Fashion Meets Circular Economy: Infinite Consumption in a Finite World

August 28, 2017

The fashion industry belongs to the most polluting industries in the world.[1] If we continue our current ‘take, make, waste’ economic approach, we will need three planet earths by 2050 to keep up with consumers’ demands. Clearly, something must change, and luckily the fashion industry is full of opportunities for a transition towards a sustainable approach for a circular economy!

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Source: Made-with-respect.com (2015)

From ‘take, make, waste’…

The average consumer does not wear 40 percent of the clothing they own, and 60 percent of our clothing ends up on landfills within a year after purchase, while still of good quality. In the fashion industry, like in every industry, business models are designed following a linear approach. Based on the assumption that resources are abundant and inexpensive, we are having a ‘take, make, waste’ approachl. For decades, this approach has been extremely successful in terms of growth and profitability.

However, when pricing in environmental externalities, resources are not abundant and inexpensive at all. Our behavior has led us into a situation where we consume 1.7 times the earth carrying capacity, and we will need three planet earths to satisfy our needs by 2050 if we continue like this. To meet the needs of a growing population in this finite world, something has to change. We need to move from a linear to a circular economy, from ‘take, make, waste’ to ‘produce, use, reuse’. What kind of circular solutions can we offer the fashion industry in these three stages?

TO ‘PRODUCE’…

The fashion industry has a large ecological footprint. The production of clothing needs tremendous amounts of water, energy, and pesticides, which makes the fashion industry one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses, for clothing that is not designed to last or be reused. To illustrate, producing a t-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water. Moreover, synthetic materials, such as nylon and polyester, release huge amounts of microfibers and -plastics during every washing cycle, which pollute our rivers and oceans. The problem is that the price of the t-shirt you are buying, does not reflect the price our environment has to pay.

Substitution of raw materials for sustainable materials, and using different techniques for production, are essential to reduce this ecological footprint. This years’ innovators in the Accenture Innovation Awards for Circular Economy show that the production of clothing can be done differently. Dropel Fabrics, a participant of the Fashion for Good program for example, has developed new fabrics that are water-, stain-, and odor-repellent, extending the lifecycle of clothing. The innovative part about this fabric, is that it has the softness and breathability of cotton and the performance qualities of synthetics, while not releasing the harmful microfibers and -plastics. An example of bio based fabrics, is Algae Fabrics. Algae have multiple functionalities: they produce cellulose, from which yarn can be made, and they can convert large volumes of CO2 to Oxygen. Moreover, algae can make the dying process of fabrics more sustainable as well, a toxic process that still needs a lot of improvement in the production cycle.

For the alternative types of fabrics, huge opportunities lay within the fashion industry. These innovations show that polyester, which is made of plastic; thereby a product of petroleum, can be substituted by bio based materials, while still ensuring the quality of synthetics. Another example is the recent product of Nike’s FlyknitTM Technology. With this technology, Nike produced a shoe upper out of a few single threads; thereby resulting in a production process that is up to 80 percent less harmful for the environment.

‘USE’…

The use phase is full of challenges as well. The ‘take, make, waste’ model has led us into a situation where we treat clothing as disposable goods. Women on average own 95 pieces of clothing, and men around 56 pieces. Of this clothing, only around 60 percent is worn regularly, but ends up on landfills within a year after production, while still of great quality. Therefore, it is not enough if only produces change their production process. If consumers do not change their behavior as well, this change of plans will not work.

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One way to tackle this challenge, is by influencing consumer behavior. Consumers must be made aware of the ecological footprint of the clothing they are buying. A huge opportunity lies here for a new technology: blockchain. Blockchain can increase transparency, and thereby create awareness. How? Blockchain can encapsulate the production information of all actors in the supply chain. For a circular economy, the opportunities lie in making supply chains more transparent to all its actors, including consumers, but also to make the supply chain more efficient by connecting relevant information to actors across supply chains. Consumers can check verified information on the product origin, including information on the type of fabric, how it is made and under what conditions, with what ecological footprint, and what the clothing can be made of in a new life (after upgrading or recycling). This type of information can be provided via apps or RFID labels for example, thereby helping consumers to make informed decisions. Increased awareness and consciousness can change consumer behavior. This, in turn, encourages produces to step up their game as well.

Sharing platforms are another way to solve the challenge in the use phase. Our society is very used to ownership. However, the result is that in one street with twenty houses for example, there probably are fifteen hand-drills, and seventeen saws, while these tools are barely used. The same goes for the 40 percent of clothing that is catching dust in closets. Sharing platforms can eliminate this problem, as they enable an increased utilization rate of products by making the share use, access, and ownership of clothes possible. An example of sharing platforms comes from a participant in the Innovation Awards 2015, Lena the Fashion Library. With the fashion library, you can borrow and lend clothing, based on a subscription.

…AND ‘REUSE’

The tremendous amounts of clothing that are produced and used, are not being reused. Only 15 percent of extracted materials for fashion worldwide are reused, and most are burned for energy or end up on landfills. What a waste! The recyclability is not the problem, as nearly 100 percent of our clothing is recyclable. Why is the remaining 85 percent not reused or recycled?

Circular economy is commonly understood as synonym for recycling. Recycling is an aspect of circular economy that is of great importance, as recycling clothing has multiple benefits. It can prevent pollution in the energy intensive production of new clothing for example. However, recycling is challenging to achieve, as reflected in the numbers. Returning clothes for recycling still has a high threshold for consumers.

A technique that can help increase the recycle rate in the fashion industry, is reverse logistics. Reverse logistics are as diverse as the in-store recycling bins at H&M and Zara, as making furniture out of textile waste like IKEA. Another example is the biodegradable sneaker of Adidas, or MycoTEX, that has totally adapted its business model to the current linear economic approach. They recognize the current behavior of customers, treating clothing as a disposable good. Therefore, they developed clothing that is completely compostable. The garment can act as a nutrient base for plants after use, thereby closing the loop.

With the current recycling techniques, fabrics lose their quality. The result of this ‘downcycling’ is that the recycled fabrics cannot be used for a new t-shirt for example, but only for low-quality textiles, such as cleaning-towels. A technique that can prevent this downcycling, is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology focuses on the smallest properties of materials and the manipulation thereof. It can improve the material of product, which makes the manufacturing more efficient. Nanotechnology enables the recycling of fabrics, without loss of quality. The fabric can be used in a new production cycle, thereby closing the loop.

Towards a Circular Fashion Industry

Effective circular economy strategies in the fashion industry take a comprehensive perspective across the product lifecycle. This involves analyzing sustainable substitutes in the production phase, incentivizing responsible buying decisions in the use phase, and in the reuse phase extending the useful lifecycle of clothing through durable materials and sharing, and stimulating recycling and responsible disposure at the end of a products’ lifetime. The techniques and opportunities in the produce, use, and reuse phases of clothing are countless, and when supported by collaboration platforms, can really make this work. Collaboration is the key to success. We need a systemic change that can engage all players in the system. Only a circular economy can guarantee that there is infinite consumption in this finite world!

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