What is Circular Fashion
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Circular Fashion - Definition and Progress Towards Sustainability

Stakeholders in the fashion industry, from conscious consumers to manufacturers, are beginning to realize the impact of our fashion choices, especially on our environment and various economies. Here we look at the introduction of circular fashion practices and initiatives while answering the question, "what is circular fashion?". And more importantly, can it help?

Owing to the drastic changes witnessed in the ecosystem and economy, experts are calling for better industry practices in all spheres of the economy. We expect these proposed changes to lead to a "circular economy."

This concept hopes to create an economic system where the production, distribution, supply chain, and use of consumer products do not result in scarcity or extinction of resources.

Circular fashion is sustainable fashion. The industry traditionally operates on a system that rapidly consumes resources with little or no structure for renewal. Circularity ensures close to optimum resource management, with low waste and pollution. As such, this makes it attractive and beneficial to the fashion industry and the environment.

The fashion industry is the second biggest polluter, and predictions suggest it could use over 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2°C global warming limit1. It requires sustainable practices to change the narrative, and circular fashion is a model to achieve this goal.

So, what is circular fashion, and how does it work?

What is Circular Fashion?

Circular fashion is the practice of removing waste and 'expiry timelines' from the design of fashion items and allowing a longer life cycle through repurposing and recycling.

Circular fashion tackles sustainability from its very beginning, from the raw materials used for fiber production to the last phase of the product's lifespan.

Anna Brismar claims to be the first person to use the term "circular fashion" in Sweden in 2014. Head of the Green Strategy consulting firm, Brismar claims to have used the term almost simultaneously with apparel giant H&M.

The entire concept quickly gained popularity in Sweden and spread to the rest of the world in no time. The core idea of circular fashion is to increase the design and durability of apparel, so it retains functionality and its most valuable form for as long as possible, both as a finished product and material. Once no longer of human use, at the end of the product life cycle, we should be able to return our discards safely to the biosphere.

The term circular fashion stemmed from sustainability in the fashion industry. Sustainable fashion does more than promote the reuse of existing textiles; it also calls for more eco-friendly production methods and end-end circular models that reduce or eliminate the use of non-renewable resources entirely.

This way, stakeholders will take every step into account and review it to ensure that resources reach the maximum usage potential before final disposal.

Collaboration Across the LifeCycle of Fashion

Therefore, circularity in fashion requires collaborative efforts of different sectors in the industry. These include raw material producers, textile manufacturers, apparel producers, and retailers. The input of the government and consumers is also essential in creating a circular fashion industry.

One of the key ideas for circular fashion is the separation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable materials. This separation is in the sense that even when manufacturers use both types of materials in one product, they can still be separated at the point of reprocessing and renewed separately.

The resulting processes minimize the loss of technical resources such as nylon, polyester, acrylic, and biological materials like cotton and wool. This separation makes it possible to dispose of waste safely, allowing only organic waste to seep back into the soil and oceans.

Circular initiatives to tackle fashion's waste problem

Since the emergence of circular fashion trends, the fashion industry has witnessed innovations in tackling waste and plastic fiber pollution.

Sustainable fashion brands now transform fabric waste from apparel factories and old clothes into materials for making new clothes for human use. New plant fibers like pinatex, made from pineapple leaves, and leather made from cactuses, have come into existence, pointing the way to more sustainable materials.

We also have new distribution models that disrupt linear use systems. These include fast-gaining popular initiatives like Make Fashion Circular launched in 2017 and Circular.

These initiatives provide information, training, resources, collaborations, and more. They aim their efforts at facilitating the global spread of circularity in fashion. They bring together NGOs, big fashion brands, innovators, scientists, startups, cities, investors, and concerned citizens to push the circular fashion concept forward.

Circular fashion has the potential to unlock a more robust circular fashion economy, protect the ecosystem, and improve individual finances over time.

Benefits of Circular Fashion

Benefits of Circular Fashion
Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash

It is becoming increasingly clear that fast fashion, despite its cheapness, is detrimental to the economy and environment.

In the last 15 years, clothing production of new garments has increased and become more affordable. However, this is affecting the lifespan of clothing items. Even low-income countries with high clothing reuse and re-distribution rate still contribute to a global loss of $460 billion of non-recycled materials and clothes.

Circular fashion can open up a $560 billion economic opportunity when it is entirely in gear (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

New roles in production, marketing, distribution, and after-sales maintenance will come into place, furthering the circular economy. After-sales care specialists like dry cleaners, technicians, repairs, and the like will have more income as people fix their clothes and accessories instead of thrashing them.

Offering services like redesigning, upgrades, and customization will make fashion products more versatile and useful. Circular systems reduce the industry's dependence on raw materials to achieve a positive impact over and above the current approaches to textile waste and polluting processes.

