What is Circular Fashion?

April is Earth month - a month when we take time to reflect on our lifestyle choices and take action to live Green. This month, Tribute will be focusing on “Circular Fashion” in terms of its economic model and significance for the future of fashion.

Traditional industrial models have long relied on the take-make-dump approach, heavily adding to landfills and pollution. Such linear practices have dominated businesses as long as demand for low costs, make-do quality, cheap labor and convenience surged. The appetite for cheaper prices and impulsively buying the latest trends has further fueled such practices. As climate change becomes a more pressing issue, people are becoming more conscious of their choices and businesses have to account for their wasteful practices. Clearly the significance of concepts like ethical, responsible, eco-friendly, sustainable fashion has skyrocketed the market demand. It's time we add circular fashion to the list. 

According to Anna Brismar, Green Strategy, 2017, Circular fashion can be defined as “clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use”.

This new category is a much needed addition to our journey towards sustainability in the fashion industry. The term circular fashion stems from the integration of sustainable fashion with the circular economy model. In a circular economic model, the start and end of life of a product are equally important. All products are manufactured in a way that can be easily deconstructed, and materials are either returned to production or mother nature. Dismantling happens in two ways – technical and biological. Technical cycles restore products and materials through processes like reuse, repair, upcycle or recycle. Biological cycles bring new life to ecosystems where natural materials like wood, cotton, wool, etc. are put back safely into the soil through composting which in turn boosts our renewable resources. This way we are designing products that can be made to make again, and this is just the beginning. 

Circular fashion promises a stronger commitment to investing in clothing that will last far longer than fast fashion counterparts. It is designed to be recyclable, biodegradable and long lasting.


The term was brought to life at a seminar in Stockholm, Sweden in 2014 by Anna Brismar, owner of the consultancy firm Green Strategy. The seminar focused on progressing sustainable fashion with mounting commitment and taking ownership for all the wasteful activities still practiced by the industry. Anna Brismar introduced the concept and the fundamentals surrounding circular economy as a guiding foundation for the participating brands and panelists at the event. As the developer of the seminar, she decided to name it “Circular Fashion - Show and Talk, 2014”. The event provided the original impetus for the fashion industry to sew circular fashion well within their own business models.

This distinction was particularly eye-catching as it came the year after the major collapse at the Rana Plaza manufacturing unit in Bangladesh (April 24 2013), which forced the fashion world to confront the exploitative practices in certain sectors of the industry and trigger the creation of the wonderful Fashion Revolution. Consumers have become alert to where their products come from, who made them, what they are made of and who is accountable at the different stages of the lifecycle. Notably, the event in Dhaka was the last nail in the coffin for the questionable methods of the fashion industry.


How is it different from the existing models? 

A linear economic model follows the traditional approach of making and selling garments which are discarded as waste as soon as the need is met. A recycling economic model aims to reduce this pollution and preserve natural resources by collecting textile waste and repurposing it through processing and reusing. However, waste is still generated at the end of the cycle. 

The Circular Fashion system has emerged as one such hero that shifts the current system of how we make and use products and services. It targets the issue of scrap by altering composition at every level. This model works on three main factors – to design out waste and pollution at every life-stage of the products, retain value by reusing materials and breathe life back into our natural and economic systems. The idea is to throw NOTHING away and to reduce the need for purchasing new commodities. 

While it is the disruption and innovation in business models that supports the circular economy to make the grade, consumers can make or break the successful transition to a sustainable future. This means, consumers need to match the efforts by consuming more consciously and not disposing things at first sight. Undoubtedly, the shift can be challenging but if we think and do right, this model can not only eliminate waste but also generate employment opportunities at every stage, promote brand collaborations and build resilient business relationships. 

How can brands and consumers be a part of this?

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the fashion industry makes up for 9.5% of waste in America alone. Forbes declared the clothing and textile industry as the third largest polluter in the world. To put that into perspective, imagine a landfill the size of France filled with clothing and textile waste.

Circular fashion is the silver lining that could turn clothing/textile waste away from landfills and extend their life. For brands, it means designing clothes not just with virgin raw materials but also scrap fabrics; choosing single fibers over blends so it is easier to recycle them in the future; and using low-impact dyes to reduce energy consumption in the manufacturing process. Another vital aspect is to invest in energy efficient technologies in production and recycling processes. In our Blog on Fruit Fibers, we mentioned brands that are using fruit fibres to create raw materials which helps divert food industry waste while creating an alternate source for raw materials like vegan leather in the fashion industry. Such innovative ideas are the future of fashion.

From a consumer point of view, it means rethinking how we own, use and discard clothes. It is essential to use, wash and repair clothes to increase their life. It also means buying sustainable fabrics as they can be easily recycled or composted. Adding value to old clothes through upcycling and recycling can easily become a fun DIY project to do with your friends and family. Lastly, it means we need to reassess ownership of clothes through thrifting, buying preloved, resale as well as rentals.

Here are some tips we go by to incorporate circularity in our closets:

Always questions brands about where, how and who made it to hold them accountable. Transparency is key. 
Before purchasing any garments, read the labels and description to check if the clothing is made from a single type of fabric or blends and favor plant-based and environment friendly fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, linen and wool. 
Consider renting for your next big event rather than investing in that ‘one-time dress’.
Ask yourself – what else can I do with this? – before throwing away the garment. 
Make the commitment to buy low-impact clothing and gradually purchase from only ethical brands.
Lastly, talk to people and spread awareness about the benefits of circular fashion. Your community wants to know and sharing is caring after all.

    Fashion is social history. It's culture, art and science that we wear on our body as a form of expression, a reflection of our personal identities. However, we don’t need to compromise the planet for our experiences. We need to change how we value what we buy and wear.

    We've also put together a list of a few resources to further our knowledge on ways to close the loop on fast fashion!

    Movies and Documentaries:

     Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
    Trailer for RiverBlue
    The True Cost
    Make a circular economy for fashion
    Shake That Fashion System!


      Ellen Macarthur Foundation - Making Fashion Circular


        April is also Fashion Revolution Week! It means a lot of good panels, workshops, virtual movie session. Make sure to check their website and agenda.

        Stay tuned and follow us @thisistribute. The beauty of being a part of this relatively new movement in fashion is that there is still so much more to discover and create together.


        Words by Arpita Bansal

        Images copyright: www.commonobjectives.co

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