According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, approximately 500,000 tonnes of leather and textiles are discarded each year with only a tiny amount of this being recovered through recycling. In the UK, a recent report published by WRAP, estimated that the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before it is discarded, with other estimates placing that number slightly lower at 2.2 years. For younger generations, that figure could be lower still.
These figures are indicative of a shift in purchasing behaviour and are associated with an ever-increasing demand for clothing. The Boston Consulting Group, in collaboration with the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, have recently predicted that demand for clothing will rise by 63% by 2030. It is within this context that the term 'circular economy' is gaining traction, but what does it mean? How does it relate to fashion? What questions should we be asking?
What is a circular economy?
The concept of a circular economy was first coined by two British environmental economists, David W. Pearce and R. Kerry Turner, in 1989. In their work, the authors argued that a traditional open-ended economy was developed with no built-in tendency to recycle, which in turn was reflected by treating the environment as a waste reservoir. Out of this realization the concept of a circular economy appears to have been born.
More recently, The Ellen Macarthur foundation has defined a circular economy as "looking beyond the current "take, make and dispose" extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design." It is also defined as a "continuous, positive development cycle." Ultimately, a circular economy appears to be an economic model designed to eliminate waste and restore resources.
The circular economy is not unique to fashion but rather, it can be applied to a whole range of industries. “The circular economy aims to enable effective flows of materials, energy, labour and information so that natural and social capital can be rebuilt. This new economic model seeks ultimately to decouple global economic development from finite resource consumption.”
How can a circular economy model be used in the fashion industry?
In the fashion context, a circular economy (or circular system) is often defined as a system in which raw materials, used to create consumer products, are reused at, what would traditionally be considered, the end of their life cycle to create new products over and over.
Selecting fabrics that can be reutilised is one of the way in which the circular economy model has been adopted by the fashion industry. According to Annie Gullingsrud; the Director of the Textiles and Apparel Sector at the Cradle to Cradle Products Institute, designers can now choose textiles that have been certified against various factors, including reutilisation. Gullingsrud considers this to be one of the most powerful tools in a designer’s arsenal, the power to use certified fabrics in their collections.
Within the fashion industry there is a plethora of exciting fashion innovations that embrace the circular economy model - from grape leather to solar textiles to denim-dyed denim. For example, the recent winners of an Ellen Macarthur Foundation prize, have found that the fibers and oils from winemaking leftovers is ideal for making 100 percent vegetable leather. This innovation will not only allow the fashion industry to step away from animal use it will also have a positive impact on the environment through the reduction in water use and harmful chemicals.
Several further, and perhaps more familiar, innovations include: the rise of sharing platforms that create access to clothing and accessories (think rental sites!), as well as product life-extension, where garments can be taken into stores for repair and maintenance. By now, most of us are also familiar with the large number of second hand and donation options for textiles that would fall into this second category.
It is undeniable that these innovations will have a more positive impact on the environment than maintaining the status quo. However, is this all just a convenient answer to allow us to shop more, guilt free?
A convenient answer?
Improving recyclability and negative environmental impacts is undeniably a good thing. However, a slightly more cynical perspective leads one to wonder whether the circular economy model is a convenient answer to the growing scandal to which the fashion industry is so closely linked. Namely, the vast amount of waste produced and dumped at every link in the fashion supply chain.
Gullingsrud suggests that closing the loop completely in the fashion industry is still a few years away. Whilst it is acknowledged that the industry is closer to being able to close the loop on a 100% cotton t-shirt than it is a multi-fibered garment none of the technology appears to be ready to be rolled out across the industry.
In the interim we have time to consider the limitations of recycling and potential alternative economies. It also allows us time to question and challenge the conversation around consumption – how many garments should we be purchasing? How often? These are important considerations irrespective of future promises of recyclability.