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Circularity and Fashion: (How) Does That Work?

Polly Polly 14 Jan 2021 Circularity and Fashion: (How) Does That Work?

Circular fashion is a game-changer for sustainability in the fashion industry and challenging well-established brands to rethink their business and make impactful changes. But what is circular fashion? How is it different from recycling? Does it actually exist yet? If so, where can you find these circular fashion brands?

Sustainability and fashion: two aspects of our lives that no longer have to be incompatible. There are plenty of ways to make fashion more sustainable and to reduce our negative impact on the environment. There’s a lot you as a consumer can do, and there are loads of fashion brands taking the ethical and sustainable route.

But what if the entire production and use process is turned upside down and we try to envision the end of the linear era? A new way that actually allows you to make a positive impact on Mama Earth? Ready for the circular fashion paradigm shift?

Main takeaways:

What is circular fashion?

Circular fashion closes the loop on fashion and textiles. Leaving the regular linear approach to fashion behind, in circular fashion waste and pollution are carefully designed out; not just products but also materials are kept in use for as long as possible, finding new purposes via reusing and finally recycling; and natural systems are regenerated.1

Circular fashion is a new approach to fashion that carefully considers the materials that go into a product, the production phase as well as acknowledges the product's value and aims to prolong its life cycle.2 To put it more simply:

“Circular fashion considers the production of an item and the end of its life cycle to be equally important."

This means that in circular fashion, a product circulates in our society for as long as possible. Garments are almost endlessly used, reused, repaired, swapped, thrifted, donated, redesigned - and only when they have truly reached the end of their life cycle - recycled or even composted - to prevent waste production and pollution.

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Circular Fashion Model

The woman who coined the term 'circular fashion', Anna Brismar, defines circular fashion 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.”3

- Anna Brismar, Green Strategy, 2017

Essentially, circular fashion serves as an alternative model to the damaging - and unfortunately still dominant - linear economic model that took over the fashion industry.2

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Linear Fashion Model

This linear model is literally unsustainable. The damage - both social and environmental - caused by the (fast) fashion industry, and our society’s impulsive buying behaviour, overproduction and throwaway culture as a result, we are hoping to soon make a thing of the past. Let’s make compassion and sustainability the new normal.

The principles of circular fashion

The intention behind circular fashion is to make a long-lasting piece while making sure that the resources that went into the product were used efficiently.3

It’s not just the design process that’s different...

When designing a new fashion piece, the concepts of non-toxicity, biodegradability, renewability, recyclability, good ethics are also kept in mind and prioritized.

This also means that fewer materials are used to produce an item in order to increase its recyclability, the aim is to avoid using polluting and nonrecyclable components in the production and for the unavoidable waste to be returned safely to the biosphere.2

Circular fashion doesn't have a key focus on one-and-only product's phase. The whole life cycle is taken into account: not only the design and material sourcing but also the production, transportation, storage, marketing, user phase and the end of the product's life cycle. have a part in this too

What needs to be emphasized is the fact that the designers or manufacturers are not the only ones responsible for implementing the principles of circular fashion. The consumers actually play a key role in circular fashion too. How so?

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Principles for a Circular Fashion Industry

It is the consumers in particular who need to take good care of their garments, repair them when needed and make sure that once the item is no longer wanted, it will find its way to another person who will make good use of this pre-loved item again. So, donating, renting, swapping or selling unwanted clothes lies in the hearth of circular fashion - and in the hands of conscious consumers.

When the time comes and you need to say goodbye to a garment because it is no longer good for use - and only then - it should be recycled. This way, the materials get a new purpose - instead of just being wasted.

If the garment is made of unrecyclable materials, it should be fit for a compost. This way, no waste is produced and environmental harm is avoided. Even better, a positive contribution is made because the materials are re-used: either for a new product or as a nutrient for plants and living organisms in the soil. And the circle continues.

Why should you opt for circular fashion?

One of the ways to fight the waste produced by the fashion industry and the fashion choices we, as consumers, make might be opting for circular fashion pieces. Circular fashion redesigns waste into a new, unwasteful purpose.

The concept of circular fashion is inspired by the principles of circular economy and sustainable development. It offers itself as an alternative to the linear economy model which is responsible for an incredible amount of waste - the numbers are truly shocking.

Get ready for the next 4 mind-boggling facts. Did you know that....

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Circular, Linear and Recycling Economy Models

  • Three out of five of the 100 billion fashion items made in 2018 ended up in landfill within a year?4
  • Up to 95% of the garments that end up in landfill could be reused and recycled?5
  • Actually, less than 1% of garments is recycled into new clothes?1
  • And on average, a person throws away 30 kg of shoes and clothes per year (instead of recycling it)?6

This is mainly due to the linearity of the fashion industry. The brands are encouraged to take the resources they need, turn them into products, sell it to the consumers who, once done with them, just throw them away.

Sometimes, certain principles of circular fashion, such as recycling or reusing a product, find their way to the regular linear model of the fashion industry. However, the ending is always the same: creating waste - which is the exact opposite of what circular fashion is striving to achieve.

