Circular fashion is a system where our clothing and personal belongings are produced through a more considered model: where the production of an item and the end of its life are equally as important. This system is regenerative—garments are circulated for as long as their maximum value is retained, and then returned safely to the biosphere when they are no longer of use.

Circular fashion comes from the intersection of the ‘circular economy’—a model that exchanges the established cycle of make, use, dispose in favor of reusing, recycling and upcycling as much as possible—with sustainable and ethical fashion.

In a circular model, products are designed and developed with the next use in mind. Each garment is built with the notion of resource efficiency, non-toxicity, biodegradability, and recyclability in mind, sourced and produced prioritizing recyclable sources and ethical practices.

The term circular fashion was first used in 2014 at a seminar in Sweden, a year after the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh put the spotlight on the abuses of fast fashion. In 2013, Rana Plaza, the clothing manufacturing complex collapsed, killing over a thousand garment workers—majority of them women. This tragedy, along with the effort of NGOs and activists on bringing to the forefront some of the devastating environmental, human, and animal impacts, highlighted the role consumers play in demanding better standards and advocating change.

As circular fashion has developed in the last few years, a critical element of this model is the deep mindset shift it represents. If consumers align with this model by buying less and better quality garments, owning these items for longer, repairing where possible and being more thoughtful in their choices, circularity can’t coexist with fashion calendars as we’ve grown accustomed to.

The fashion industry is based on manufacturing desirability, creating want where there’s no need and pushing customers to buy into new trends every season. Fashion is faced with the intrinsic inconsistency that the established model—premised on growth—is ultimately opposed to the idea of circularity. Greenwashing is ripe: less unsustainable does not mean sustainable.

Embracing the Circular Economy: Actions speak louder than words

Few industries praise themselves for their sustainable efforts more than the fashion industry. Big or small, companies brand themselves as sustainable, ethical or eco-friendly, and their products—be it sneakers or a wedding dress—as organic, conscious or carbon neutral. Yet, as conscious as they are branded, the reality is that production of clothes and shoes has more than doubled in the past quarter century—with three quarters of them ending up burned or buried in landfills.

The fashion industry is hugely wasteful. Fashion inventories inevitably accumulate—shorter lead times, larger number of stock drops and faster turnaround means that 40% of fashion goods are sold at a markdown.

Furthermore, most new items are made from cheap non-biodegradable petroleum-based synthetics like polyester.

In case this wasn’t enough evidence of yet how far the industry is from being anything close to sustainable, here are some more heartbreaking statistics:

Sustainability is a multidimensional concept with a wide number of issues covering every aspect of the supply chain and the people involved at any point of it.

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Leading the Change: Key Players & Facilitators

There are positive signs that the fashion industry can move away from the take-make-waste model. Not only independent or eco-friendly clothing brands are embracing the circular fashion economy. Both well-known household names and emerging designers are leading the way in showing a new business model is possible—and profitable.

Each brand and designer brings different ideas, opinions, and goals, but all are united around the end goal of circularity.

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In May 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the Make Fashion Circular initiative. The main goal of this initiative is to foster collaboration among the leaders of the textile industry, brands, innovators and stakeholders to move towards a circular fashion economy.

At the end of 2021, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation unveiled a new book featuring practical insights from more than 88 contributors ranging from luxury conglomerates to independent labels. All these pioneering fashion designers and companies share their approach to designing for a circular economy.

Some well-known names including Stella McCartney, Gabriela Hearst, and Eileen Fisher are leading the way in designing with circularity in mind. They’re not the only ones: emerging designers like Bethany Williams and Duran Lantink; luxury giants such as Gucci and its parent company Kering, and Burberry are also taking steps towards this systemic change.

Brands and designers can’t afford to go on this journey alone—collaboration is key. The work of reliable raw material suppliers such as Polylana, recycled fibers providers like Bangladesh-based Cyclo or regenerative agriculture resources like Fibershed and FarFarm is essential to the success of a transparent and circular fashion supply chain.

Innovators are making exciting progress on the “next-gen materials industry” now fermenting and growing bio-based substitutes for conventional livestock derived materials and fossil fuel-based synthetics

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There are more reasons to be hopeful. Scaling Circularity, a new report published by the Global Fashion Agenda in conjunction with McKinsey & Co. concludes that the fashion industry could become 80% circular by 2030 if there is increased investment in existing recycling technologies and infrastructures.

The research focuses on textile recycling and finds that major recycling technologies deliver better environmental outcomes across greenhouse gas emissions, water depletion and land use. Plus, all technologies have the potential to be more cost effective than using corresponding virgin materials if they are scaled.

Federica Marchionni, CEO, Global Fashion Agenda, said: “This research proves that the necessary recycling technologies exist, deliver huge improvements in environmental impact and that the economics work at scale. I am optimistic that we can create a profitable circular system and accelerate fashion’s journey to net zero.”

Circularity is the way forward

Circular fashion has brought a wave of greater consumer knowledge, powerful advocacy, and overall acknowledgement that previous, linear approaches to the fashion industry can’t continue. This demand for transparency, longevity, and a new framework is set to continue well into the future, and represents a future for fashion that would be less impactful and more in harmony with all the resources, processes, and people involved.

Recognition that infinite growth on a planet of finite resources is a powerful impetus to develop new business models for fashion. Companies should start to move beyond the previous focus on transparency towards real commitment and change.