Eliminating hazardous substances, reducing raw material consumption and radically changing recycling and also thanks to changes in consumption patterns, fashion brands are making progress in all these fields. The implementation of the circular economy principles could decisively push sustainability in the fashion industry.

The picture seems quite clear. Consumption models, mainly amongst youngsters, revolve around circularity. Such approach implies no restrictions in terms of coolness and aesthetics. Social and technological innovation identifies sustainability as its main engine, with extraordinary results with regard to waste cut and resource consumption. Business models and haute couture collections have still a long way ahead, although even here transformation has already begun and can only gain pace.

A New Activism

The phrase circular fashion made its way into the fashion language for the first time in 2014. However, so far, it has always been an “elusive concept”, as Rachel Cernansky put it in Vogue Business. Today, though, a new activism around this concept is taking root while an increasing number of companies and consumers make more and more converts. McKinsey & Business of Fashion’s report is particularly impressive. Indeed, according to it, circularity will be one of the leading topics in the fashion discourse in 2022.
The elusiveness that so far has characterised circularity in the fashion industry should come as no surprise. For such sector, the ongoing
quest for novelties, currently inscribed in a global mass market, is an intrinsic value that could potentially create unsold stock and overproduction. Such principle is exacerbated by the rapid obsolescence of products cluttering the market; they must make way for new collections.
Overproduction had a negligible impact up until when the fashion industry was a defining feature of the wealthy and the elite, as sociologist Thorstein Veblen described it at the turn of the 19th Century. The
development of prêt-à-porter in the Seventies of the 19th Century allowed access to fashion to a larger share of people, thus turning it into a global phenomenon. At the same time, it multiplied overproduction’s consequences, ending up in fast fashion making fashion trends universally accessible, while speeding up obsolescence cycles and reducing the number of times any garment is worn. Clearly, integrating the circular economy principles into fashion is a challenge within a challenge, requiring transformations of business models and maturation of social, cultural and technological conditions of bordering realms.
Let’s try and make a list of the main signs and symptoms of the new activism according to the taxonomy of
goals for a new economy of the circular fashion put forward by the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Eliminating Hazardous Chemicals

As Christina Raab – Vice President of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute – reminds us, “A circular process starts by selecting safe chemicals and materials both for the environment and health, allowing effective recycling.” The fashion supply chain must be cleared of hazardous goods. Indeed, keeping them in the system or reintroducing them in the production cycle would be a paradox.
Thanks to a movement involving fashion brands and their supply chains at a global level, substantial progress has been made over the last few years. If in the early years of the last decade the goal of eliminating hazardous goods was just not part and parcel of corporate strategies, today the tables have turned. Greenpeace – contributing to the adoption of change via its Detox my Fashion campaign – in late 2021, published a report where it states that “judgement on the evolution of the use of hazardous goods is positive” and that “a paradigm shift” in the textile industry has occurred.
MRSL – lists of hazardous goods included in supply contracts whose use is either prohibited or limited in all stages of the production chain – are now mandatory for all brands and are generally based on much more restrictive parameters compared to law provisions. Given the commitment to banish hazardous goods, today, the fashion industry makes another step forward with a de facto standard adoption of green management of chemicals, promoted by ZDHC Foundation (Zero discharge of hazardous chemicals).

Cutting Resource Consumption with New Ways of Planning, Selling and Using Clothing

