Fashion is to think circular…

Fashion is to Think Circular – in Circular Economy

by Alice Beyer Schuch – Dec 2016 (This article was written to Slow Fashion Next (in Spanish), and shared with Moda Sem Crise (in Portuguese).

Normally, when we think on fashion, we think on colour trends, shapes, fabrics, connected to the magic and the show. In that context, the word economy can seem to us almost a bug with seven heads, something that definitely does not go hand in hand. But it should not be like that – fashion is a gigantic business that moves more than $ 1 trillion in the economy every year, and that, unfortunately, has a shocking environmental and social footprint. And to tackle that, we must give colour to fashion (yes!) with the term “circular economy”, closely checking its concept and application.

Many of us often think that circular economy speaks only about recycling. But it is not only that, although it is a very important topic – in a study of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, global reference in circular economy, it was verified that in Europe, the recycling of materials and the recovery of energy from waste, captures only 5% of the gross value of the original material, assuming a large margin for its development. The circular economy is much richer and can suggest other examples of how to design, produce, commercialize and use fashion in a more responsible and sustainable way.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s definition says that Circular Economy is restorative and regenerative by design, and aims to ensure that products, components and maintain their utility and value at all times. But what is that?

Initially, it means that we, as designers or owners of textiles and fashion businesses, must design products thinking about their “end” – the time when that product will no longer be used – in order to allow their safe return to the next cycle – either to nature or to the productive cycle. A product made from recycled fibres, but which, because of its textile composition, for example, does not allow future recycling or the return of natural fibres to the ecosystems safely, has a design problem. It is a recycled product, has its valuable points in the long way of sustainability, but it was not thought in a restorative or regenerative way in its beginning.

In addition to thinking about design, circular economy brings us the concept of extending the service-cycle of products, components and their materials. I say service-cycle and not life-cycle, because there are many products that we throw that have not yet “died” and can perfectly continue serving its purpose (like that piece of fashion we bought last month and now we do not like).

Among business models that apply this idea of extension, there are those that promote sharing, reuse, repair, and re-fabrication

For me, the most interesting point in this is that these are not innovative or disruptive activities, since our ancestors did them also in their daily life. These are forgotten activities, swallowed up by the “progress” suggested by the Industrial Revolution, and currently unexplored, but which have an incredible potential for value extension.

Add from the 40’s

At every opportunity to reuse a product, its component or material, we reduce its initial environmental impact by half, reduce investments in the production of new items, reduce the need and dependence on new resources – as well as avoid exposure to its volatility of prices, we consequently reduce the emissions of gases, and elimination of an immense volume of discard, besides promoting new jobs since they are intensely manual activities.

I believe Sweden, for example, would not propose a new law that reduces the tax rates on repairs – from 25% to 12% – unless they see an incredible opportunity to create value for society, nature and their national economy.

Second-hand shops, although stigmatized by many, is another important example in the fashion circular scene. The use of technological innovations and the ease of connection via internet is its most current model. Reselling our used clothing on a website, or at events coordinated and spread in social medias, are becoming more frequent.

Thinking about circular economy is in vogue, but it is not a passing trend. Circular economy, its application in design and suggestion of new business models – using more widely and effectively the possibility of connection and dissemination through digital technology – is a need. Being aware of the negative impacts of fashion and absorbing the concept of circularity in our Designs and Business is a fundamental step to become “future-proof”.


***References: Report: Towards a Circular Economy Book: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability-Design for Abundance de McDonough y Braungart, 2013.

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