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On The Road to Circularity: 5 Steps Every Company Should Take

How to trigger a transition to a circular model? What does closing the loop mean? Is the fashion industry ready for a new consumption culture? A good circular strategy should seek to restore the value traditionally placed on clothing by emphasizing aspects such as durability, recyclability, repair, reuse, eco-design, and research.

Excessive consumption, which is the biggest problem of fashion:

Consumer trends signal that demand for apparel will continue to grow rapidly, with estimated total apparel sales of 160 million tonnes in 2050, more than three times the current amount. When less than 1% of the material used to manufacture clothes is converted into new clothes, 87% of the material used for textile production ends up in landfills. The problem becomes even more apparent when the reuse of clothing worldwide has fallen by 36% over the past 15 years.

The linear production system of the fashion industry is not only the cause of many environmental and waste management problems, but also the inefficiency of the model causes significant annual economic losses.

Simply raising the issue of overconsumption, overproduction and lack of responsibility in the textile industry requires defending the entire industry. But we can't transform the industry if we can't talk clearly about what's causing it, our potential, and our shortcomings in changing it. An increasing number of sustainability efforts are meaningless if changes in manufacturing practices are not accompanied by reductions in production volume. In this sense, if we want an ethical, environmentally, and economically sustainable model of production and consumption, there is an urgent need to separate the profitability of fashion from the sales volume of new products. The solution is to start by learning how to produce and consume responsibly and cyclically.

To summarize the problem in one basic proposition: The transition to a circular model is a must!

Before we continue, let's provide some context. What is the circular economy? The circular economy is a production and consumption model that involves sharing, renting, reusing, repairing, renovating, and recycling existing materials and products as many times as possible to create added value. This extends the life cycle of the products. In practice, it involves minimizing waste. It contrasts with the traditional linear economic model, which is based on the "single-use" concept, which requires large quantities of cheap and readily available materials and energy. Circularity is a major challenge for companies that need to respond to new social demands, waste regulation, and circularity management legislation while maintaining profitability.

Check out my articles on the circular economy: Circular Textile Journey

Action plan for a circular model

To achieve a comprehensive shift towards a circular model, the fashion industry needs to produce a 5 phase action plan based on risk assessment, modifying, mitigating, and renewing the production, distribution, and design model:

The solution starts with learning how to produce and consume responsibly and cyclically.

Stage 1: Assess the circularity risk level in each material, process, and logic system used.

Stage 2: Avoid and replace non-cyclical processes, materials, and logistics systems.

Stage 3: Reduce all non-cyclical processes, materials, and logistics systems.

Stage 4: Renew according to market alternatives.

Stage 5: Guide the consumer towards a change in their consumption patterns.

How are we changing processes, materials, and what solutions does the market currently offer?

Let's look at practical examples from two complementary perspectives: closing the loop and slowing the flow. Closing the loop means minimizing resource consumption by facilitating their reintegration into the value chain. Slowing the cycle means slowing down the cycle of producing and consuming a product by taking a new approach to the way we design and manufacture as well as consume, use and reuse clothing.

Solutions to close the loop:

Biodegradability: A biodegradable material can be broken down into nutrients, carbon dioxide, biomass, and water in a short time by microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi. The vast majority of materials on earth are biodegradable. The problem is, it takes a thousand years for materials like plastic to break down. So what does "biodegradable" material mean? He suggests it biodegrades relatively quickly, but the rate depends on different factors such as soil composition and temperature. Generally speaking, we can say that natural fibers such as cotton and wool tend to decompose faster than fossil-based polymer materials such as polyester, although certain polymers such as rayon are an exception. However, the biodegradability of materials can be accelerated or prolonged by external conditions.

Design for circularity: Designing for circularity means ensuring that the final product is 100% recyclable, taking into account 5 key points: using nanomaterials without mixed compositions, using one color, limiting polishes and coatings, limiting the use of hanging tags, and packaging and disposable and use of easily removable accessories.

Recycling: Recycling means separating a product or material into its raw materials which are then used to make new products. Different technologies are available to recover different fiber types, and depending on the technology, the product can be used in upcycling applications, as a new yarn for new materials, or in downcycling applications, non-spun products. composite materials and insulation materials etc. There are different processes for different fiber types, but we can basically define two types of recycling: mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. Today, before embroidering zippers, buttons, etc. There are major technological challenges we have to solve in terms of mechanical textile recycling, such as extraction, or separation technology by type of fiber blend, which is still not capable enough in separation plants. On the other hand, chemical recycling is at a very early stage of R&D.

Solutions to slow the flow:

Durability: The aim is to design products that show a balanced development over time, considering both the future and the present; A vision where designers must take responsibility, understand the impact of their decisions, and apply eco-design principles to durability and material selection.

Resale and lease: Hiring and reselling are held as key elements of a cyclical business model, and brands are turning their efforts into how to talk to their customers to understand and be prepared to engage in these new business models. Platforms such as Rent the Runway, Thredup, The RealReal are examples of success in both these areas.

Subscription (clothing as a service): Rental subscriptions such as Castle are a model in which customers pay a regular fee to borrow a rotating selection of clothing. It's also a channel for brand discovery and purchasing, and customers can even buy products they want to keep. On average, subscribers in this business model try 54 new brands in their first year, so it makes sense for circularity as well as good for brand profitability and advertising. Offering a rental or subscription model can increase brand loyalty and profitability, but requires new approaches to logistics, pricing, and marketing.

Collection programs that repair, reuse, and recycle: Attempt to collect used clothes to resell, repair or recycle so that fewer clothes end up in landfills. Collection programs are often praised for promoting circularity. However, collected items often end up in landfills or are exported without supervision to countries that buy second-hand clothing, such as Ghana, where clothing increasingly fills landfills, clogs waterways, causes fires in landfills, and devastates coastlines. Africa has already warned that it will not accept any more second-hand clothing imports from Europe. Collection programs should ensure that most of the collected products are repaired, reused, and recycled to prolong their life.

In summary, model change requires deep, far-reaching institutional, structural and cultural change. This change can be achieved by defining a strong strategy based on a medium-term goal and a long-term vision. Take note of the important points and take your first steps for change today!

Consider closing the loop and slowing down the flow

  • Apply eco-design principles

  • Design long-lasting, valuable garments.

  • Make a commitment to new business models.

  • Choose renewable, biodegradable, and safe materials and processes.

  • Promote a sustainable consumption model

Confronting our own hypocrisy reminds us how difficult it is to live with our eyes open. Let's open our eyes. It is an opportunity to transform the consumption model into a sustainable and circular fashion, increase market share, act responsibly, and reduce environmental impact.

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