How Can We Create a Really 'Circular' Economy in the Fashion Industry?
Updated: Nov 22, 2021
What is the 'Circular Economy' and why is it important for fashion brands?
The so-called circular economy approaches in fashion are starting to become a strategy for brands trying to reduce their environmental impact.
But what exactly is this "Circular Fashion"?
Simply put, the circular economy; it is about reducing the demand for new raw materials while keeping the existing materials in circulation in circulation for as long as possible, with the lowest impact means at our disposal. Sustainability has many aspects to consider. The circular economy concept, on the other hand, focuses on the environmental impact caused by the use of materials. For fashion brands that have to reduce their carbon footprint in the long run, the circular economy is an important part of Sustainability.
With this in mind, we decided to provide an overview of the key priorities in order of importance to create a truly circular economy in the fashion industry. These priorities go back decades to the classic 3Rs concept of 'reduce, reuse and recycle' and its many modern variations.
Five Priorities for a Circular Economy in the Fashion Industry
1. Reuse and Repair
Recycling is thought to be the only key element in creating a circular economy in the fashion industry, but it is often misunderstood. One of the best ways to reduce the demand for raw materials is to reuse and repair clothes that are already in circulation. This is because the textile and then clothing manufacturing process also uses energy, in most cases still largely powered by fossil fuels. For consumers, this means buying second-hand wherever possible and mending clothing when holes are punctured; For brands, this means investing in their own repair programs, resale platforms, and take-back services when designing long-lasting and repairable garments.
Clothes can also be made and remade into new items of different clothing with a different style, fit, and size. This may be appropriate, for example, when a garment is damaged beyond repair or cannot be resold. This is essentially 'recycling' the fabric that makes up the garment, transforming it into something new without turning it into more fiber. Designing clothing for easy removal is a strategy for easier removal and reattachment to other clothing. This can also be a critical intervention for pre-consumer or post-industrial waste such as deadstock, overproduction, or consumer returns that are otherwise undamaged but somehow unsellable.
Even if a textile is in use for the maximum possible period of time; Through continuous reuse, repair, and potential remanufacturing that can be made into new garments, it will eventually reach the end of its useful life. It may be too worn, rotten, or dirty to have any other useful purpose. At this point, recycling is often the best available route.
For the best-case scenario for a truly circular economy in fashion, recycling textiles should result in a product (i.e. a fiber or yarn) that can replace the original material on the market with a process with a lower total carbon footprint. In this case, recycling the fibers in a closed-loop will reduce carbon emissions and other impacts due to the reduction in the extraction and processing of raw materials. This concept is often referred to as 'fiber to fiber' recycling and has received more attention in recent years. However, it will take much longer for this to be a realistic option for most end-of-life textiles. There are many technical, economic, and social barriers to scaling fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies that require significant investment, legislation, and economic incentives to overcome.
It should be noted that just because a garment is made from recycled materials does not automatically mean that it is recyclable. For example, most recycled polyester is made from used PET drinking bottles, not other textiles. Once the garment has reached the end of its life, there are very few facilities available to recycle it, so the process is currently still 'linear'.
For detailed information on the subject;
You can read my post on the Recycled Polyester and Plastic Bottle Dilemma.
An important consideration is that, for example, using a single (mono) material, certain additives, dyes, and pigments, etc. avoiding and designing clothes for recycling. However, most designs for recycling prepare garments for an end-of-life scenario that is not currently available in most cases, and recyclability is theoretical.
In my Marketing Fraud: Herbal and Plastic Blends article, I stated that blends that include herbs or food (waste) in their composition are actually far from sustainable.
Additionally, a wide variety of technologies are being developed for textile recycling and have varying tolerances for contaminants that may interfere with their processes. There is not yet a single unified standard for what a 'recyclable' textile is. As more recycling options become available for clothing in the future, design for recycling will become critical to ensuring high efficiency in the recycling system.
4. Composting and Biodegradation
Depending on the material, it may or may not be beneficial to continue composting as the primary end-of-life pathway. From a circular economy perspective, although it can be said that carbon is 'recycled' by incorporating into the biosphere, the material or polymer itself is destroyed and virgin material will need to be produced to 'fill the void' in production...
If the energy required to produce these new materials is substantial enough (as with many bio-based polymers), then composting will result in a net increase in carbon emissions compared to recycling. However, there are also potential situations where the material impact of natural fibers may be less than a potential recycling process. In this case, it may be appropriate to consider composting, although the material can also be used as a feedstock for other fibers such as regenerated cellulosic fibers. In this case, it should be taken into account which scenario reduces the net greenhouse emissions of the whole world as a single 'system'. Therefore, composting may be considered where there is no ready access to the recycling stream and no other valuable avenue for waste. However, there are many aspects to consider in creating compostable garments, their design, and end-of-life treatment.
As I mentioned in detail in my article "7 Basic Challenges in Producing Compostable Clothes"; There are many aspects to consider in creating compostable garments, their design, and end-of-life treatment.
5. Something different?
After most of these options have been exhausted, the best option is to infer how little useful value is left after the materials have reached the end of their useful life. In some cases, this may be incineration to generate energy for the grid. There are also proponents of mixed waste recycling, such as pyrolysis and gasification, which convert mixed waste (including textiles) into small molecule hydrocarbons. However, in most cases with regard to the fashion industry, since a large part of the output will be burned as fuel, and most materials used in fashion are in this output. This is not a cyclical system, as it cannot be 're-synthesized from molecules. While some of the molecules can be used to synthesize polymers, this is currently mostly aimed at related plastics for packaging or used in more niche fashion materials such as cellulose acetate.