point 4 is about minimising the resources used to make clothes and the carbon emissions that result from the manufacturing process. If all of these can be achieved, the environmental impacts of fashion would be transformed.
A circular economy for clothing
For the clothing industry, increasing clothing utilisation should be a top priority. The production of clothing that is expected to be worn just a few times is indefensible in the context of the climate emergency.
Several fashion companies have launched services that enable clothing to be used by many different people: You can now rent clothing from Baukjen and LK Bennett as well as from platforms such as HURR, or buy second-hand clothing from Far Fetch and ASOS. The second-hand and rental markets keep clothes in circulation that might otherwise have gone to landfill, while increasing the utilisation of garments.
Clothing must also become more durable for the circular economy to work. If clothes fade or go bobbly after a few wears, they won’t stay in circulation: customers don’t want to buy or rent clothes that look ready for the bin. The government is considering minimum standards for garments as part of its forthcoming Waste Prevention Programme that could obligate manufacturers to design clothes that last. I hope this does become law. As things stand, many brands have little incentive to design garments to be durable; they know that customers are more likely to seek low prices than long-lasting clothes.
Another effective way in which some brands are keeping clothes in circulation is by offering repairs. Nudie Jeans offers free repairs for ever. The Restory and Save Your Wardrobe will revive worn shoes, handbags and clothing.
Several clothes brands now invite shoppers to return used clothes to stores to be recycled. However, some say, ‘it just seems like a gimmick for customers who want to dump their old clothes and clear their conscience before buying more of the same’ as it’s not clear what proportion of garments are actually recycled.
Downsides of the circular economy
Some academics have critiqued the circular economy. Zink and Geyer (2017) point out that people are not necessarily buying recycled or second-hand items instead of less environmentally-friendly options. They cite the example of refurbished smart phones which tend to be sold in developing countries rather than being bought as an alternative to new phones in richer nations. Additionally, as second-hand items are often cheaper than brand new, price effects may lead people to buy more overall rather than substituting a circular economy item for a conventional one. That is certainly a possibility when it comes to clothes: the low prices of second-hand items could encourage people to buy thrifted dresses as well as, not instead of, fast fashion.
A second critique is of the unintended environmental impacts of some circular business models. Levänen et al. (2021) employed lifecycle inventory analysis to calculate that clothing rental could cause greater greenhouse gas emissions than single ownership followed by incineration (the linear take-make-dispose model), due to emissions from transportation between different users. The assumptions made by the researchers are open to question. For example, they assumed people would make car journeys using traditional vehicles to pick up and drop off clothes. However, if those journeys were made on public transport or in electric vehicles, emissions could be lower. On the other hand, if clothes are dry-cleaned between each wearer and if they are packaged in plastic each time they go to a new person, that could cause significant environmental damage.
Is Circular Economy the solution?
CE principles could certainly help mitigate the environmental damage caused by fashion. But for circular models to be implemented effectively, ‘disposable’ clothing needs to disappear. The clothes from places such as Boohoo costing as little as £2 have no place in a circular system because they have no value in a second-hand or rental context, nor are they recyclable. Realistically, ending ‘throwaway’ fashion requires government legislation.
Brands creating clothes that are designed to last and be repaired is extremely positive development. Levi’s have introduced Tailor Shops in the US; let’s hope that happens here soon. Models such as second-hand and rental could be transformative, but it’s important for consumers to treat second-hand as ‘instead of’ not ‘as well as’ existing purchase patterns. We should also be demanding that brands use carbon neutral couriers for rental fashion, plus plastic-free packaging.
Overall the circular economy is certainly A Good Thing but it’s not a magic wand for the environmental ills of fashion.
About the author
I am a fashion-lover, reformed shopaholic and student of the environment: I completed a Business Sustainability Management qualification in 2020 and am currently a candidate for a Master of Science degree in Environment and Sustainability. My purpose is to help everyone discover the joy of sustainable living.
Ellen McArthur Foundation (2017) A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future [online] Available at: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/a-new-textiles-economy Accessed 13.10.21
Kirchherr, J., Reike, D. and Hekkert, M. (2017) Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 127: 221–232. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2017.09.005.
Levänen, J., Uusitalo, V., Härri, A., Kareinen, E. and Linnanen, L. (2021) Innovative recycling or extended use? Comparing the global warming potential of different ownership and end-of-life scenarios for textiles, Environmental Research Letters, Environmental Research Letters, 16(5), p. 054069.
WRAP (2017) Valuing our clothes: The cost of UK fashion [online] Available at: https://wrap.org.uk/resources/report/valuing-our-clothes-cost Accessed 13.10.21
Zink, T. and Geyer, R. (2017) Circular Economy Rebound, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 21(3), pp. 593–602, [online] Available from: https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jiec.12545.
#circulareconomy #sustainability #sustainablefashion