Progress in this field has been uneven, quick in the development of new sales channels and in the evolution of consumption preferences, slow with regard to circularity designing. Integration of the circularity principles, right from garment designing, is a tricky but crucial step: garments’ life span, the amount of waste, recovery and recycling possibilities depend on the choice of material, garment making, dyeing and finishing decided by a designer. All such operations are particularly difficult, requiring the development of new designing techniques, knowledge of materials and, more generally, a new attitude and role as a fashion designer. In this regard, we are still at a stage where concepts are being defined. Sharing amongst designers knowledge on principles and goals of the circular fashion and ensuing planning techniques is a pre-requisite and a task largely yet to be carried out.
Guides and handbooks are being circulated, such as Circular Design Kit by Circular Fashion or Circular Design Toolbox by Global Fashion Agenda. Independent designers such as British Bethany Williams, or Chinese Zhang Na – Reclothing Bank founder – Nigerian Adebayo Oke-Lawal – Orange Culture founder or American Emily Adams Bode Aujla have created collections inspiring the whole industry. And yet, while the space that has been gained over the last few years by sustainability and the circular economy in the media, culture and the whole fashion discourse spurred top designers’ interest, it is also true that big brands’ collections inspired by the circular economy’s principles are still few and far between.
Another emerging phenomenon to be investigated are
booming second-hand clothing sales platforms. Second-hand fashion and “pre-loved” shops are nothing new, and consumers’ change in attitude triggered a skyrocketing growth. According to a study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Vestiaire Collective – one of the leading second-hand clothing platforms (with 11 million subscribers in over 80 countries), the second-hand fashion is reportedly worth $40 billion globally. The expected growth is 15-20% per year, which would take the market value to about $75 billion by 2025, with higher growth rates in countries with a higher income.
We are faced with a paradigm shift in consumption patterns. The same BCG study informs us that, in the analysed sample, the number of purchasers of second-hand garments in search of unique items and the variety of available styles is quite high. An equally high share of customers also appreciates affordability and the possibility to buy otherwise unaffordable models, while a minority – albeit not quite so negligible – buys second-hand clothes for environmental reasons.
In 2019, second-hand fashion started to gain momentum. The pandemic did anything but slow down the industry. Business of Fashion reckoned that, between 2019 and 2021, at least 13 new dedicated platforms mushroomed online, in a frenzy involving consumers, fashion brands and investors. Despite the boom, there are many uncertainties looming ahead. Indeed, there’s a variety of business models: C2C sharing, brokerage on consignment, brand-owned platforms (exclusive to brand’s product or open) or independent ones, B2B platforms of Resale as a Service (RAAS). The very economic sustainability is still an open challenge, which the industry’s startups are far from overcoming. Consider that the three platforms that so far have been listed on the Stock Exchange – The Real Real, Poshmark and ThreadUp – up until now have not filed their balance sheets without losses and the current value of their shares is now lower than their placement price. On the European market, an element speeding up further the process will be represented by the coming into force of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes. Mandated by European directive 851 of 2018 on waste, they envisage a revived involvement of producers and importers in end-of-life management of garments. The directive has already been enforced in Italy, France, Germany and Spain and is being adopted in other member states.
Fashion rental is no new concept either, but as with second-hand fashion, the revolution arrived with digital and online businesses which have led to a proliferation of renting platforms. Rent the Runaway – founded in 2009 – was the pioneering company, but it all escalated between 2017 and 2019. Compared to second-hand fashion, there are a few striking differences. First and foremost, the market scope, estimated at less than $4 billion globally; second, the pandemic badly affected the whole sector, virtually cancelling social events, parties and occasions and unfortunately these are the major rental drivers, especially short term.
Another difference is criticism by environmentalists. Rental has allegedly a high environmental impact, for garment logistics and reconditioning, and it reportedly promotes an overconsumption and throwaway culture. Criticism is mainly on short-term rental, which is the lion’s share of most platforms. Long-term rental, such as that of MUD jeans, with an annual rental, and end-of-rental recycling, instead, promotes loyalty to products and an emotional attachment to one’s favourite clothes.

Using Resources Efficiently and Radically Improving Recycling

In this field, evolution has been fast, systemic and has involved both fashion brands and technology suppliers. Let us start from decarbonisation and the Fashion Pact. The reduction of energy from fossil fuels became the main priority also for fashion brands. In 2019, a group of big companies, owning over 200 brands and claiming to generate about 1/3 of fashion turnover worldwide, signed an agreement (The Fashion Pact) with three goals: combating climate change by adopting Science Based Targets to achieve zero net emissions by 2030; defending biodiversity and reducing fashion impact on oceans. The report of achievements a year on from the signature shows concrete progress towards such goals.
Another aspect is that of
technological innovation in recycling textile materials. There has been a rapid development in the recycling of cellulose-based materials, mainly textile waste in cotton. The two major producers of artificial cellulose-based fibres started (Lenzing in 2017 and Aditya Birla in 2020) producing, on an industrial scale, fibres containing 30% recycled materials. In 2021, Lenzing announced its target to increase its production to 25,000 tonnes by 2025 and Birla to achieve 100,000 by 2024.
Re:newcell, a new player in this market, completed its first industrial scale plant, its production will start mid-2022 and will process 70,000 tonnes per year of cotton textile waste for the production of viscose and several other technologies are currently being prototyped or in their demonstration phase.
However, over
60% of materials used in the textile sector still contains synthetic fibres derived from fossil fuels, mainly polyester and polyamide, commonly called nylon. Over the last decade, the percentage of polyester derived from recycling, nearly all from PET bottles, has reached up to 15%, while the recycling of polyester textile waste is still very limited, but technologies, despite still in their demonstration or pilot plant phases, such as Worn Again’s, can recover polyester fibres from textile waste even when mixed with others. As for polyamide, in recent years, a very successful story is that of Econyl (by Italian Aquafil), obtained from the chemical recycling of post-consumer waste, which has become a must for luxury brands such as Prada, committed to banning virgin nylon and recycled nylon use only. More traditional mechanical technologies for recycling wool and cotton are also growing. Many brands – from Levi’s to Nudie Jeans, Diesel, Calvin Klein, Zara and H&M – announced for 2022 increases in their share of recycled fibre.
In the short term, pre-consumer waste offers the best potential for recycling, but changes that will be introduced in the coming years by
policies on EPR and secondhand clothes collection could shift, at least in Europe, the balance of such opportunities.

The Fashion of the Future Will Be Circular

A paradigm shift is confirmed by the evolution over the past three years; and to date, the effect of the pandemic has not reversed it or drastically slowed it down. In the business community there is consensus on the fact that recovery, already heftily taking place despite fears of new waves of infection, will be based on circularity and sustainability values. The real question is not if but when an effective and vast reduction of fashion’s negative impacts on the environment, health and society will take place.
Consumption models are headed towards circularity, without compromising on coolness, aesthetic and symbolic values which characterize the realm of fashion; technological innovation is also heading this way. New business and collection planning models, though, are only just making baby steps in this direction.

Immagine: Graphe Tween (Unsplash)

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