Circular is the new term for the times when it comes to sustainability and design. It’s been popping up everywhere as of late — from corporate sustainability strategies to ethical fashion bloggers’ social media. It’s a buzzy sounding word that I fear is set to fall down the same vague rabbit hole that has left us with the ability to slap “sustainability” onto a multitude of definitions. “Circularity” though, is a technical term backed by complex philosophies and design principles. It’s an important shift for the future of the fashion and textile industry that will only create true positive change if it is implemented with its integrity intact.
So, what even is circularity and how does it enhance the system of fashion?
The fashion industry has been operating on a linear “take, make, dispose” system where we take resources from the Earth (cotton, petroleum, etc.) in order to make things that we want and then leave the user responsible for disposing of it when their done. This model though, is reaching its limit — as resources become scarce, fashion will be more expensive to produce, leaving the environment and the humans throughout its supply chain exploited. It’s a tale that has become increasingly known, inspiring consumers and companies alike to take responsibility for the elements that they can change and searching for positive ways to shift the system.
Enter, The Circular Economy — a seemingly magic system that can meet our needs, maybe even desires, all within the Earth’s planetary boundaries. That means restoring and regenerating our materials all while saving the environment from the devastating impacts of the fashion industry. It leaves us imaging a world where waste water is cleaner than when it went into the factory. Where landfills become the new mines of the world and old garments are remanufactured into new, perpetually recycled materials. A system where by design, fashion betters the world and waste doesn’t exist.
A system where by design, fashion betters the world and waste doesn’t exist.
Sounds brilliant, right? If only it was as easy as flipping a nontoxic, bioplastic switch.
Defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (a leader and champion for Circular Design), a circular economy is a resilient model that, by design, eliminates waste and pollution, keeps products and materials in use and regenerates Earth’s natural systems.
When applied to fashion and textiles that means an industry where healthy (nontoxic) materials are cycled, perpetually. The benefits of this then cascade throughout the supply chain — improving working conditions on farms and in factories, increasing innovation and inclusivity of design and embedding storytelling and meaning into our clothing.
As an onlooker, it might seem as though using recycled materials or “upcycling” (we’ll get to that term another day) old garments into new ones warrants a stamp of circularity. This system though, is much more complicated than that. While material choice and extending the life of garments are important principles of a circular economy, they are only pieces to the larger puzzle. A circular economy is fundamentally concerned with a product’s inevitable end-of-life, whether that is after 1 wear or 5,000 wears. In 1 month or 500 years.
A circular economy is fundamentally concerned with a product’s inevitable end-of-life, whether that is after 1 wear or 5,000 wears. In 1 month or 500 years.
Whenever that end-of-life for a piece of clothing (or shoes, accessories or homewares) might be, that product needs to have the ability to go back into the Earth (composting) or be recycled into a martial of equal or better value. In essence, a garment needs the ability to be cycled over and over and over again. Forever. Be that through composting and providing nutrients to new fiber crops or through endless recycling.
Take for example the rise in fashion resale and DIY culture . It’s inspiring to see citizens, designers and companies taking on the challenge of cycling fashion through thrifting and creating new uses or designs for garments (and materials) otherwise destined for landfill. However, cycling, is not the same as circularity.
Cycling, is not the same as circularity.
Imagine a beautiful sweater purchased second-hand and then mended each time it’s stained or gathers holes. While that garment is cycled from owner to owner through resale, and its life is extended each time it’s repaired, eventually it will still end up in the landfill along with the threads, trims and chemicals used to create it.
Circular Fashion means that a garment’s eventual death is planned for from the time it was created. The design of the garment ensures that the materials are healthy (no one wants to be cycling toxic materials) and that every element of the product — fabric, thread, dyes, labels — can be regenerated through a natural system (composting) or a technical system (recycling). If the garment includes elements for both of those cycles, then the design allows for those pieces to be easily separated for processing.
As I said, it’s complicated.
To make things harder, many materials, chemicals and systems required for endless regeneration just don’t even exist yet, or are still in their development stages. So true Circular Fashion currently exists only as an option for a small portion of the garments that we design (think 100% natural fiber or 100% nylon or polyester). Even then, our industries don’t have the collection, sorting and processing ability that will be required to support circularity in fashion.
The good news is, these tools are being developed and the buzzing of circularity will only help to push innovation in this space along faster and stronger. In the meantime we’re seeing designers pop-up that are restricting themselves to the processes and materials that exist now, in order to prove the holistic potential of a circular system.
That is exactly why it is so important that we keep the integrity of this word.
A circular economy is a powerful notion, but it will only work if all the complexities and design principles that make up that closed loop system are implemented together.
A circular economy is a powerful notion, but it will only work if all the complexities and design principles that make up that closed loop system are implemented together. If we only utilize one piece of the puzzle — if we falsely believe that using recycled materials alone means our garments are circular, then we will be hard-pressed when, in 1 or 500 years at the end of that garment’s life, it doesn’t flow seamlessly into a circular fashion system.