Circular Fashion explained

The current fashion system encourages a take, make, dispose system. A system where we take the raw materials we need, mix them with chemicals, sell them to our customers, and never think about them again. Can we really accept business models like these anymore?

Supporters of the circular economy are saying no. Instead they believe we need to view our products as valuable resources that we need to get back into the system at the end of their life cycles. We need to move away from the take, make, dispose mind-set to a circular system thinking where we design products with their end of life in mind. We need to move away from the concept of throwing things away – because away is somewhere.

In fact, it is estimated that £140 million worth of used clothing (350,000 tonnes) goes to landfills in the UK every year (WRAP, 2011). Just in the UK. Circular economy concepts can be applied to all industries where we need to ensure that the products we make can be cycled indefinitely. Circular Fashion focuses on the fashion industry and encourages all stakeholders to change the whole fashion system to avoid valuable resources going to landfills. The idea behind Circular Fashion is to avoid this by design.

Circularity instead of Linearity

Dr. Anna Brismar, Founder of the Swedish consultancy Green Strategy, was one of the first to coin and use the term Circular Fashion in 2014. According to her:

‘Circular fashion’ can be defined as clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced, and provided with the intention to be used and circulated 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.’ (Dr. Anna Brismar, 2017,

Dr. Brismar is building the framework for Circular Fashion. In her framework, she includes sixteen key principles that relate to a product’s entire lifecycle to support and promote a more circular and sustainable fashion and textile industry. Dr. Brismar’s key principles are relevant for anyone looking for design tools to understand and change their current fashion product offering or business model. They offer great insights and overviews to design, sourcing, and production considerations necessary to move from a linear to a circular fashion product.

Circular Design

Designing the product is incredibly important since a large portion of a product’s social and environmental impact can be decided already in the design process by choosing more environmentally friendly materials, better quality and design it to be recycled. It might not be possible for you to consider all aspects, but choose one or two to focus on to ensure your product is designed to be more circular.


Circular Supply Chain

Sourcing and production methods are important to make conscious choices about where you source your materials from and who produces your products. Are they made without toxic chemicals? Is the factory using renewable energy sources? Do they treat their workers properly?


Circular Business Models

In the design process, you decided whether your product would be designed for longevity, reuse, recycling or biodegradability – how does your business model support your design choices? Can you offer repairs to prolong their lifetime? Do you collaborate with charities or recycling companies that can support the reuse or recycling of your products? Is the material you chose biodegradable and how can you inform your customer of this?


Circular Consumption

It is necessary to not only design, source, and produce fashion products with a circular mind-set and good ethics in mind. It is also necessary for consumers to use them longer, to take good care of them, to consider alternatives to buying new, and to choose quality over quantity. How can you educate and encourage your customers to take better care of your product, and then return them to the circle once they no longer need or want them?

Circularity Needs Collaboration

When it comes to collaboration, we would recommend to look beyond the scope of fashion. IDEO and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation have recently released The Circular Design Guide to help guide design processes towards a circular perspective.

The Circular Design Guide  was not developed solely for the fashion industry, but the methods are easily applicable to create an innovative circular fashion design process and does encourage collaboration across industries and that you engage your stakeholders in your design process. There are 24 methods related to four different activities in the design process:

  1. Understand: research and understand the problem you want to solve

  2. Define: define your specific challenges, team, possible business models and opportunities

  3. Make: develop and test possible solution through user-centred research and rapid prototyping

  4. Release: Launch your solutions, evaluate them and improve future iterations. Go circular in the design and development process as well

To be fully circular means that there can be no waste. Everything you take and make, must be able to return to the cycle once it can no longer be used for its initial purpose. This is not to say that a pair of jeans must always go back to the cycle of jeans production. It might eventually be better to let the jeans biodegrade and use the soil as fertiliser to grow new organic cotton, which you can then use for a new pair of jeans. To be able to do this, you need to ensure that there has been no use of harmful chemicals, that they are made from a biodegradable material, such as organic cotton, that the buttons and zippers are removable, etc. Always design with the end and next circle in mind.

Challenges & How to Overcome Them

1. Circularity requires behavioural change in consumers and companies alike.

Thinking circular instead of linear is very different from the behaviour we have adapted since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Resources are not yet scarce and not everyone is ready to see the necessity for this change. Thus, internal awareness building in your company is key to achieving a successful change in your business model. You need everyone to understand WHY you are making the change before you can explain what the change is and how you are planning to do it. It requires engaging everyone in the company from buyers and designers, who have the decision-making power in the design process, to the marketing- and sales people, who will be in touch with your consumers to sell your story.

Once your colleagues are on-board you need to engage your customers in order to create lasting change. You need to help them understand why it is important that they take good care of their clothes, and why they need to resell, donate or bring it back to you once they no longer need or want it.

2. Clothes have lost their value.

We no longer view used clothes as a resource and this needs to change. In the current take, make, dispose system that is not possible. Clothes are so cheap these days it is difficult for people to see the value in them. By putting emphasis on the value of a garment at the end of its life will hopefully change this perception in future.

Education and awareness building is key to build a successful circular fashion system. Engage your stakeholders in your change, and help them understand why the change is necessary. Collaboration is key.

Author: Hella Lynggaard

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