What if fashion went circular?

If it is to meet the challenge of the ecological transition, the fashion industry has to make some profound changes. And the circular economy offers lots of solutions.

It takes between 7,000 and 11,000 liters of water - equivalent to 285 showers – to make one pair of jeans!

The textile industry is the second most polluting industry. That's what is said in the last report from the Institut National de l’Économie Circulaire, published in September 2018. Driven by fast fashion - and the frenetic pace at which collections are renewed - textile production has doubled since the 1990s even though the length of time clothing is used is now shorter. The problem is that to increase production at a lower cost, manufacturers are using manufacturing and distribution methods that harm the environment.
Top of the negative externalities: the massive use of resources - starting with the water used for growing cotton and in the dyeing processes. Consequently it takes between 7,000 and 11,000 liters of water - the equivalent of 285 showers – to produce just one pair of jeans.
The textile industry is also highly fossil fuel dependent since synthetic fibers - such as polyester - are made from petroleum. These fibers also pollute by releasing toxic particles that wash into our wastewater and often end up in the ocean.
Finally, the often complex composition (mixed with other materials) also hinders good recycling for clothing. In the European Union, 80% of discarded clothing is not recycled. Add to this the CO2 emissions (1.2 billion tonnes a year) caused by transporting clothing during production and distribution, and the fashion industry’s environmental bill inexorably grows.
If it is to meet the challenge of the ecological transition, the textile industry will have to integrate new virtuous processes into its operation. And it can draw inspiration from the circular economy.
 

Circular economy solutions

Upstream, move to ecodesign. From the garment production stage, manufacturers can promote ecologically designed models and use a supply of more sustainable materials.
For example the choice of fabrics is paramount: cotton being the second most used material after polyester, it is better to use of organic cotton and natural fibers that are less loaded with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The step of cutting out the fabric can also be greatly improved. Currently, between 20 and 30% is lost. Designers need to rethink production upstream in order to optimize fabric use. End goal: zero waste patterns!
Downstream, extend the life of clothes. Fashion is also about taking into account the fact that consumers get tired of their clothes quickly and buy more as fast as the new collections are produced. A revealing figure: the average life span of an item of clothing worn in a European Union country is 3.3 years. Lots of unworn clothes but still in very good condition are lying in our closets! To encourage reuse, new clothing sharing and rental services are beginning to emerge. Some brands are also starting to offer repair services to encourage customers to keep their clothes longer.
 

Who needs to act?

All the stakeholders in the production-distribution-consumption chain have a role to play in promoting these changes. Brands, governments and consumers. This collaboration is one of the keys to success in transforming the textile industry model into a more circular one.
Brands. The transition to circular fashion will not happen without the brands. They can commit themselves to limiting the environmental impacts of their activities. In this respect they have real power over their consumers: and thanks to their image, used and recycled clothing can become trendy! Although only large groups can support Research & Development in the textile recycling sector, small brands can educate their consumers.
Governments. Public authorities have numerous legislative and regulatory tools to encourage textile companies to develop eco-design, collection and recycling channels for their products.
In France for example, the circular economy roadmap provides for an action plan which from 2019 will fight wastage in the form of unsold goods.
The system of wider producer responsibility also makes companies responsible for the end of life of the products they market. Since 2008, brands that sell clothing on the French market have to set up a collection and recycling system or pay a contribution to the Eco TLC organization to take care of it on their behalf.
Consumers. Finally, in order for the fashion industry to become perfectly circular, nothing is possible without the action of consumers at the end of the value chain. It’s up to them to start being more responsible about their clothing consumption. They can turn to more ethical brands and demand more transparency in the design and composition of items. Finally, they can extend the use of their clothes or give them a second life by donating, exchanging or selling them on.
 

In numbers

80% of clothes thrown away in the European Union are not recycled.
1.2 billion metric tons of CO2 are emitted each year due to the transport and distribution of textiles.
Fabric cutting leads to between 20 and 30% losses.
The average life span of an item of clothing worn in a country in the European Union is 3.3 years.
It takes between 7,000 and 11,000 liters of water - equivalent to 285 showers – to produce one pair of jeans.

*Source: All figures quoted are from the Institut National de l’Économie Circulaire, published in September 2018.
 
 

Main picture © Getty Images

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