Circular fashion originates from the term 'circular economy' that arose in response to the current unsustainable economic and societal model of linear economy. The current level of linear textile consumption is at a crisis point. The fashion industry has seen a mind-boggling rise in the average consumption per person from 12 new clothes in the 1980s to the current rate of 68 new articles every year. The main culprits to be blamed for this crisis are unarguably the fast fashion labels that manufacture cheaply-made and low-quality clothes every 15 days. Fast fashion labels built the destructive habits of the current public of not only buying clothes more frequently at a price less than they’re worth but also consuming them for shorter periods of time. In fact, the average garment is only worn 7 times! In 2020, roughly 13 million tonnes of worn clothes in the US alone ended up in a landfill in third world countries which were then burnt by them. It is not shocking to learn that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Humans are creatures of habit. And this habit of constantly buying clothes that we like, wearing them for only a couple of months and discarding them without consideration for the planet can be challenging to break. As these figures stack against the well-being of the planet, we need to adopt a systematic change that starts at adopting a circular lifestyle. Circular fashion comprises reducing the amount of purchases we make each year and instead repairing old items and reusing (by upcycling, recycling or downcycling). In fact, just by wearing clothes for 9 months longer, we can reduce our carbon footprint for that garment by 30%.
The fashion industry has been run by fast fashion labels for too long who have left limited solutions for consumers to ethically discard their low-quality clothes at the end of the life cycles. In the wake of this issue, what are other fashion labels doing to move towards a more circular economy?
Essentially, recycling is the process of circular fashion where the materials extracted from waste items can be used to turn into new products of pristine value. Thus, recycling reinserts materials back into the original cycle. This involves the process of breaking down the fabric from worn clothes into their original fibers. Thinking MU’s trash collection, for instance, uses 80% less water and fewer dyes than a traditional manufacturing process.
The downside of recycling is that there is very little technology that can actually recycle as it requires tremendous amounts of resources and energy to break down into raw materials due to the presence of different blends of fibers in most clothes. This is why most labels are striving to produce garments with 100% composition of a fabric so that these garments can be recycled at the end of their life cycles. Yet, creating a single composition fabric is still extremely difficult as it is polyester and other blended fabrics that add to the elasticity of a clothing garment. Furthermore, the lower the quality of the worn fabric, the more energy it is required to recycle the fabric which explains why fast fashion clothes are rarely recyclable.
Another way to look at recycling is that it reinforces the societal norm of disposing products after a single use as long as they are sent to be recycled. However, globally only 12% of the collected clothing are actually recycled and in Europe, this is less than 1%. By 2030, we are expected to be discarding more than 134 million tonnes of textiles a year. While recycling indeed lightens the burden on landfills, it’s just a start to tackling sustainability issues and not the most effective solution.
The meaning of upcycling is essentially the process that converts worn clothes into new pieces of equal or higher value without breaking them down into their raw materials. For instance, converting old tshirts into face masks or pillow covers. It is also termed repurposing since it provides the garments with a second life or a new purpose. There are many environmental benefits to wearing upcycled clothing; not only do you avoid the garment from ending up in a landfill but the construction of the upcycled clothes takes fewer resources, water, and chemicals as compared to the production of new garments. Cossac is our #ECOHOT label that uses deadstock fabric (i.e., leftover fabric from its previous production runs) to construct garments for new collections in order to minimize waste.
Lastly, downcycling is the process of converting worn clothes into lower-value raw materials usually to create a lower-grade product. For instance, converting old clothes into mattress filing. Most clothes sent in for recycling, in fact, are downcycled instead of being recycled. Downcycling also constitutes converting waste and unconventional items such as paper and plastic into raw materials for clothes. With its CWL initiative, Veja uses mesh fabric made from corn waste as a vegan and bio-sourced alternative to leather for the sneakers' uppers.
Other labels such as Maium and Girlfriend Collective make fabric out of melted and cleaned plastic bottles that are spun into yarn.
Currently, very little fashion is actually circular. Fast fashion labels have been engaging in initiatives to promote a circular economy yet these initiatives are nothing more than attempts at greenwashing. For instance, H&M installed recycling bins in their stores and offered a 15% discount for every item donated in order to incentivize customers to donate worn clothes but this only reinforces the harmful cycle of mass consumption while claiming to take a step towards “sustainability”. Instead, as consumers, we should be buying less, better quality and stay away from complicated blended fabrics that cannot be recycled, upcycled or downcycled at the end. Furthermore, in our purchases, we need to start by supporting small labels that are actually trying to close the loop.