What is Circular Fashion, and why does the fashion industry need to change the way in which clothes are produced?

What are the current impacts of clothing production?

The fashion industry has an enormous social and environmental impact and is a major contributor to GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and water pollution, with a carbon footprint said to be more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The issues are broad and complex owing to vast murky supply chains and a lack of accountability. Extraction of raw materials causes significant impact such as in cotton farming, where huge volumes of fresh water are used for irrigation often in water-scarce regions, and extensive use of pesticides make the soil infertile. Oil, a finite resource is used to produce synthetics such as polyester found in 65% of our clothing - a plastic fibre that persists in landfill and in our oceans in the form of microplastics. Cellulose used for viscose production, accounts for 150 million trees cut down every year; deforestation reduces our ability to store carbon and destroys habitat and biodiversity. These are just some examples of fashion’s negative impact. Clothing consumption has doubled in the last two decades, and brands have pursued ever-cheaper labour to meet demand for fast fashion and drive profit, but at what cost?

Adopting sustainable solutions is an urgent priority in restoring our ecosystems and tackling climate change. We must radically reduce what we produce and consume and take responsibility for how we make our clothing, and what happens to it when we’re done.

DeforestationDeforestation caused by logging for viscose production

The Aral SeaThe Aral Sea, Kazakhstan - ‘before’ & ‘after’ water was diverted for cotton irrigation 

Almost four years ago I became increasingly aware of the destruction that human activity was having on our natural world, and its ability to support human life and biodiversity.

I asked myself, how can production not only be less harmful, but generate positive impacts that may help to restore balance. I founded RPLANET on these values, and my journey of discovery since has shown me that responsible design and production is entirely possible. Crucially, we cannot stand still.  


The Linear System, Ellen MaCarthur Foundation

Linear system
The current Linear system is based on a take-make-dispose model that is not working; sending clothes to landfill whilst we continue to produce new ones with no thought to environmental and human impact, shows a complete lack of imagination when there is a real opportunity for brands to lead here. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation we landfill or incinerate the equivalent of one truck of textiles every second. The lifespan of our clothing is too short, and waste is not valued as a resource. Synthetic fibres and hazardous chemicals persist in landfill, oceans and recycling streams.

The Circular System

The Circular System

‘A Circular Fashion economy is one in which waste and pollution is eliminated, products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible, including through reusing and recycling, and where natural systems are regenerated’

- The Circular Fashion Report 2020.

This is an end-to-end solution from design to recovery of products when they have reached the end of their useful life. Keeping materials in use through the repurposing of waste requires an entire system change, creative thinking and innovation. The Cradle to Cradle Certified institute provides a transformative pathway in recognising safe, sustainable materials for circular design and positive impact on people and planet. Rplanet is working with Cradle to Cradle to broaden understanding in material health and product optimisation, so that our products are fit for the circular economy.


What are the obstacles to designing and producing Circular Fashion? 

Material Health is not always considered at the design stage. Harmful chemicals used in the dying and processing of textiles, often to achieve easy-care properties such as wrinkle-free and extra softness pose the biggest obstacle currently. Wastewater systems cannot remove them, so they pollute waterways and persist in landfill; harmful to humans during production, during wear and in the recycling of textiles. Post-industrial waste is complex but crucial to manage, in a circular system. The Greenpeace DETOX MY FASHION campaign has worked hard over the past decade in encouraging brands to be aware of chemical pollution in the supply chain and signing-up to green chemistry goals. Fashion Revolution also launched the #WhatsInMyClothes campaign to raise awareness.

Chemical PollutionChemical pollution in Indonesia

River pollution, ChinaRiver pollution, China

‘There is a joke in China that you can tell the colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers’

- Orsola de Castro, River Blue documentary

Overproduction results in surplus inventory and dead-stock fabrics that head to landfill or incineration. It is estimated that off-cuts and factory floor waste account for 15% of textile waste. Moves to recycle this pre-consumer waste and selling surplus rolls to brands is gathering momentum, as is the use of technology to minimise waste in pattern cutting. But why not produce less? Growth in resale and rental platforms such as Depop, Vestiaire Collective and The Real Real is encouraging, but the second-hand economy whilst extending the life of clothing, does not exist to manage overproduction and overconsumption, it is one component of many in a circular economy.

Designing with disassembly in-mind is not widely practised. Even if the fabric is organic and biodegradable in nature, the zippers, buttons, interlinings are not. These components need to be removed easily for mechanical recycling. It is also a challenge to maintain the quality of materials in recycling because they often lack integrity which results in downcycling. Currently less than 1% of textiles are recycled back into textiles, also owing to pioneering technology that is not yet at scale.

End-of-life programs are not considered as part of the business model. Gathering products and textiles for recycling is currently piece-meal when it needs to be part of a global recovery system. Brands such as Veja and Adidas are exploring take-back and upcycling, however much research is required before a sneaker can be fully circular. We are back to material health again, and the harmful chemicals found in glues extensively used in footwear. Sneakers are currently downcycled, pulverised into mulch suitable for paving playgrounds or athletic tracks for example.

Scaling investment in technology and efficiency in recycling streams is vital.
Greenwashing is an obstacle in customer trust, and a circular economy is dependent on customer participation at end-of-life so authentic information is key. Making products with recycled materials is not enough, the aim is to recycle textiles into new textiles in fibre-to-fibre loop.


An example of Good Practise

Loungewear from PangaiaLoungewear from Pangaia

Eucalyptus pulp tuned into Lyocell, Pangai Eucalyptus pulp tuned into Lyocell, Pangai

The vision at Pangaia is to become ‘Earth Positive’ by giving back more than they take. Design starts with consideration to the environmental and social impacts across the entire product lifecycle. They aim to minimise use of natural resources, eliminate waste and extend the product’s life. They are increasing the amount of recycled fibres used and looking at how they can recycle their own waste streams, something we are exploring at Rplanet. Material science is centre-stage; their C-FIBER™ textile is made from Eucalyptus Pulp which is turned into lyocell fibres as part of a closed-loop system, and the seaweed powder is taken from a regenerative growth cycle. Eucalyptus grows quickly, on dry land requiring no water. The fibre is also carbon neutral and biodegradable. Pangaia will forever evolve in finding news ways to improve impact and circularity.


In Summary

What are the solutions to scaling a circular fashion economy?

Challenges breed innovation and change. The success of a circular fashion economy is dependent on brands, customer participation and government policy. Responsible supply chain management is currently voluntary which perpetuates poor practise. We now need laws and regulation to help drive the solutions that tackle the issues facing our planet, industry-wide standards to manage and phase-out chemical pollutants, and to make brands accountable for their impact. Local geographies should not be subsidising irresponsible production.

  • Labelling requirements for the chemical composition of clothing 
  • A collaborative approach to global waste and recovery of clothing, sorting and disassembly 
  • Tax incentives for use of recycled textiles that reduce the impact on virgin fibre production, and for organic fabrics that are fully biodegradable 
  • A tax on products according to their degree of environmental impact
  • Subsidies on fossil-fuels make production of synthetics such as polyester cheap, when governments could instead support regenerative organic farming for fibre production and support farmers in the transition