What Is Circular Fashion? We Break It Down for You

A yellow recycle icon on top of a pile of fast fashion clothing landfill. Circular economy concept

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Did you know that every year humans produce over 80 to 100 billion new clothing garments globally

Did you also know that 87% of the materials and fibers that we use to make these clothes end up in landfill? 

And sometimes people like you and me throw away a perfectly good pair of jeans because they either don’t fit anymore, are out of fashion, or simply because we got bored of them. 

Unfortunately, only 20% of discarded textiles are collected and ONLY a tiny 1% get recycled into new garments. That’s why there is a growing sense of urgency around the need for circular fashion. It’s one of the reasons why organizations like The Ellen Macarthur Foundation are taking initiatives to work towards a circular economy system. 

Circular Fashion and the Circular Economy Defined

Circular fashion is a transformative approach that challenges the traditional “cradle-to-grave” life cycle of fashion items. Unlike the linear model of fast fashion—which is based on a quick cycle of production, use, and disposal—we take from the earth, we produce and we discard—circular fashion aims to minimize waste at every stage. 

This approach focuses on longevity, renewability, and respect for resources.

A Countermovement To The Linear Model Of Fast Fashion

Introduced by Brismar in June 2014, circular fashion is defined as clothes, shoes, and accessories designed, sourced, produced, and provided to circulate in society responsibly and effectively for as long as possible

Ultimately, these items should return safely to the biosphere when no longer usable. 

The concept presents a vision where the fashion industry operates as a nearly endless loop, maintaining materials in use and reducing the overall consumption of new resources.

However, in a world dominated by fast fashion and consumerism, most clothing items are mass-produced from new materials, used briefly, and then discarded—often ending up in landfills or incinerated. 

Circular fashion seeks to disrupt this wasteful cycle. It encourages practices such as recycling, repurposing, and re-wearing to keep materials in use for as long as possible. 

The goal is not just to reduce waste, but to avoid the need for entirely new products whenever feasible. (Great for your pocket too!) 

At the heart of circular fashion is the principle of “designing out waste.” 

This means creating products that are designed to have a minimal environmental impact. These items can be broken down naturally without causing harm, can be easily disassembled and remade, or can be recycled without losing quality. 

By doing so, the fashion industry can significantly reduce its ecological footprint. 

An infographic depicting the difference between the linear economy and the circular economy in circular fashion

Is Circular Fashion the Same as Sustainable Fashion?

Circular fashion and sustainable fashion are related concepts within the fashion industry, both aimed at reducing the industry’s environmental impact, but they focus on different aspects of sustainability. 

Sustainable Fashion Defined

Sustainable fashion is a broad term that encompasses the overall environmental and social impacts of the industry. It involves using:

  • eco-friendly materials, 
  • reducing water and energy consumption, 
  • ensuring fair labor practices and 
  • minimizing waste production.

The goal is to mitigate the harmful effects of fashion and promote positive, long-term impacts across the entire supply chain, though achieving complete sustainability can be challenging, especially for large brands.

Circular Fashion – Part of the Sustainable Fashion Movement

Circular fashion, while falling under the umbrella of sustainable fashion, offers a more specific approach. It targets the lifecycle of fashion items, particularly their design and disposal, to keep materials in use as long as possible and avoid the need for new production. 

Circular fashion strategies include: 

  • Extending the lifespan of garments through proper care, repair, and refurbishment
  • Facilitating their circulation through second-hand markets
  • Renting, sharing, upcycling
  • Developing closed-loop systems where materials are continually recycled without degrading in quality

So, what is the difference between sustainable fashion and circular fashion?

In summary, while sustainable fashion aims to minimize negative impacts, circular fashion seeks to create a regenerative system that closes the loop on resource use, ensuring that materials are reused and waste is minimized. 

Circular fashion can thus be viewed as a specialized strategy within sustainable fashion, aimed at making the industry more sustainable through continuous material usage and waste reduction.

How Can I Adopt Sustainable and Circular Fashion Practices?

Adopting the principles of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is essential for anyone looking to engage with sustainable and circular fashion practices. 

Rather than purchasing new outfits for every occasion, one can significantly impact the fashion industry by reducing the number of items they buy. This approach helps slow down fast fashion, curbing overproduction and its myriad issues. Some specific tips include:

1. Buy Less and Buy Better

When it comes to purchasing, opting for quality and longevity is key. Items that have already stood the test of time, such as second-hand and vintage clothing, are excellent choices. These purchases support circular fashion by utilizing existing resources rather than new ones.

