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Can clothes live forever? Fashion and the circular economy

One of the big issues with the fashion industry is the amount of waste it produces. As well as waste that is created during the manufacturing process, the sheer amount of clothing manufactured means tonnes of garments are thrown away by retailers and consumers every day.

But what if this wasn’t the case? What if we produced less clothing, and any fabric offcuts or garments that were no longer needed were made into new clothing? This could be possible with the circular economy.

What is the circular economy?

The circular economy is a concept for a creating products and services in a way that eliminates waste. It does this firstly by putting any waste that is generated back into the economy to create new products, and secondly by designing products and services that will produce as little waste as possible.

This might be through the materials used – for example, materials that are easy to compost or to turn into new products without creating any waste.

But it might also be through rethinking how we buy and use products. Clothes rental companies, car club rental schemes and zero waste stores where customers use their own refillable containers are all examples of the circular economy in action.

Examples of circularity in fashion

An increasingly popular circular solution for fashion is clothes rental. Some companies have their own wardrobe of clothes that they rent out to people, either on an individual or bulk basis. There is also an increasing number of peer-to-peer clothes rental apps, which let people rent out their own clothes for fixed amounts of time.

Swapping clothes is also on the rise. For example, the app Nuw lets you list items of clothing that you no longer want and redeem them against clothes that other people have listed on the site.

Some fashion brands are starting to integrate circularity into their business models as well. Outdoor clothing brand Finisterre, for example, offer repairs of their garments, so they get another lease of life instead of being thrown away. They also offer lots of advice on their website about caring for and repairing your clothes yourself. Once customers are truly finished with their old Finisterre clothes, the company will let customers trade in them in for new ones, rehoming or recycling the unwanted garments.

Sustainable denim brand Mud Jeans has the circular economy as one of the three key pillars of their business philosophy. They aim to ensure that their fabrics are kept at their highest possible value during use so that they can re-enter the production process to make more garments. Mud’s Jeans are currently made from 40% post-consumer recycled cotton – but they aim to produce the first 100% recycled jeans. They also have a rental side of their business, whereby you can lease jeans from them instead of buying them.

Criticisms of the circular economy

While we can probably all agree that the idea of cutting waste is a positive one, there are a few criticisms of the circular economy.

  • Energy can’t be recycled

The circular economy has a heavy focus on waste and materials. However, even if you use completely recycled materials, energy is still required to manufacture products. Greenhouse gases pose a huge threat to our planet, so producing new clothes, even with a circular model, could still contribute to climate change. Using renewable energy would help to cut this carbon footprint but achieving 100% renewable energy is still a way off – and would require energy to create the relevant infrastructure.

  • Clothes rental can sometimes have a higher carbon footprint

Again, while it cuts waste, clothes rental can end up actually causing more environmental damage due to other factors such as transporting the clothes, packaging, and cleaning the clothes in between rentals. The study that discovered this did focus on large fashion rental companies who leased lots of clothing for one-off events though. Other rental models, such as peer-to-peer fashion rental (e.g. ByRotation, Nuw) or clothes “libraries” that lease out a whole wardrobe (e.g. for a child at a certain age), are likely to produce less carbon.

  • The circular economy promotes growth, and growth isn’t sustainable

Within the circular economy, waste becomes a commodity that is used to produce more profit. This encourages further consumption, and some argue that waste will always be a by-product of consumption. Across the world, waste management is nowhere near ready to handle a fully circular economy. It is also highly unlikely that there will ever be enough recyclable waste to meet the needs of companies looking to create new products.

So what’s the answer? The efforts of fashion brands to reduce their waste and extend the lives of their clothes certainly seems like a positive thing. But as always, solutions to the climate crisis are flawed and complex. All we can do is make the most ethical choices we can with the information we have, while remaining open to new information and perspectives.


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