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WHAT CAN WE DO TO GO FROM A LINEAR TO A CIRCULAR ECONOMY IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY?

Sustainable development lies in how businesses produce their goods. For that, it is relevant to look at the type of manufacturing and the logic behind it. 

Words By Mayra Alejandra Quispe Trejo

27/11/2021

Linear and circular economies are two different ways of doing business. In these times, moving from linear to circular economy represents a significant challenge that can lead us to a more sustainable world. The fashion industry is not exempt from these challenges and changes. In fact, fashion has an important opportunity to make significant changes and stimulate a circular economy. In this article, we will describe the concepts of linear and circular economies as well as recycling and how we can help to move towards a sustainable model of economy.

Linear Economy

According to the Australian Circular Economy Hub, the linear economy is an economic model of “take, make, dispose” It goes from taking raw materials from the Earth, using these to make products and then to sell them and, once these products are no longer deemed useful, consumers dispose of them. This model is based on profitability which means it favours mass production and the selling of goods in a short period. The main problem is the irrational use of raw materials and the significant amount of waste generated. Therefore, this type of economy has a negative impact on our environment and encourages harmful consumer behaviour.

In the fashion industry, having a linear economy in the production of garments means the increase of waste that ends up in landfills, polluting our environment. The global fashion industry produces over 92 million tonnes of waste per year. Furthermore, consumers have access to these goods mostly at inexpensive prices which leads to unnecessary purchases and further contributes to mass consumption. On average, a consumer will buy 60% more items of clothing every year. Moreover, today, people wear clothes for about half as long as they did 15 years ago.

An example of this model in the fashion milieu is fast fashion. This “focuses on a rapid supply chain, working to design, produce and distribute new items of clothing at an accelerated rate”. It works “due to the low cost of labour, ever-changing fashion trends and most importantly, the increase in consumer demand and purchasing power”. This system has a meaningful detrimental impact on our environment and promotes consumers to shop more in order to be updated with new creations and styles.

Circular Economy

According to the European Parliament, “the circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. […] In this way, the life cycle of products is extended”. This means that when a product has reached the end of its life, it can still be transformed and used. This is the main difference with the linear economy, where the product is simply discarded. As it was written in a recent Harvard Business Report, “the circular model requires companies to change from a Take-Make-Use-Dispose linear value chain to a Take-Make-Use-Recover circular value chain”. To practice a circular Economy, brands need to design their products in such a fashion, that they are of a high quality that ensures durability. We need products that can be repaired and that are made of materials that can be recycled. Only this way will we extend the life cycle of our garments and hence keep them in circulation for longer. From a buyer’s standpoint, we must reevaluate the way we consume. 

Laura Balmond, project manager for Make Fashion Circular at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explained to Sourcing Journal that “For fashion, this [circularity] means creating business models that keep clothing in use for longer, making clothes from safe and renewable materials, and ensuring clothes are made to be made again so that at the end of their use they can be safely and easily used to make new clothes”.

Circularity is a reality. The 2021 Circularity Gap Report states “the global economy is only 8.6 per cent circular and sets an ambitious target of becoming 17 per cent circular by 2030 by targeting sectors with high potential for change”. Here is a graphic elaborated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that explains the continuous flow of technical and biological materials through the value circle.

As we can see in this graphic the production of a good does not end when the consumer disposes of it. On the contrary, after the item is used, there is a recycling phase that allows it to be repaired or transformed into a new product or material that can still be used, and in that way, we extend its cycle of life as much as possible. Recycling thus is an essential part of the circular economy.

Recycling

It is a process that consists of collecting and processing used items or materials and then transforming them into new products. It helps to save energy because “processing recyclable materials generally consumes less energy than the collection, transportation, and processing of raw materials does”. It also reduces the amount of waste thrown in the landfills and reduces pollution.

Recycling must not be confused with the circular economy per se. Recycling takes part in the circularity model and it starts when the product is at its final phase. As the Ellen McArthur foundation affirms: “Recycling is the action or process of converting waste into usable material. It begins at the end – the ‘get rid’ stage of a product’s lifecycle. The circular economy, however, goes right back to the beginning to prevent waste and pollution from being created in the first place”.

Technological advancements is one of the key topics of recycling in fashion. The technology is still developing to help transform a garment as close to raw materials as possible. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) shares the following statistics: “In Europe, only about 50% of collected textiles are reused (they are, for example, exported to other countries) and about 50% are recycled, of which only 1% is made into new clothes. Approximately 35% of donated clothing is made into industrial rags. In the end, only 15% of consumer-used clothing is recycled, whereas more than 75% of pre-use clothing is recycled by the manufacturers. This represents a loss of more than $100 billion worth of materials each year, which are compounded by the high costs of textile waste disposal”. Recycling in fashion thus is crucial when the objective is to move towards a sustainable fashion industry and promote conscious consumption.

How to move towards a more circular economy in the fashion industry?

In the fashion industry, we have brands and consumers as principal actors. Therefore, brands need to focus on the production of sustainable and circular garments. For example, by using recycled nylon or lace. They can also promote the preservation of the garments by giving tips or advice to their customers about how to clean and best take care of their items. Companies should also lay emphasis on necessary vs unnecessary purchases.

 Consumers should consciously look for brands that sell sustainable items and that are transparent, sharing reports or disclosing their list of suppliers and workers. Furthermore, it is also important to reflect on your individual consumer behaviour and then regard it in the greater context. This way you can become more aware of avoiding mass consumption of clothing. 

Campaigns such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday are one of the most polluting shopping days. According to Adobe Analytics United States, “Black Friday 2020 hit a new record with consumers spending $9.0 billion, an increase of 21.6% year over year (online sales hit $7.4 billion on Black Friday in 2019)”. In Europe, “French retailers saw a 201% increase in sales on Cyber Monday compared with sales during the first four weeks of October. In Germany, shoppers expect Black Friday and Cyber Monday discounts of more than 10%”. 

We can clearly see that consumers have a powerful role in a new sustainable economy. Supply and demand go hand in hand. If enough customers show brands that they demand a circular production, we can start to see real, big-scale changes. It is great to take advantage of discounts on Black Friday, just be mindful of what you are purchasing, and who you are purchasing it from. Be careful not to fall down the sales rabbit hole.