This needs to be radically changed. And as quickly as possible.

“Because the equivalent of about 354 garbage trucks of garments was burned or ended up in a landfill since you started reading this article."7

Myths about circular fashion, debunked

There are two common arguments challenging the concept of circular fashion.8

1. Isn’t it just a fancy term for recycling? (Nope.)

Some feel that circular fashion is just a more fancy term for recycling. This can be easily debunked as circular fashion is not about longevity, material recovery, recycling or composting alone.1 It is about all of these things (and even more) combined together.

The linear fashion model can implement one or two principles of circular fashion but it still doesn't make it circular. For instance, a fast fashion brand might collect your old, unwanted clothes (and give you a gift card in return, to push you into spending more money in their store by buying yet another T-shirt). But if your unwanted clothes are unfit for recycling, and the brand burns or stores them in a landfill, it just misses the point of the circular fashion system, really.

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2. Won’t circular fashion be detrimental for businesses?

Here it gets a bit more complex. In other words, people will shop less, causing other people to lose their jobs. The thing is, and to quote Anna Brismar again: “It is up to the industry to adapt, and it needs to do so fast.”8

Our planet and its resources are limited and sooner or later, the fashion industry will need to find a way to make its business more sustainable. And circular fashion might be one of the solutions. By focusing on creating valuable services instead of selling short-term products led by a profit-motivated outlook on business, the industry might build a global economy with the potential to blossom in the long run.

To put it more simply, there is a potential to generate more jobs. Actually, it is estimated that the circular economy would generate about 700 000 jobs in the European Union by 2030.9 We don't deny the fact that some sectors will, unfortunately, suffer. But at the same time, the resource management, collection, sorting, repair, maintenance, remanufacturing and remarketing sectors will open many doors to people looking for employment. So, there are plenty of ways to ensure that the circular economy won't be just helping the environment but also our fellow humans.

“The future of fashion is circular. It has to be."8 - Stella McCartney

Pioneering Circular Fashion Brands

The circular fashion system is still in its early stage. Many sustainable brands are doing an amazing job but are maybe just too small to experiment with circular fashion designs. Despite facing several obstacles, there are a few circular fashion pioneers that got our full attention!

1. MUD Jeans

The world’s first circular denim brand MUD Jeans works with recycling experts to close their own loop - their jeans contain up to 40% post-consumer recycled denim (and they are aiming to design a pair of jeans made of 100% post-consumer waste!).10

There are many reasons why we fell mudly in love with them - and probably, you will too. Not only that MUD Jeans are vegan, ethically produced, GOTS-certified and offer the option to rent a pair of jeans, take back and recycle your pre-loved denim jeans you no longer have use for, but… in the last four years, they also saved:

  • 533 million litres of water
  • 1 million kilos of CO2
  • 20.000 jeans from being burned or ending up in landfill

Supporting the circular fashion concept by wearing stylish denim jeans? Sounds like a plan!

A tip: Check out the Cradle to Cradle certification that promotes circularity (also) in the fashion industry.

2. Näz

The Portuguese brand Näz, inspired by circular economy, works also with recycled cotton, recycled polyester made from recycled plastic bottles and leftover fabrics to prevent more textile waste.11 Their commitment pays off - they save 765 litres of water per 1 kg of recycled cotton and generate about 54% less CO2 emissions when using recycled polyester.

3. OhSevenDays

Made in Turkey, the brand OhSevenDays makes minimalistic womenswear from leftover fabrics found in factories in Istanbul.12 This brand is committed to transparent production - and you can actually see the faces of people who made your clothes.

4. 337 BRAND

The vegan fashion brand 337 BRAND is worth mentioning too. Based in New York City, GOTS-, Oeko-Tex- and OCS-certified, 337 BRAND strives for circularity by making and recycling their products in a closed-loop system with minimum or no waste.13

If you enjoyed reading this article and learned something new, you might appreciate these blogs too:


1. 'What is Circular Fashion?' C, Lissaman. 2019
2. 'What is Circular Fashion?' M, Hill. 2020
3. 'Origin of the concept ‘circular fashion’.' A, Brismar. n.d.
4. 'Waste and pollution.' Clean Clothes Campaign. n.d.
5. 'Did you know...' Smart. n.d.
6. 'Why Recycle Shoes and Clothing?' World Wear Project. n.d.
7. 'One garbage truck of textiles wasted every second: report creates vision for change.' Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2017
8. 'Introducing circular fashion: the shopping concept that could save the planet.' E, Alexander. 2019
9. 'Unwanted clothes, happy workers: Exploring the potential for circular textiles to have a positive impact on work and workers.' H, van Duijn; J, Dufourmont; N, Papu. 2020
10. 'Frontrunners in circular denim.' MUD Jeans. n.d.
11. 'Sustainbility' Näz. n.d.
12. 'About Us.' OhSevenDays. n.d.
13. 'About.' 337 BRAND. n.d.