Opportunities of Circularity in Fashion

In the past, fashion houses built a reputation based on craftsmanship and the quality of the wool, cotton, silk or leather that they used. Clothes were made to last, and for a specific purpose, whether it was a dress for a duchess, or sturdy trousers for workers. Because resources were labour intensive to collect, they were relatively expensive. Those clothes were worn, washed, repaired and reused with care to maximise the use you could get out of them. 

A few decennia ago, new technologies allowed textile manufacturers to develop oil-based fibres, such as polyester. These fabrics were more affordable, more readily available, and offered fashion houses, retailers and designers unlimited variation possibilities. Consumers caught on: they were able to buy more clothes, with better functionalities at more affordable prices. New technologies also allowed for faster production processes, making it cheaper to make a new clothing item than to have it repaired. Fuelled by smart marketing campaigns, demand grew exponentially, with consumers happy to be able to buy more and change their wardrobe continuously. 

Circular Economy opportunities for the fashion industry

Today, however, we are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impact this industry dynamic has on the environment: from pollution of air and water streams at sourcing and production, to the accumulation of waste throughout the value chain. 

The principles behind the circular economy give us a myriad of opportunities to bring about positive change in the fashion industry. Pioneering businesses are showing that it can be done, for example by:

  1. Giving a second-life to clothing. From thrift shops to luxury e-stores, the market for second hand is booming. It is worth $24 billion today and expected to reach $51billion in five years. It is mainly the millennials and generation Z, who crave novelty while caring deeply for the environment who are driving this movement. Companies offering second-hand fashion, such as the Vestiaire Collective and Beyond Retro, and brands setting up their own resale programmes through platforms such as Yerdle, are keeping clothes away from landfills and reducing the need for new clothes. 
  2. Offering rental models. The Spotify’s of the fashion industry that started blooming about 10 years ago have developed a market that is now worth more than USD 1.1 billion. Rather than buying new clothes, users can rent the clothes they need for a specific occasion, to try a new fashion trend or because they like to change their wardrobe regularly. Or as Rent the Runway’s tagline says: ‘Everything to Wear, No Shopping Needed’. As owners of the apparel, companies want to get as much use out of each piece of clothing as they can, so they ensure that the products they have are of good quality, well-maintained, and repaired if needed so that they can be reused over and over again. In Switzerland, the trend is picking up too, with companies such as KleihdRagfair and Sharealook leading the way.
  3. Developing cradle-to-cradle products. Sourced from natural origins, using production processes free of toxic chemicals, and entirely compostable at end of life, the first cradle to cradle items have already hit the market and are gaining ground, such as Calida’s 100% Nature t-shirt line, made from wood fibres or Wolford’s line of biodegradable skinwear.

How to embark on the journey to circularity in the fashion industry? 

The principles of the Circular Economy provide rich ground for innovative ideas. But what is needed to make change happen is a shift in mindset, among consumers, but also within businesses. Circular business models require collaboration. For example, with suppliers, to develop better products and production processes, with external service providers to provide maintenance and repair services, or with sorting organisations to ensure products get a second life. And companies need to involve their customers both in developing new models and ensuring that they play their part in caring, repairing or returning products to close the loops. 

Fashion industry to lead the way and be open to new circular ideas

As with most challenges, the solutions are complex to develop and implement. Yet there are many possibilities for companies to make changes that make business sense, are in line with their brand values and are better for the planet. The first steps involve being open to new ideas, learning about the principles of circularity, hearing from those that have already taken steps and initiating conversations with partners along the value chain. It is clear that there is an urgent need to protect our planet. We need especially the industry that values beauty and novelty in its core to lead the way in bringing innovative circular models to the market. 

This article was written and translated for the Circular Hub Switzerland website, in both French and German.