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A new model in the making. The future of fashion’s circular economy

Photography By The Real Real
Published 09.07.21

The need to reduce textile and clothing waste and implement a circular economy is on the rise, but who is actually executing it in an accessible way for businesses and consumers?   

The circular fashion economy focuses on a new business model that aims to extend the life of clothes, keeping them in use for longer. It does this by considering materials and implementing solutions to ensure clothes are reused. The overarching goal is to keep clothes from becoming a waste product for as long as possible.

Shifting to a circular system could help the industry unlock a USD 560-billion-dollar economic opportunity, not to mention reducing a future catastrophic environmental cost, so where do we start?

Environmentally conscious Millennials and Zoomers are already on the precipice of the circular shift which is evidenced by the huge success of resellers like Depop and The RealReal. In the next decade, we hope to see innovations like clothes rental and new methods of recycling scale up and be embraced by an even larger portion of the global population.

Why replace what you can repair?  

With the pre-loved movement in full swing, the next habit consumers and retailers are expected to adopt is clothes mending. Swedish denim brand Nudie Jeans are industry icons when it comes to better manufacturing practices and extending the life of their garments. They’ve implemented a Free Repairs Forever initiative, giving customers access to free repairs for life – no matter how old or new their jeans are. In 2019, they repaired 63,281 pairs of jeans (which would make a pile higher than the world’s tallest building), saving 50,000 kilos of clothes from being thrown away.  

Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia has been pioneering the repair movement for with their Worn Wear Program, stating that “one of the most responsible things we can do as a company is to make high-quality stuff that lasts for years and can be repaired, so you don’t have to buy more of it”. At their Sydney repair hub, customers can bring their Patagonia garments in for free basic repairs like busted zippers, tears, buttons and snaps. Patagonia customers with items that cannot be repaired can still return their unwanted pieces to be reused, recycled and repurposed into new fibre or fabric.  

The Real Real

Swap, don’t shop  

Australian fashion label Arnsdorf is the latest brand to dip their frock into the circular pool. At the 2021 Melbourne Fashion Festival, they teamed up with the Global Fashion Exchange to be the first retailer in Australia to launch SwapChain, a weeklong swap event in their Fitzroy Boutique. Shoppers brought in old Arnsdorf pieces they no longer wear and swapped them for something they will.  

Clothing and fashion accessories label ELK are hoping to implement a “Rewear Program” to take back unwanted ELK products and resell them, donating the profits to charity. Both ELK and Arnsdorf’s approach reflect improved commitments to circularity: with a return or swap program like this in place, shoppers who are ready to move on from an old wardrobe staple, are given an enticing way to do so.

Innovations for clothing recycling  

Currently, less than one per cent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new garments and that amounts to a loss of more than $100bn US worth of materials each year. The textile recycling industry is still in its infancy and in need of investment to scale the sector, but there are some promising innovations happening in this space.  

Materials engineer, Veena Sahajwalla, has been developing a way of converting fabrics into building materials such as wall and flooring panels. Her textile recycling method focuses on breaking down fabrics (both natural and synthetic) to the molecular level, allowing them to be turned into almost anything (not just another fabric).

According to UK-based sustainability charity WRAP, automated garment sorting technologies are critical to scale recycling facilities. While these technologies are already in development, their current accuracy and speed at sorting complex materials limits their application and cost effectiveness. In fact, at the moment most of it is done manually.  

Promising innovations using Near Infrared (NIR) technologies can help to resolve this, sorting clothes by colour and material category at a much faster rate. A new technology called The Fibersort, once commercialised, also promises to create a tipping point for a circular economy. It automatically sorts large volumes of mixed post-consumer textiles by fibre type, enabling it to process up to one garment per second. Once sorted, materials can be recycled into new, high-quality textiles.

Policies to enable a circular economy

There is much to be said about the need for policies and government funding that support the circular economy. While action from this level is often unsatisfactory, Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley recently announced plans to host a national roundtable, bringing together the fashion industry, retailers, charities, fibre producers, researchers and waste management groups to discuss solutions to clothing landfill waste. She also announced AUD$350,000 would be allocated to Circular Threads, a group focused on reducing the amount of fabric headed for the rubbish dump.

As we see different sectors come together to find solutions, we hope that in the next ten years (the decade for meaningful action), the circular economy will become a norm, adopted across all facets of the fashion industry.  

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