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Circular Fashion

Laying the Foundation, Part 1: What is Circular Fashion?

over 1 year ago

This is the first in a three-part series on Laying the Foundation for circular fashion.

It seems hardly a day goes by without at least one fashion brand newly pronouncing themselves “circular”. Typically, this claim accompanies the launch of a new product or service that relates to some element of circularity, such as a garment that incorporates a regenerative material, or a programme to take back and resell used garments. Usually, though not always, the new addition represents a step forward in sustainability – i.e., it’s better for the environment than what existed before. Never, by even the most basic definition, has it resulted in anything close to true circularity

That’s because circularity isn’t any single product or service. It’s a system where multiple products and services work in concert to create a closed loop so that all the materials (cotton, polyester, etc.) are used over and over again. The actual definition of circular fashion is surprisingly straightforward – it’s a world in which all garments are used fully, reclaimed and regenerated into new garments. Circularity promises not only to solve fashion’s sustainability problem, but also deliver enormous advantages to both consumers and brands. But we couldn’t be farther from circularity today.

Let’s start with use. The average use of garments is low and declining. According to Euromonitor, between 2000-2015 the number of garments sold each year doubled from 50 to 100 billion, while the average number of times a garment is worn dropped by 36%. A report from UK charity Barnardo's found the average garment to be worn only seven times. And a 2018 study by Movinga found that an average of over 70% of the items in wardrobes across 20 countries hadn’t been worn in over 12 months. It’s no wonder that the vast majority of clothing found in landfills is still perfectly wearable.

The numbers regarding reclamation are even more disappointing. One of the industry’s most established, best-run branded take-back/resale programmes is Patagonia’s Worn Wear, yet they reclaim only 1-2% of the items Patagonia sells. Similar programmes across the industry average only 0.25-0.5% of items sold. One reason for this is that these programmes generally focus on reclaiming only the best-condition, premium-priced items (i.e., those that best represent the brand in the resale markets). Globally, up to 16% of clothes are reclaimed for resale once all third-world markets and local thrift shops are included, with approximately one-third of these (5-6% overall) involving online resellers such as thredUP, eBay, or Vestiaire Collective. Nonetheless, only 14% of clothes are ultimately reclaimed for recycling, with 85% of clothes ending up in landfills or incinerators (the remaining 1% are lost along the way).

Regeneration is the least developed element of the fashion industry. Less than 1% of clothes are currently turned into new clothes, and only a small fraction of those involve regenerative fabrics (the rest are shredded and mixed with virgin fibres). It is, however, the area receiving the greatest amount of industry attention and investment, which we’ll explore in Part 2.

So how do we get from where we are today to truly circular fashion? My thoughts on this are shaped by having spent nearly a decade on the front lines of trying to get consumers to think and act differently about the things they buy, first with Stuffstr, which pioneered integrated take-back through our work with Adidas, John Lewis and others, and now with Circular Way, soon to be the world’s first fully circular fashion retailer. It’s given me and my team at Circular Way a unique perspective on what works and what doesn’t, and what consumers – and particularly fashion consumers – are looking for.

Over the next two articles, I’ll share Circular Way's perspective on what it takes to achieve fashion circularity, how that differs from mainstream thinking within the fashion industry, and how, in the end, we believe circularity provides one of the greatest business opportunities the fashion industry has ever seen.This is the first in a three-part series on Laying the Foundation for circular fashion.

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John Atcheson

Co-Founder/CEO at Circular Way | Circular Economy Strategist