Until recently, the fashion industry has been based on the 20th century linear model of ‘take, make, waste’. We extracted raw materials from the earth (cotton fibre; petroleum; wood pulp) and made them into fibres; then we produced garments, sold them to people who wore them and these garments eventually ended up in landfill. The resources were wasted and undervalued. The speed and scale of this linear flow of resources has been unprecedented primarily because we have believed that buying clothes makes us happy and is essential for our identities. We tied our well-being to the consumption of material resources in the form of textiles and fibres.
Things are changing however and now we are seeing a whole new model based on circular economy principles. In a circular economy, resources are highly valued and designed at the outset to be completely recycled or reused. Swedish fashion brands like H & M and Houdini Outdoor Wear are placing recycling bins in their stores to encourage customers to return old garments. The company then takes the responsibility to recycle them. A pioneering Dutch textile company are embracing these circular principles by recycling workwear – corporate wear and hospitality clothes. They describe a circular textile/fashion system so beautifully on their website:
“Three hundred years ago, the textile industry pioneered the mindset and technology that sparked the industrial revolution…. Today, the textile industry is stuck in an outdated paradigm with unacceptable environmental and social consequences. The time has come for the textile industry to once again pioneer progress and reshape the way we do business. Circular economy is the path forward. If waste can be turned into resources, we live in abundance.”
Several initiatives – ReLooping Fashion in Finland and the Worn Again/Kering/H&M partnership – are working to completely recycle fibres using chemical solvents to improve quality and durability of recycled yarn. The research and innovation community in Europe and the UK are also fully embracing these ideas. The second phase of the MISTRA Future Fashion research consortium (which I was funded to do a PhD through in the first phase) are now exploring what circular fashion will look like for Sweden. And my colleagues in London at TED research are organising the world’s first conference on designing for circular fashion and textiles in November.
It is such an exciting time to be part of the fashion industry at the moment. The circular fashion model promises a whole new way of designing; producing and reusing fashion that will be much lighter and the planet and good for us all.