2. Shop Second-Hand

Local charity shops are a great starting point for buying pre-loved clothing. These establishments not only offer affordable prices but also provide a chance to support charitable causes while keeping clothes out of landfills. 

They typically offer a diverse range of sizes and styles, accommodating various preferences and needs. Additionally, numerous online platforms and specialty vintage stores offer a vast array of second-hand options.

3. Repair, Repurpose and Reuse

Repairing clothing is another vital aspect of circular fashion. 

Simple fixes like mending a tear or replacing a button can extend the life of a garment, substantially reducing the need for new fabrics and decreasing waste. This practice not only conserves resources but also fosters a deeper appreciation and connection to one’s wardrobe.

Repurposing garments is another great option. If you’re handy with a sewing machine, a hack I’ve used is cutting off old or ripped denim jeans to create denim shorts, or tailoring my husband’s work shirts into a casual blouse for myself.

Innovative Practices: The Jeans Redesign

The Jeans Redesign is a flagship project of The Ellen Macarthur Foundation. The project exemplifies a successful implementation of circular fashion principles. 

Running from 2019 to 2023, this initiative provided guidelines developed with contributions from 80 experts across various sectors, including industry, academia, and NGOs. It encouraged leading brands and manufacturers to rethink how jeans are designed, produced, and sold, with an emphasis on durability, material health, recyclability, and traceability. 

The first redesigned jeans, following these guidelines, were introduced in June 2021. 

By 2023, more than 100 organizations from over 25 countries had joined the project, producing redesigned jeans that adhered to these sustainable criteria.

This collaborative effort showcased how practical changes in design and production could bridge innovation gaps and push the industry towards more sustainable practices.

By integrating these methods, individuals can contribute significantly to a more sustainable and circular fashion system, making a positive impact one garment at a time.

The Emerging Heroes of Circular Fashion 

Circular fashion is championed by innovative brands that are committed to sustainability and responsible fashion practices. Here are a few examples of companies making significant strides in the circular fashion industry:

1. Little Blueberry Kids

Little Blueberry Kids operates with a community-focused approach. 

When customers purchase from their online store, they can either resell their used children’s clothing and accessories back to other customers or participate in a program to donate these items to nonprofit organizations aiding children in need. 

The brand has also partnered with One Tree Planted to support reforestation; a portion of each sale is donated to this environmental initiative. Additionally, Little Blueberry Kids is taking steps towards sustainable packaging by using compostable, sustainable materials and saying no to plastic.

2. Mara Hoffman

Mara Hoffman is committed to reducing the fashion industry’s impact on our planet and advocating for climate justice. The brand selects natural, recycled, and organic fabrics for its collections. 

Mara Hoffman’s Full Circle Marketplace encourages the reuse of high-quality garments, allowing them to enjoy multiple lives and reducing waste in the process.

3. The R Collective 

The R Collective stands out by reusing excess luxury fabrics and materials to craft its collections. In an industry that generates 92 million tons of textile waste annually, repurposing these materials is a crucial step. 

The brand has also introduced Refashioned, an on-demand service that tailors clothing to customer specifications from a 20-piece collection, significantly reducing potential waste by producing only what is needed.

4. BEEN London 

BEEN London designs minimalistic and elegant bags using waste materials such as recycled leather and polyester. The bags are produced in London using off-cut leather pieces discarded by tanneries and lined with fabric made from recycled bottles. 

This approach not only repurposes waste but also provides durable products designed to last through many seasons.

Circular Fashion For the Future

10%. That’s the percentage of global CO2 emissions that come from the fashion industry alone! 

This figure reveals the significant environmental impact fashion has on the environment and highlights the urgent need to rethink our fashion consumption habits. 

While global apparel consumption is projected to nearly double from 62 million to 102 million tonnes by 2030, the actual usage of clothing has decreased by 40%, leading to a surge in textile waste. 

Since buying is cheap, we’re buying more which is resulting in discarding items from our wardrobe quickly. 

Currently, over 92 million tonnes of textiles are discarded annually, with the majority ending up in landfills, primarily in developing countries. These materials can take hundreds of years to decompose, releasing methane, a potent toxic gas, into the atmosphere during the process.

The solution?  Opting for circular and sustainable fashion. To summarise, some things that you can do include:

  • Purchasing second-hand or from circular fashion stores and online platforms
  • Purchasing fewer clothes, and purchasing sustainable, quality items designed for longevity, and
  • Repurposing and/or recycling old clothes, putting them back into the circular economy

We hope this article has given you some food for thought, in addition to some actionable tips to support the circular economy and a more sustainable fashion industry.

Zofishan S

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