The fashion industry is often named as one of the top-polluting industries. But what makes the fashion system so polluting? What is the difference between a linear and a circular economy and is circularity the same as sustainability? Why a circular approach is needed in the fashion industry and what such a system change will require in broad terms?

It’s important to study sustainability and textile industry because it’s a global business and, of course, it has a huge environmental impact. For example, 20% of industrial water pollution is caused by textile industry (dyeing and treatment processes). Textile industry also uses a huge amount of non-renewable resources, 98 million tons per year totally, which includes oil to produce synthetic fibers specifically polyester, fertilizers to grow cotton, as well as chemicals to produce dye and finish textiles and garments; it also has a huge global impact, and very often… we don’t really see the true value of these impacts.

Textiles and clothing materials are a fundamental part of everyday life and an important sector in the global economy. It is hard to imagine a world without materials and textiles. We all wear them, and for many people clothes are an important expression of individuality, expression, and desire. Globally, the USD 1.3 trillion clothing industry employs more than 300 million people along the value chain: the production of cotton alone accounts for almost 7% of all employment in some low-income countries (EMF, 2017). Clothing materials represent more than 60% of the total textiles used and is expected to remain the largest application. In the last 15 years, clothing production has approximately doubled, driven by a growing middle-class population across the globe and increased per capita sales in mature economies (EMF, 2017). The rise is mainly due to the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon, with a quicker turnaround of new styles, increased numbers of collections offered per year, and – often – lower prices that consumers have to pay for clothes. Quality of the current textiles is decreasing, thereby not stimulating the sustainable use of clothing. The current system for producing, distributing, and using clothing operates in an almost completely linear way. Clothes are mainly produced from non-renewable resources and are often used for only a short period, after which the materials are largely lost to landfill or incineration. It is estimated that, more than half of the clothes produced are disposed of in under one year. The unequal costs of human labor, environmental impact, and depleting resources fueled by this rapid turnaround create precarious conditions for the future of textile and fashion, people and corporations directly involved therein.

Climate change, circular economy, alternative energy sources and less consumables: the awareness that our economy needs to change and needs creative solutions is growing in society. As our geo-bio-political environments change, the way we eat, travel, dress and live – from the shape and expression of our bodies to the shape and form of our homes and offices – will transform.

With this in mind it is time to talk about circular economy, it is defined as an economy that accommodates resources to flow through man-made and natural systems in renewable ways, creating or retaining value through ‘slowed, closed or narrowed loops/ flows’, rather than rapidly destructing value through the creation of waste. In other words, as an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design and provides benefits for business, society, and the environment. Inherently, a circular economy avoids the usage of non-renewable or finite resources and preserves renewable resources to regenerate natural systems, whilst designing out waste from the system. For instance, by returning valuable nutrients to the soil to support regeneration or using renewable energy as opposed to relying on fossil fuels.

Circular economy operates according to the 3R-approach: reduce, reuse and recycle. Each address several of the resource and system challenges that the textile system is facing today or might face tomorrow. Reusing and recycling leaves components and materials in circulation and thus contributing to the economy. It depicts the potential cycles of the circular economy through technical and biological cycles. Consumption happens in biological cycles, where food and biologically based materials (such as cotton or wood) are designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. The biological cycle regenerates living systems and provides renewable resources for the economy. Technical cycles recover and restore products, components, and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture or ultimately recycling.

When implementing circular economy principles in the value chain of clothing production, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017) identified three characteristics of circular textiles and clothing: 1) they are recyclable (design for recycling), 2) a recycling system is available and 3) they are made of recycled textile material (recycling in design). We the consumers need to keep these characteristics in mind and maintain a critical eye whether sustainable garments embody one or more of these features.

Ultimately, the awareness of required change is growing quickly in the fashion industry and there is a readiness to act. Transforming the industry to usher in a new material and textiles economy requires system-level changes with an unprecedented degree of commitment, collaboration, and innovation. This is a huge and complex challenge that will take a long-lasting effort of all stakeholders to reconstruct not just the lines of management and production, but global ecosystems of human life, labor, language, and love to our planet and all its living beings, in order to create an enduring future of fashion. In June, in the second part of this article, I will explain more about circularity in fashion and I will give you some good examples of how brands are achieving sustainability and circularity.


Reference: A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017.



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