How circular is the future of fashion, really?

This article on the future of circular fashion is brought to you by Océane Maurey,  a student in Sup de Pub Paris. In her own words, her motivation to become a change maker simply comes from her concern that there will be a future for us all. She is driven by her love for nature, dogs and history of fashion, and is strongly committed towards changing the future of fashion by raising awareness on the limits of our current consumption model.

This article was written in light of the latest State of Fashion report by BOF and McKinsy and tackles the current state of circular fashion, its achievements and its future challenges.

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What is a circular fashion system?

To really understand the the idea behind circular fashion system, we must start by understanding the concept of circular economy.

The circular economy is part of the sustainable development model and is based on several principles: sustainable supply, taking into account the impact of the use of raw materials, eco-conception which rethinks the design of the product from the beginning, synergizing the use of resources, selling a service rather than a property, creating more sustainable products to limit excessive consumption, and managing recycling by recycling the used materials. The same concept, when applied to the fashion, where we replace the use and discard mindset with a repair and reuse model, we contribute directly towards creating a circular fashion system.

Several major actors have been noticeably engaged in building this circular fashion system. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is an organization that since 2010 has aimed to accelerate the transition to circularity, and it managed to federate an increasing number of partner brands around it. The EU also has been instrumental through its circular economy action plan, an initiative which ensures that its countries enforce the principles of the circular economy from product manufacturing, consumption, to textile waste management in the fashion industry.

It is high time to take the circular textile conversation to the next level

It is important to leave linear fashion behind and go circular for the sake of the planet and what we leave to our future generations. The fashion industry produces 10% of greenhouse gas, which makes it the second most polluting sector in the world, second to only oil and gas. This level of pollution is particularly induced by fast fashion, which in addition to producing and discarding huge amounts of low-quality textile ending for the majority in landfill, is also responsible for the over-exploitation of many human resources. This has a direct impact on ecosystems and to remedy ephemeral fashion: circularity is one of the keys.

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A global Approach

In a global world, circular fashion is growing through diverse initiatives thorough the globe.

In China, the government has defined a 5-year plan to achieve circular fashion through recycling. In this context, Novotex Textiles in conjunction with Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) have created The Billie System, a system to mechanically recycle cotton and polyester, without using water or producing pollutants.
In another instance, Renewcell, a swedish textile recycling company, has invested in the creation of a plant with the ability to recycle. This plant has a recycling capacity of up to 60,000 tons of textiles per year, and is already in use in production today. 

 

Meanwhile in Australia, BlockTexx, a clean technology company has created a recycling factory for polyester & coton with a 10,000 tons per year recycling capacity.

But some companies also turn to digital, as with for instance the Fashion for Good program, which has launched a platform to connect people who can recycle textile waste with those who have some – program where several big names contributed, such as Adidas, Zalando.

There also is a huge momentum in the startup ecosystem, notably in France, as Fix That Shirt and other are paving the way towards a circular fashion system by developing easy solutions to maintain your fashion wardrobe ( application available here).

How are the major brands reacting to this shift in policy & consumer mindset?

The change in consumers’ mindset is presenting brands both with an opportunity and a Challenge. Indeed it causes a changes in their purchase habits, as customers are less likely to purchase unsustainable products and are more ready to put more money for sustainable pracitces.
This shift is one that brands have been aware of for already quite a while; although their responses are not coming as fast as nature demands, it has gathered a lot of interest as several many market studies are being conducted, especially in the luxury sector- as illustrated by Gucci’s “nature positive” climate strategy.
However, fast fashion, the predominant model on our market is having a harder time taking the turn, as it keeps polluting enormously due to its considerable production of waste, the equivalent of one garbage truck every second according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But the visions slowly start to shift – on the paper at least, as even H&M supports this foundation and aims to be 100% circular in the future.
In conclusion it’s something that is being considered more and more, although the transition seemingly will yet take a long time, a time which that we are getting short on to accomplishing our change. 

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What are the main challenges for fashion circularity?

The fashion industry grows by 4-5% every year and is expected to reach $3.3 trillion in 2030 from the projected $1.9 trillion in 2019. This is 1.7x growth in just eleven years. 

(Data from The Pulse of Fashion 2019. Download full report here, or if you’re more of a visual learner, watch the video on the left where we have compiled all the data from various resources to create an informative video for you.)