The production will rely instead on renewing the materials already in circulation through processes like mechanical recycling and reuse, which directly affects agriculture. Farmers of plant fibers will no longer need harmful chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides to over-maximize yield. Also, animal husbandry practices will become more humane because the pressure of production will be reduced.

Plastic pollution from fibers made from fossil fuels will reduce drastically, as there will be almost no new input. Besides being good for the ecosystem and economy, circular fashion will bring better value to fashion products and spurn a new breed of ethical brands championing a circular business model.

Circular Fashion is Better Fashion

Making circular products involves infusing them with more value in material composition and design. This extra value will reflect on how consumers use and care for their clothes and accessories.

Consumers will better appreciate the effort and creativity that goes into making a simple cotton shirt. Which, in turn, will improve the public image of the fashion industry. Circular fashion will also ensure that each fashion item reflects its actual cost on the price tag.

Unlike the practices of fast fashion brands, where manufacturers and retailers sell clothes cheaply, benefiting just the companies and distributors, a circular system means farmers reap more benefits without producing in excess.

Workers tend to put in their expertise in garment making and receive decent remuneration. Also, putting the cost of the clothing to the environment into consideration. All these will ensure that consumers make more responsible choices in garment purchase and care.

Factors Affecting Circularity in Fashion

Circular fashion is a relatively new system, and it faces challenges in the way of its establishment. One major factor that affects circularity is consumer behavior. The practices of recycling, upcycling, thrifting, renting, and cradle-to-cradle systems depend on the attitude of consumers.

People who find climate change a concern will be more likely to adopt circular fashion shopping and reuse practices to reduce their carbon footprint.

Circular Fashion Diagram
Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

However, people who find themselves ignorant or less concerned about climate change and environmental pollution will find no reason to change from a linear usage system.

A high percentage of renewability and recycled materials will depend on how well consumers care for the products. Also, the orientation of consumers about buying used clothes and accessories is only just changing from negative to positive.

Before the emergence of higher-end resale and the subsequent popularity of thrifting, many consumers perceived it as something only the poor would do. However, the rise of online thrift stores in the US and Europe, with many prominent players now reselling millions of second-hand clothes, points to changing consumer attitudes. And large-scale business opportunities.

Growing Support

Notable media voices in fashion, like Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, support the circular fashion system. Companies that credit consumers for using the cradle-to-cradle system also provide additional incentives for consumer attitude change.

Another issue that presents itself is the creation of new ethical fashion business models to replace traditional production and distribution methods. There's a need for large-scale innovation and production re-designs. Alongside knowledge sharing and a shorter line of delivery to make this happen.

Circular fashion cannot wipe out the traditional system in one swoop; it calls for a gradual change. The Make Fashion Circular Initiative has brought together apparel giants like Gap Inc., Stella McCartney (through Stella McCartney Cares Foundation), HSBC, Burberry, Inditex, PVH, and H&M Group to facilitate collaborations.

Innovations in Circular Fashion

Establishing circular fashion requires three critical changes across the entire life cycle of our clothes. The first step is to redirect the source of raw new materials from virgin resources to renewable waste. Next is to develop business models that keep products in circulation for as long as possible. Longer than linear use allows.

These practices include clothing rental, thrifting, peer-to-peer lending, and the like. The last key factor is the ethical disposal of waste which often comes at the final stage of circulation. There are quite a lot of eco-friendly brands in the business of selling used items and others that rent out clothes on short-term or subscriptions enabling a more circular approach.

Companies like MUD Jeans, Rent The Runway, and Vigga specialize in renting out clothing. ThredUp, Poshmark, Bagista, and others provide an online platform for trading used clothing and accessories.

Apparel companies like Patagonia, Salewa, Bergans, Jack Wolfskin, and Houdini are elongating the life span of their products with after-sales maintenance. They also offer repair services. A typical example is Patagonia which handles about 50,000 repairs per year.

Evrnu, a company launched in 2015, has developed a technology to regenerate cotton waste from unwanted clothes. The process involves breaking down waste into liquid and re-manufacturing it as higher-performing fibers.

Sustainable sneaker manufacturer Thousand Fell, and undergarment producer, Big Favourite operate on a cradle-to-cradle model. They offer collection schemes and credit to customers for sending back worn-out items for textile recycling.


Circular fashion aims to create a system where fashion products are ethically sourced, produced, used and reintroduced into circulation—all without causing damage to the environment and health in the same way as the linear economy. This radical transformation of the fashion industry is already underway and deserves all of our support.

Circular Fashion Jeans on a Rack
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels
1Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashions future. 2017.
By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Main Photo by Parker Burchfield on Unsplash
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