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Why a Circular Economy is Needed for the Fashion Industry

05 December 2017

The first of December is officially the first meteorological day of winter in the UK, and with plummeting temperatures across the country many of us will have reached for our winter coats, scarves, hats and gloves this morning.

Typically, the clothes we choose when we shop for these items will be based on a number of factors, such as: the level of comfort and protection they offer, or their availability in our size and a colour we like. For many of us, our clothing represents an important expression of our individuality. Sadly however, those people who select their clothing, and the places that they buy it from, based on sustainability criteria are still in the minority.

Yet the design, manufacturing and shipping of clothing has wide reaching sustainability impacts which span both the social and environmental spectrums. For consumers, these impacts are becoming more apparent, thanks to the engagement of the mainstream media and key NGO lobbying groups in issues as diverse as Modern Day Slavery, use of hazardous substances that affect the health of textile workers, and emissions from factories and waste.

A new clothing economy to retain value and increase sustainability

colourful clothes fibres stacked on a wooden backgroundAt the end of November, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched a report entitled “A new textiles economy; redesigning fashion’s future”. This report highlights how the current clothing supply chain system operates in an almost completely linear way, which represents real sustainability challenges for the future. Currently, large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are, thanks to the rise of fast fashion, often used for only a short time and after which the majority of materials disposed of to landfill or incinerated.

Shockingly the report quantifies the impacts in very stark terms, stating that “more than US$500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilization and the lack of recycling” and that “total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at 1.2 billion tonnes annually, are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined”.

Clothing sector thought leaders, including some of the largest global and national retail chains and their suppliers, are already looking to establish new business models, based on the principles of a circular economy. In this futuristic vision clothes, textiles and fibers are kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy afterwards, never ending up as waste. But transforming the industry requires innovation, collaboration, system-level change, and an unprecedented degree of commitment.

Anthesis partner, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition says of the report: “This report reimagines the textiles system. New business models, technological innovation, radical collaboration, and most importantly, rapid acceleration are critical steps the report identifies to catalyse this critical transformation.” Furthermore, it has won the support, during the development process, of many of the world’s largest clothing suppliers and retailers.

Sustainable clothing models can create new business opportunities

In response to our customer needs, Anthesis has formed a specialist team of sustainability professionals focused on helping the clothing sector to realise the opportunities of new ways of working. Our UK and US based sustainable apparel team, which is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, has already begun work with leading companies looking at their supply chain risks and transparency, monetizing circularity in their business model development, designing out chemicals of concern, and engaging designers and consumers in behaviour change programmes to support clothing longevity and durability.

As a sector, the clothing providers are still learning and recently some circular business models, for example the use of microfibres from used plastic bottles, have come under attack. This is following research that highlighted the amount of microfibre leakage from clothing containing polymer-based products during consumer wash cycles. The EMF report estimates that the release of around half a million tonnes of plastic microfibres every year contributes 16 times more to ocean pollution than plastic microbeads from cosmetics; which have been banned in several countries in an effort to reduce environmental impacts.

microfibre fleeces.jpgCommit to innovating and improvement

This means that those in the clothing sector who are innovating around their products and practices have to be open, not only to disruptive business practices which will impact their market place, but also committed to programmes of continual review and improvement. We are helping our clients in a broad range of ways, from sustainability roles across the clothing supply chain to mainstream sustainability in their organisations and engaging their corporate boards using compelling business cases for change. We can also help to implement programmes of change management in collaboration with a wide variety of their stakeholders, and to monitor and report on their achievements.

We, and they, strongly believe that as demand for clothing will continue to grow in the future, driven particularly by demand in emerging markets such as Asia and Africa (the EMF estimates that total clothing sales could reach 160 million tonnes in 2050 which is more than three times today’s amount) new business models which embrace circularity are the only way that the fashion industry can continue to deliver to meet its consumer demands and at the same time address pressing business priorities.

Debbie Hitchen is an Associate Director at Anthesis who specializes in circular economy and producer responsibility and has managed projects in manufacturing, retail, waste management and the public sector. If you'd like to discuss ways your company can start to transition to a circular economy, please get in touch with Debbie on the form below.

Download our free Circular Economy PDF guide for embracing CE in your own business.

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