 

Now, on the one hand, this massive growth reflects upon the employability and the general upward curve of the industry. On the other hand however, it also brings forward a very simple question : how does an early stage, rather theoretical circularity of fashion cope with this scale of production? And, how realistic is it to expect the current circular initiatives to grow the sustainability aspect of fashion, hand in hand with the economic one?

For instance, here are some data points: The fashion industry is the 4th largest user of raw materials, produces 500 million tons of textiles waste that ends in landfills and the annual carbon footprint of the industry amounts upto 1.2 billion tons. Figures from the State of Fashion 2018 and this article from Ellen McArthur Foundation)

Now, coming back to the original question of the challenges of fashion circularity, the hurdles are multi faceted: 

1- The global fashion market is still warming up to the idea, and fashion circularity in supply chain, in terms of use of recycled raw materials still appeal to a niche market.

2- Fashion circularity as a pillar of sustainable fashion industry, is often limited to greenwashing by certain brands where most brands still don’t offer an after sales solution to help the customer use for longer time.

3- Fashion circularity is still not the main focus of formative fashion schools which are creating the future decision makers of fashion.

4- Slow change in policy and business practices pose a risk to the momentum of circular fashion, limiting it potentially to forums and marketing reports.

5- The lack of a strong, supporting ecosystem for impactful, fashion-tech startups with a focus on greentech, often leads to the drying out or extinction of great ideas which could potentially change the world. It isn’t as easy to fundraise or find angels for such startups, as for those in fintech or deeptech.

Why should we know about COP26 goals?

Before we dive into the COP26 goals, let’s first understand : what does COP26 mean?

COP26 was the latest in the United Nations’ series of conferences that aimed to tackle climate change and its impacts. COP stands for Conference of Parties, and 26 was the number of the meeting. The conference was held in Glasgow, UK, in October and November 2021. The main goals of COP26 were to build upon the Paris Agreement work program, which was agreed upon at COP21 in 2015, and to increase countries’ ambitions to reduce emissions. This, has a direct impact on fashion’s aim for circularity. 

The four major goals that were set in November 2021 are as follows:

1) Secure global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and keeping the 1.5-degrees Celsius limit on global warming within reach

2) Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats,

3) Mobilise finance

4) Work together to deliver on commitments.

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How can consumers directly contribute towards building a circular fashion cycle?

With more GenZ entering the workforce and the Millenials climbing up the proverbial ladder, its needless to say that there is a change in the consumer mindset. The modern customer is tech savvy, well informed and knows exactly what they want and hence hold a great potential to dictate which direction will the the business of fashion head. 

As per the Deloitte’s Global Power of Luxury Goods 2019 report, these modern customers are HENRY’s (High Earning Not Yet Rich) who are the future consumers of fashion and several luxury brands are already listening to what the Henry’s have to say. (Read our blogpost ‘Who are the luxury customers of the future?’ to learn more about HENRYs.)

Already, a certain portion of these new age consumers show an affinity towards sustainable fashion products & services, yet despite there being this need for transparency and circularity, still 80 billion new pieces of clothing are produced each year while 73% of those are completely discarded in landfills while less than 1% is ever recycled. So before the HENRYs come of age, what can we collectively do as the consumers of fashion to make it sustainable, in some way or the other? Well, here’s a non exhaustive checklist from our founder Saba Alvi:

1- First and foremost, we need to educate ourselves about what sustainability in fashion stands for and establish a clear demarcation between green fashion and greenwashed fashion.

2- We also need to understand our style and invest in classic pieces that are timeless instead of buying 54 times a year because XYZ brands are making it. There’s basically no difference between the impact of fast food and fast fashion, both are cheap but not free, bad for heath and bad for the planet.

3- Remember, you as a customer hold a lot of power. Each time you pay for something, it’s like you’re investing in that business model and no matter how small a purchase you think you’re making, it’s never without impact. So choose wisely and shop at brands that you believe that others should be buying from to make fashion sustainable.

4- Read the care label to make your clothes last and read the ‘made in’ label to understand where your clothes come from and whether or not the price that it is retailing for would justify the cost of raw materials and at least basic human wage for production.

5- In the words of Vivienne Westwood, ‘buy less, choose well and make it last.’ Always remember, the most sustainable garment is the one that you already own.

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