Fashion, sustainability and the circular economy
Updated: Sep 29
I recently had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion which looked at sustainability and the circular economy in the fashion industry.
The panel considered the issues posed by smart textiles and fabrics and answered key questions like "what is circular fashion?" and "how can fashion businesses redesign for sustainability?"
Laura Balmond, Project Manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the Make Fashion Circular team. She co-authored the report A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future.
The panel were interviewed by Brooke Roberts-Islam, Co-Director at BRIA and a fashion tech and sustainability expert
The Circular Economy
The consensus was that circularity is a worthy objective but hard to achieve in practice. On the journey to circularity, there are several issues to consider.
Reduce, re-use, recycle
The rental or re-use of clothing is a great starting point on the circularity journey. Whilst it doesn't tackle the end of the clothing lifecycle, it ensures that clothing remains in circulation for longer.
The Dress for Success charity, based in New York, uses these principles to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire and the development tools. Another obvious example of the rental model is Rent the Runway.
Joanna Dai noted that her business offers a free recycling service for old clothes but despite making the service available to all of her customers, the take up has been very low.
A successful Swedish company called Sellpy has taken the hassle out of re-using clothing. They collect old clothing from customers and find a new home for it e.g. on eBay.
Circularity by design - materials
In order to enable true circularity where the materials are either returned to nature via composting or recycled, the type of material used at the fabrication stage is essential. The materials need to be reusable, recyclable or compostable. To make this as quick and efficient as possible it is also important that disassembly is inbuilt from the start of the design process.
For example, the material from which the body of a bag is made may be different from the fastenings. You don't want these parts to be vulnerable to breaking in use but as they are likely to be recycled in very different ways, it is important that they can be easily disassembled at the end of the life cycle.
Some forms of recycling, such as chemical recycling, are steadily improving but are still not widely available or accessible Cellulosic fibres like Tencel can be recycled but elastane and poly cotton have more problems for recycling. The later materials are important for performance products and have consequently become a lot more common in many parts of the fashion industry, particularly activewear. Joanna Dai is very familiar with this problem. She explained that she uses an Italian mill called Euro Jersey which is dedicated to using sensitive fabrics and minimising damage. She also noted that she's currently looking at performance merino wool which is breathable and doesn't shrink but has a more natural origins story. She noted that because of the intertwined and global nature of the fashion industry, there’s a limit to what designers can do without collaboration from suppliers. One of the big difficulties with blended fibres is aligning the full process from start to finish. The Ellen MacArthur foundation has a huge bank of information on alternative fibres such as:
Wine leather from VEGEA
Orange peel which has been used by Salvatore Ferragamo
Algae knitwear from AlgaeFabrics
Whilst there are plenty of available alternatives, it requires a wholesale change in market practices and consumer awareness to create the market conditions to create widespread adoption. Functionality is the key to consumer adoption and demand. As Kate Goldsworthy pointed out, fast fashion currently tends to use the most problematic and difficult to recycle fabrics. This means that the clothes which are often worn the least consist of the fabrics which have the longest lasting environmental impact. This is what Alanis would call ironic.
Are plastics all bad?
There is currently a strong anti-plastic movement. People are rethinking plastic water bottle and making more responsible choices in all sorts of environments. This is important but Kate Goldsworthy pointed out that:
Synthetic plastic based materials can offer performance and functionality which is not available from their natural counterparts. Until a viable and cost effective alternative is available, there will still be a strong market demand. Blaming the consumer in this scenario is unhelpful and unlikely to bring about long term change.
Plastic is a commonly recycled material. There are currently problems with micro plastics being shed during washing but these are technically solvable problems.
Enough plastic has been created since the 1950s to continue to use plastics in fashion without creating any further products.
Plastic is a by product of the oil industry, for as long as there is demand for oil, there will be plastic.
Most consumers won't pay more for sustainability. The key to changing buying practices is to change the ease of consumer experience for sustainable products. People generally want a brand who will do the hard work for them. So they know that by purchasing that brand, sustainability is in built into the process without them having to think about how that happens too carefully.
Collaboration across brands is important to get a consistent message. Key thing is to not throw clothes away.
On demand clothingAnother key part of the circularity problem is deciding what to do about all of the waste which is generated as a result of factories with large minimum orders and fashion businesses being forced to guess the quantities that consumers will require in advance. Pre-orders are one way to solve that problem - this strategy has been successful for businesses such as Hiut Denim. However, this can be difficult to achieve in practice as the expectation is that consumers can get a product on demand. If there is a two week or month delay, consumers tend to lose interest. Joanna noted that offering pre orders is very helpful in terms of predicting trending colours and can help avoid having lots of wasted inventories. If minimising waste is a business priority, one easy way to achieve this is to avoid cheaper factories which typically have 1000 piece minimums. There are currently some major shifts in fashion as fast fashion brands have committed to circularity. For example, H&M has committed to being a circular business by 2020. Importantly, they’re investing in the technology which is necessary to make this possible. There is a business rationale behind these changes. Their current model means that annually they have around $4million in left over stock which is stored in warehouses and probably won’t be sold. By experimenting with new approaches they can maximise their resources and make a huge saving by avoiding this waste. The bigger the company, the harder it is to make a change. There is also a lot of loyalty to the existing supply chains. This underlines the importance of the whole industry including the suppliers changing their working practices.
It's important to bear in mind that even apparently natural products can have a synthetic background. Also whilst vegan leather is better from an animal rights perspective it is often made in a much less sustainable way. Whilst leather is a natural product which will decompose with time the same is often not true of vegan leather. Basically, it's complicated and often decisions have to be made which balance competing ethical concerns. It's not surprising that consumers find these issues hard to navigate.
The UK government's review of sustainability in the fashion industry should come out later this year. It will be interesting to see what it proposes. Incentives and tax breaks for good behaviour with fines for bad behaviour are common solutions.
There are lots of technical developments in the meantime. For example Clo enables 3d modelling for virtual pattern cutting. If people buy clothes that fit properly, they are likely to keep their clothes for longer. Zozo - scans you from phone and feeds into a proprietary cutting system and makes clothes in four weeks at Uniqlo prices. There is lots to be excited about.
To find out more contact Rosie Burbidge, Intellectual Property Partner at Gunnercooke LLP in London - firstname.lastname@example.org