Circular economy – the fashion industry’s new style staple

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Fashion trends are circular (80’s trends such as bleached denim and crop tops are apparently all the rage this summer), yet the fashion we wear is inherently designed to be linear.

This point was vividly illustrated at the RSA: The Great Recoveryworkshop at Resource 2014. After exploring the problem with industry experts (including LMB Textile Recycling and Worn Again) we had the opportunity to get our hands dirty uncovering what makes up the clothes we wear. Each table was given a bundle of used clothes of varying material, type and quality. We were also given a haberdashery of tools to rip the clothing apart at the seams.

On our table was a branded sports shoe, a pair of Levi’s jeans, and two coats – one felt-based, the other PVC based. This activity unveiled some interesting issues inherent in the fashion industry. For instance, the branded sports shoe was clearly built for longevity, a sturdy sole it would be difficult to wear down and stitching which could not be undone in the time we had to give it our worst.

On the other hand the felt-based coat came apart with little effort and no tools other than brute force. Clearly not a garment designed to last. This scenario was repeated across the workshop. How to reduce fashion waste and establish a closed loop system when the textile industry is focussed on cheap, low quality fashion or products which cannot be easily torn down and remanufactured?

The fashion industry appears to be waking up to these issues. Clothing giants H&M reiterated their support for the circular economy only last week. They recognise the business case in reducing natural resource dependency and waste, while maintaining assets within the supply chain.

There is a long way to go to establish a circular textile industry, though some strides are being made. Worn Again are in the advanced feasibility stage of developing a quality and cost-effective chemical textile recycling technology to separate polyester and cotton – one of the biggest challenges of establishing a closed loop textile system.

Yet there still remains one colossal hurdle – us, the customer. In wardrobes across the UK there is £30 billion worth of clothing which hasn’t been worn in over a year, some of it never worn. Despite this we continue to spend, spend, spend.

On average we consume £1700 annually per household on new fashions, yet there is £1000 of unused clothing lying in our wardrobes. Something here just doesn’t add up. I would love to say I am absolved of any guilt, but looking at my own wardrobe it is littered with perfectly good items of clothing going to waste.

The wheels of the textile industry may be slowly turning towards a circular economy, but will never get there until the customer opens their perception to a new, transformative model of ownership.

A circular economy system may yet be a long way off, but we as consumers can establish habits of repair, recycling and renewal while we wait for the industry to catch up. Look in your own wardrobe; it may be time for a spring clean…

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