Can circular fashion save the planet?

Can circular fashion save the planet?

Breaking free of the vicious fast fashion cycle…

Fast fashion is a vicious cycle of new trends, cheap clothes and over-consumption. High street brands like H&M, Zara, Forever21 and Primark control the whole process from design to sale, which allows for very short production cycles of 2-4 weeks. This means they can release up to 24 collections per year, selling clothes cheaply and encouraging consumers back to buy the latest trends.

To reach such fast production speeds and offer such low prices, they ‘optimise’ each step of the production chain. Many people wrongly assume that to sell clothes so cheaply, these brands must be using robots in the manufacturing process. Unfortunately this is not true. There are roughly 40 million garment workers around the world and research by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance found that for an average item of clothing only “between 0.5% and 3% of the cost goes to the worker who made it.” Garment factories are heavily reliant on the sweatshop model of exploitation around the world and even here in the UK.

The human cost of cheap fashion is high. Many people in the fashion supply chain are living and working in unsafe, unethical conditions. In India, for example, high suicide rates among cotton farmers have been linked to poor pay and unmanageable debt.

Campaigns such as Fashion Revolution’s #WhoMadeMyClothes focus heavily on the production side of fast fashion, but the damage doesn’t stop there.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s new report, 73% percent of garments end up in landfill or are incinerated each year.

Our fast fashion habit has a huge environmental impact as well as a human cost. In the UK alone we purchased 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing in 2016, with a carbon footprint of 26.2 million tonnes of CO2.

Demand for clothing isn’t slowing down either. Productions has doubled to over 100 billion units in the last 15 years and just last week retailer New Look announced that they will be slashing prices in a bid to keep up with budget online competitors and reportedly respond to consumer demand.

With ever changing trends and plummeting prices, it’s easier than ever to purchase fast fashion. Clothing has become disposable.

Over the past 10 years clothing has been the fastest growing waste stream in the UK. More than half of fast fashion is disposed of in less than a year and an estimated 300,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill annually in this country alone.

Consciously-minded consumers may donate their clothes in a bid to lessen the environmental impact, but only 10-20% of donated clothes are actually sold through charity shops. Many donated clothes are sold to distributors who sort them and send them on to developing countries. The global export market for worn and used clothing is estimated to be around $4bn, but demand is declining. Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi have recently announced that they intend to stop importing used clothes by 2019 in an effort to grow and establish their own textile industries.

What we need is a circular economy for fashion. Circular models provide an alternative to the traditional linear industrial model of make, use, dispose. Circular economies encourage system-wide innovation so that resources are kept in use for as long as possible and are then recovered and regenerated.

H&M have been working with The Hong Kong Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to find new methods of recycling blend textiles, such as cotton and polyester blends, into new fibres. This will put less pressure on natural resources and hopefully mean more clothes can be recycled.

Retail giant John Lewis has also announced plans today to bring a circular model to clothes recycling. They intend to work with social enterprise Stuffstr to pay customers who return unwanted clothes purchased from their stores, regardless of the garments’ condition, to ensure that ‘maximum life is extracted’ after purchase.

Their buy back scheme will include a home collection service to make it as easy as possible for customers to keep clothes from landfill. Unwanted clothes will be repaired, resold or recycled into new products.

The fashion industry has one of the highest carbon footprints in the world. With clothing so cheaply available, it’s easy to think of it as disposable. Three quarters of the UK population throw away clothes because they aren’t aware of the opportunities for recycling and it’s time that the fast fashion brands took more responsibility.

Adopting circular economy principles into their business model would educate consumers, encourage recycling and move a step closer to minimising the environmental damage caused by fast fashion. Perhaps as well as asking #WhoMadeMyClothes it’s also time we questioned #WhereDoMyClothesGo?

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