According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates, the equivalent of one lorry full of clothes is thrown in a landfill or incinerated every second. The global fashion industry keeps growing, but only 1% of textiles is successfully recycled. This trend must be reversed, redesigning a new fashion system based on the coordinates of the circular economy.
To reinvent the fashion industry so that it is beautiful, on the outside and the inside. This is the goal of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s ambitious programme for making the fashion system more circular and sustainable. We are talking about a gargantuan sector, which employs over 300 million people globally and is experiencing constant growth: it is estimated that in the past 15 years alone, the production of clothing has doubled, driven by the expansion of the middle class and, most of all, by the unstoppable rise of fast fashion. According to a projection by the Foundation, at this pace the textile market will reach 160 million tonnes by 2050.
More clothes produced and sold means more clothes discarded, unused, thrown away, piled up in warehouses, buried in landfills, burned in incinerators. With all the obvious repercussions in terms of pollution, carbon footprint, resource and energy consumption. Not to mention the economic waste: it has been calculated that consumers globally lose the equivalent of 460 billion dollars by throwing away clothes that could still be used. This is value that must be recovered and waste that must be avoided. How? By changing the system. By completely redesigning the current fashion system, based on the coordinates of the circular economy.
We talked about this with Marilyn Martinez, project manager for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Fashion Team.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has a wide and ambitious programme to render fashion circular, but this sector seems particularly hard to transform into a more sustainable and regenerative industry. What are the main problems to be tackled?
Well, I think that fashion is as hard as any other sector. We know that the fashion industry is mostly linear, which we revealed in the 2017 report A New Textile Economy. This report found that 97% of the materials came from finite virgin resources and less than 1% is recycled to generate more clothes. Furthermore, in the last 15 years, the production of clothing has doubled and the average use of each garment has fallen by 36%, which means that today, approximately once every second a lorry full of clothes is sent to landfill or incinerated.
According to 2018 data, the fashion industry is responsible for approximately 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a figure equivalent to the combined yearly emissions of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. It is thus crucial to transform the economic model in a circular sense. In our vision of a circular fashion industry, clothes are used more, they are made to be re-manufactured, and are made from safe, renewable, or recycled materials. This is what we are working for. It is not simple, because it involves transforming the entire system; incremental improvements are not enough. Truthfully, what we need is a redesign of the entire system: everything that is produced should be created with the right materials to be durable; all garments should be put on the market through circular business models that keep them in circulation and, when they reach their end-of-life, they should be collected, sorted, and recycled in an economically and technically sustainable way. It being a global industry, the redesign of the entire system must happen on a global scale.
One of the key words in the sustainable fashion strategy is the expression “capturing the full value”. What does this mean?
To manufacture a product – a t-shirt, for example – it is necessary, first and foremost, to grow the cotton, and doing this requires land and water. Then, the cotton has to be processed and inserted into the manufacturing cycle. All these steps require the use of many natural and economic resources, which are thus embodied in that t-shirt. Therefore, if it is worn only a dozen or so times – which happens in certain cases in Europe or the United States – before being thrown away and ending up in a landfill, its full value will not be captured. The value of the resources used to produce the t-shirt is not harnessed, and probably neither is the value paid to purchase it. So the point is: how can we successfully maintain this t-shirt at its maximum value so that it gets used more and does not lead to waste? Which processes must be activated to ensure that garments are worn more times before they are recycled?
The current fashion supply chains were designed and launched about 20 years ago for a market that no longer exists. They are designed based on linear rationales for unidirectional flows, where the industry tells people what they should buy and when. The entire system was built to reduce the production cost for a single item to the absolute minimum, rather than optimising use and trying to maximise local and global reuse. Therefore, capturing the full value means asking ourselves: how can we redesign the system so that the fashion industry successfully generates more revenue without manufacturing more products? How can we create more income streams for a single product and capture the full value of products that already exist?
Thus we get to new business models that make up the pillars of a circular system: rental, second-hand retail, repair, re-manufacturing. How can they be profitable for the industry?
Simply because they are based on the awareness that business as usual does not work in the long term. A linear economy is based on the extraction of limited virgin resources to create products that will not be used for long and will end up in a landfill or incinerated. But because resources are limited, it’s clear that it cannot grow indefinitely. Hence, the point is to find a way to generate more revenue without the need to manufacture more products. Circular business models, such as second-hand retail, rental, or repair, allow companies to create more income streams for a product, so as to effectively decouple growth from the extraction of limited virgin resources. You sell a piece of clothing, then generate revenue through repair services for that same garment or by reselling it more times if the first buyer no longer wants it. The goal, in other words, is to achieve more financial transactions for the same product, multiplying its yield.
The new book by the Foundation, Circular Design for Fashion, includes contributions from industry leaders and famous designers. What is the fashion industry’s perspective on the circular transition?
As a matter of fact, the circular transition is a question of economic rationale and common sense. It is about creating a better economic model for improved growth in the sector. All those who contributed to the Circular Design for Fashion book see circular design as an opportunity for the industry to prosper in the future, that is to keep generating revenue given that, as I have explained, if we do not change the way we produce and consume, in 5-10 years we will no longer be able to grow as much as we are doing today.
To create this book we spoke with many creatives who, in this moment, are trying to transform the fashion industry from one of the main causes of global problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss, into a part of the solution. They are asking themselves how it can be possible to apply these principles in their daily work, so as to directly contribute to solving those problems through the products they put on the market. It is a new transformative practice that will soon become the standard in creative design processes.
So how can we define circular design?
Let us start from the fact that everything is based on design, seeing as it is necessary to design the product, the processes, the system, everything. When we talk about circular design, therefore, we do not just mean the design of durable products, made from recycled materials or conceived for recyclability. Circular design goes beyond product design, it means a radical system change. It literally involves redesigning the system, bearing in mind the core principles of the circular economy: Eliminate (the idea of waste), Circulate (resources), Regenerate (the environment).
All the people who contributed to the book, around 80 creatives and designers, tell a story about what circular design means to them. What emerges is that it is a journey and a collaborative practice. It’s a different way of thinking: we collaborate, we test results, and repeat the good ones. And it’s a journey because everything that is possible today is different from what will be possible in three or five years. The goals will keep moving a bit further, and we will keep chasing them and getting better.
Image: Keagan Henman (Unsplash)