Design for Circular Economy in Fashion

What ever happened to your favorite pair of jeans? The pair that made you feel invincible and comfortable at the same time. Imagine you can still wear them. Imagine they were made for your lifetime. As you grow and change in your life, so do your garments. You update the jeans as your fit or style changes and trade in the broken for an upgrade or repair. This is the future of fashion and design for circular economy.

For the time being, we are still stuck in the outdated, linear economic paradigm of take-make-waste. There are 50 million people working in the fashion industry, fueled by 98 million tons of raw materials per year, and a 2017 Pulse Report predicting demand for materials to reach 300 million tons by 2050. The fashion industry is unsustainable in nearly every dimension: energy, greenhouse gas emissions, land usage, and water consumption and contamination.

Understandably, material waste is also increasing. In 2015, 16 million tons of textile waste was generated; uninterrupted, that trend suggests a staggering 48.9 million tons of textile waste by 2050. What happens to it all? The United States ships nearly 500,000 tons of used clothing per year to sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and China. Clothes are bought in bales, sorted, and resold to the local markets, disrupting local textile industries.

The textile waste recycling industry is in its infancy. Although some stores are starting to incorporate clothing take-back initiatives, the clothing mostly ends in donation or disposal to landfills. The fragility of the existing textile fiber recycling markets is presenting a significant barrier to improving the overall sustainability of the fashion industry.

The textile waste recycling industry is in its infancy.
Although some stores are starting to incorporate clothing take-back initiatives, the clothing mostly ends in donation or disposal to landfills.

All fashion starts with design. Just like fast fashion was designed, circular fashion can be designed, but it challenges the designer to consider the end of a product’s life first—to transform ‘waste’ into a resource. Expanding the life cycle of products reduces pressures on natural systems and allows them to regenerate.

Shared economy platforms offer consumers the opportunity to keep up with ever-changing trends, without having to buy new. Rent-the-Runway is a rental clothing service that keeps the wearer in fashion without a full closet or having to pay full price. With a membership that gives customers access to a certain number of pieces per month, gone are the days needing to buy and store an outfit for every occasion.

MUD Jeans are the pioneers of the clothing lease system, with incentivized recycling and product services. This system ensures that the valuable fibers are returned to MUD and become source materials for new products. Customers can pay monthly membership fees to lease a pair of jeans and can swap them for a new pair after a year of rental. Return of post-consumer waste is incentivized with discounts for new products, allowing the company to produce denim with 23–40 percent post-consumer recycled material.

The environment activist outdoor brand, Patagonia, has created Worn Wear. This is a service provided to customers to help extend product lifespans. Worn Wear staff travel across the United States offering users access to their repair services. They fix, upcycle, and redesign all Patagonia clothing as part of the company’s lifelong guarantee on all its products. Worn Wear is also reselling previously used garments online at a discounted rate.

The second-hand market has also grown in popularity as consumers crave quality and sustainability—purchasing smarter. With it comes circular opportunities to reuse, resell, and recycle while satisfying the ever-changing needs of the customers.

How Might We connect users of secondhand clothing with one another to extend the donation culture into an exchange culture?
All of these solutions have at their heart design and creativity, and with that in mind, I created the Net Impact award-winning Reworn campaign, targeting students in the creative field. The focus was on clothing care, disposal, and repurposing. The underlying principle of the campaign was to make designers aware of their impact and influence within the fashion industry—shaping their creative vision to stimulate positive user behavior change around garment use.

The awareness campaign transmitted live and digital communications about events, workshops, mending pop-ups, competitions, and behavior change strategies. Reaching over 500 students live and 65,000 online, the campaign stimulated growth in the Slow Fashion movement among college students and is still continued through club activities and student community projects like monthly clothing swaps.

Working with Gen-Z consumers, I learned that the movement towards access instead of ownership has developed with the rapid turn-over of goods and trends. Within this space, there is increasing opportunity—and demand—for business and local organizations through product share services, reuse models, recycle platforms, and responsible disposal options, all contributing to a more fashionable circular economy.

The flowchart below explains how to expand the feedback loop of the donation into reuse. With a focus on the usage phase, that leads to donation, then to reuse. The reuse phase of clothing can be expanded into exchange, trading, and recycling.

By expanding product lifecycles through circular design and evolved systems, businesses benefit by avoiding costs associated with energy, water usage, and virgin resource extraction, not to mention addressing the demands of a growing customer and investor base.

Designing products that can be customized or offering ‘add-ons’ have the added advantage of keeping customers engaged with the brand or product. Customer loyalty can be further stimulated by offering rewards and subscription benefits, ensuring that customers return.

You can now trade in your favorite pair of jeans for an updated version, made with the recycled material from your old. Your jeans may live forever, within the system designed for circular fashion. With community and business involvement we can trade, swap, fix, or update garments to create a sense of belonging and connection, and still offer the opportunity for wearers to express their unique identity.

“By helping to increase the use of clothing, resale can play a key role in making fashion circular. Raising the average number of times clothing is worn is the most direct way to design out waste and pollution and capture value.”– Francois Souchet, Lead at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular

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