What does it take to make fashion circular?
Globally, the USD 1.3 trillion clothing industry employs more than 300 million people along the value chain, making it an important sector in the global economy. However, it is also one of the most polluting industries, producing 1.2 billion tons of CO 2 per year. If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will use up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new garments. Not only that, an estimated USD 500 billion value is lost every year due to clothing being barely worn and rarely recycled. By moving to a circular system, the industry can unlock a USD 560 billion economic opportunities. Realizing this opportunity requires strategic efforts.
First, we need to solve the issue from the supply side of fashion. At the designing stage, clothes should be designed for longevity from durable and high-quality raw materials. We need to move instead towards circular, biodegradable, and natural fibers – responsibly produced and sourced. More than 63% of existing textile fiber supply chains are accounted for by synthetics like polyester and acrylic. While they are cheaper than organic materials, synthetics are fossil-based, non-biodegradable, challenging to recycle, and worse, they generate plastic microfibers that pollute our oceans.
Furthermore, it is important to address the mountains of unsold clothes’ inventory in the production stage itself. Around 30% of all clothes made around the world are never sold, according to the Australian Circular Textile Association (ACTA) and the cost of this inventory distortion is estimated by IHL Group in 210 billion US dollars. By utilizing technologies such as item-level RFID suppliers can ensure higher accuracy of their inventory and therefore decrease both their bloated stock and carbon footprint due to transportation and manufacturing. Lastly, there is a strong need for the industries to replace fast fashion culture with one that is circular. This can be done by developing Rental Clothing Models that provide customers with access to a variety of clothes while decreasing the demand for new clothing production. There are examples of specialized garments such as MUD Jeans offering high-quality denim, Vigga offering a subscription for baby wear, Rent the Runway targeting working women, and offering an ‘unlimited’ subscription service.
Second, we need to replace today’s throwaway culture and stimulate demand among consumers for recycling and long-term use. This is not as daunting as it sounds.
In fact, the latest figures from the ThredUp Resale report 2019 show that resale has grown 21 times faster than retail over the past five years. 56 million women bought second-hand products in 2018, up from 44 million in 2017. Therefore, if clothes are increasingly made to last, introducing attractive resale models suited to a wider customer base locally (i.e. in the same countries where clothes are being discarded) could significantly increase clothing utilization.
Accessible services and widespread support for users to maintain their clothes for longer (e.g. through repair, restyle, washing, and storing) could help to keep clothes at their highest perceived and actual value. Clothes that hold high physical and emotional durability would in turn increase demand for repair services.
Third, intervention from policymakers at various levels is required to set a direction for the transition and create the right enabling conditions. Policymakers are well-positioned to contribute to the change through legislation and regulations, realigning incentives, connecting different players pre-competitively, influencing aspects of design and standards positively, and stimulating innovation. They bring circular economic principles into the education curriculum and promote R&D in the field to bloom future visionaries. They can also incentivize projects, and encourage collaboration between public and private sectors or also loop in NGOs working towards the cause.
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/fast-fashion-is-unsustainable-heres-what-we-need-to-do/ ; https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/explore/fashion-and-the-circular-economy ; https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report_Updated_1-12-17.pdf