Origin of the concept
The concept “circular fashion” was first coined in late spring 2014 by two companies irrespective of each other. One of these was the Swedish consultancy firm Green Strategy, whose head Anna Brismar (PhD) used the term for the first time in mid June 2014 at an early project meeting when planning for the event “CIRCULAR FASHION – SHOW & TALK 2014“. A little earlier, in May the same year, H&M had begun to use the term internally among its sustainability staff at the Stockholm HQs. But it wasn’t until early July 2014, through its former sustainability manager Felix Ockborn, that H&M used the term publicly in a presentation at Almedalen (in Southern Sweden). In fact, 2014 was the year when the notion of “a circular economy” sailed in strongly on the political agenda in Europe and possibly elsewhere too. Apparently the time was right for the two concepts of “circular economy” and “sustainable fashion” to merge.
Definition of “circular fashion”
The concept “circular fashion” is based on principles of circular economy and sustainable development, and relates to the fashion industry in a wide sense, i.e. not only to fashion but also apparel, sportswear and outdoor wear. Garments as well as shoes and accessories are in focus. The sixteen key principles of circular fashion concern the entire life cycle of a product, from design and sourcing, to production, transportation, storage, marketing and sale, as well as the user phase and the product’s end of life. Based on the circular economy framework of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a coherent definition of “circular fashion” is here proposed:
Circular fashion can be defined as clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use. (Dr. Anna Brismar, 2017, circularfashion.com)
In other words, fashion products should be designed with high longevity, resource efficiency, non-toxicity, biodegradability, recyclability and good ethics in mind. Similarly, they should be sourced and produced with priority given to local, non-toxic, renewable, biodegradable and recyclable resources, as well as efficient, safe and ethical practices. Moreover, the products should be used for as long as possible, through good care, repair, refurbishment and sharing among multiple users over time (through rent/lease, secondhand, swap etc). Thereafter, the products should be redesigned to give the material and components new life. Lastly, the material and components should be recycled and reused for the manufacturing of new products. If unfit for recycling, the biological material should instead be composted to become nutrients for plants and other living organisms in the ecosystem. Overall, the life cycle of products should bring no environmental or socio-economic harm but instead contribute to positive development and well-being of humans, ecosystems and societies at large.
In sum, some key strategies for enabling long-life and maximum circulation of products and their materials in society are:
- to design products that can be easily disassembled in order to facilitate repair, redesign, reuse and eventually material recycling (or use mono-materials for easy material recycling);
- to design products of timeless style, high quality materials and durable construction in order to maximize durability, longevity and attractiveness to many users;
- to preferably design products on demand (i.e. made-to-order, -measure or tailor-made) in order to maximize their use frequency and active lifetime (through enhanced emotional durability);
- to design products with the aim of maximum resource efficiency, for example by using effective cutting practices, modular design, limited material combinations, and avoiding insignificant details.
- to source material that is pure (non-toxic), high quality, organic, recycled, recyclable and/or biodegradable, so that it can be safely processed, used, reused, and eventually recycled or composted at its end of life;
- to source, produce, transport and distribute primarily with renewable energy, high resource efficiency, and minimum waste generation, in order to minimize adverse environmental impacts and the extraction of virgin and fossil resources;
- to repair, reuse, reclaim and/or recycle all materials within the supply chain to the maximum extent;
- to provide customer services, such as repair, redesign, secondhand, lease and/or swap, to support long product (and material) life; and
- to reclaim unwanted products through take-back schemes in order to ensure that products and their materials can be reused and recycled in the best manner possible, from an ethical, environmental and socioeconomic standpoint.
Overview on circular economy
Over the last years, the notion of a circular economy has been widely promoted across Europe, North America and Asia. Certain persons and organizations have been particularly successful in spreading the concept and its principles to a wider audience, namely Dame Ellen MacArthur (at Ellen MacArthur Foundation), Walter Stahel (at the Product Life Institute) and Michael Braungart and William McDonough (partly through the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute).
“The circular economy refers to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention; aims to rely on renewable energy; minimise, tracks and eliminates the use of toxic chemicals; and eradicates waste through careful design.” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
In essence, a circular economy implies that all materials and products in society are used and circulate among its users for as long as possible, in an environmentally safe, effective and just manner. Waste as we know it does not exist. Instead, waste is looked upon as a resource or as “nutrients” for other processes to take place in society. Natural resources, including energy, are used effectively during both production and consumption. The use of virgin materials is kept at a minimum. Also, renewable energy sources are prioritized and any undesired environmental impact is prevented or minimized.
Furthermore, all materials are free from hazardous substances and chemicals, in order to enable safe and pure material flows in society. Even non-hazardous particles are not allowed to accumulate in society in ways or levels that could be harmful to ecosystem functioning (so called bio accumulation).
The notion of circular economy also entails making a distinction between, on the one hand, biodegradable components or nutrients that will naturally decompose in Nature, and on the other hand, technically or synthetically manufactured components that can not naturally decompose. Thus, two types of cycles can be distinguished in a circular economy, i.e. biological and technical cycles. For the fashion industry, this means that natural fibers such as cotton, silk, wool, viscose and wood are considered biological nutrients, and should flow in separate biological cycles (or be separable from any technical components). In contrast, polyester, nylon, acrylic, metals and plastics are considered “technical components” and should be recycled in separate flows.
Because technical (synthetic) and biological (natural) components should be treated separately, products that contain at two or more material types should be designed to allow easy separation of individual parts. Hereby, repair and component replacement can be facilitated, as well as redesign (upcycling) and ultimately recycling of individual material types at the end of use. This so-called “design for disassembly” is a central principle of circular economy.
To support a circular economy, various infrastructures, modes of collaboration and new business models should be set up. Also, new design practices are introduced and new customer services provided. The aim is to maximize product longevity and durability through various design and sourcing priorities, and also to support repair, redesign and recycling services. For a fashion company, this may entail offering customers the possibility to rent/lease clothes as opposed to buying. Also, it may entail repair services, whereby customers can hand in broken products for repair or to receive a repair kit for mending at home. Redesign is another service that may be offered by a company. Providing products on demand, i.e. custom-made and/or tailor made, is yet another possible service (sometimes called “purchase of demand”). As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains it:
“…circular economy advocates the need for a ‘functional service’ model in which manufacturers or retailers increasingly retain the ownership of their products and, where possible, act as service providers—selling the use of products, not their one-way consumption. This shift has direct implications for the development of efficient and effective take-back systems and the proliferation of product- and business model design practices that generate more durable products, facilitate disassembly and refurbishment and, where appropriate, consider product/service shifts.” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)
In sum, this circular way of thinking and working brings many new and exciting opportunities for the fashion and textile industry!
Note: All material on circularfashion.com has been developed by Dr. Anna Brismar (CEO of Green Strategy). The material is subject to copyright and is presented here for inspiration and awareness raising. If you wish to reuse any of the material for presentations or publications, please contact Green Strategy through the Contact form for permission. When quoting or referring to the material, please credit the source (circularfashion.com).