What is Circular Fashion?

What is Circular Fashion?

What exactly is Circular Fashion?

Good question. I’ll start by explaining the linear fashion model, which characterizes the fashion industry now. We extract natural resources, convert them into fibers, then textiles, then garments. Someone may or may not buy those garments, because we produce clothing in numbers vastly greater than demand or population growth. According to a 2016 Mckinsey article, “The number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014: nearly 14 items of clothing for every person on earth.” If no one buys the garment, it ends up burned and/or in a landfill. If someone buys and wears the garment, it most often ends up in a landfill, even if donated.


Circular fashion does not end in a landfill; waste is seen as a design flaw. Circular fashion requires designing apparel intended for a complementary regenerative system that keeps garments in use via repair, resale, or recycling, or that allows them to return to earth as compost. There is no “end”. Circular fashion is part of a larger system you may have heard of called the "circular economy".

Here is a simplified example:

  • A farmer grows organic cotton or better yet regenerative organic cotton (this type of farming sequesters carbon in the soil where it belongs).
  • The cotton is harvested, cleaned, carded, and spun into yarn using renewable energy sources and responsible water management.
  • A designer designs a sweater that is timeless, beautiful, comfortable and durable. This is described as designing for “emotional and physical durability” in the hope that the garment is loved, stays in use, and might be handed down to a loved one.
  • The yarn is knit into a sweater using a “3D-knitting” machine that leaves no yarn waste. The knitwear factory is powered by renewable energy sources.
  • A consumer buys the sweater and falls in love with it. The consumer takes care of the sweater and makes sure to spot clean and line dry it.
  • The garment has a QR code that informs the owner of the garment’s origins, content, and care instructions, as well as advice on how to repair, return, recycle, resell, or compost it.

A few things can happen from there:

  • The customer keeps the sweater for a lifetime and hands it down to someone who continues to love this heirloom piece.
  • The customer could return the sweater back to the brand for a credit and the brand will recycle, upcycle, or re-sell the sweater.
  • The sweater could be composted personally or municipally if and when that is an available option.

Regenerative systems by design do not just refer to the environment or to the soil. Regenerative systems restore our social fabric by creating meaningful work; investing in the safety and development of workers; listening to and empowering all stakeholders; paying a living wage; creating family-friendly workplaces; contributing federal and local taxes; prioritizing local partnerships; and paying and promoting women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC equally.

Circular fashion is a sustainable way of designing, producing, and recovering fashion objects. Circular fashion, like sustainable fashion, does not have set parameters; however, circular fashion arguably has more defined objectives, as described here. If you are interested in digging deeper, check out The Circular Design Guide to read case studies, or read The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Currently or in the future, can mass-produced fashion ever be sustainable or do we have to completely re-think how we buy, wear and keep clothes?

Businesses, governments and consumers need to re-think everything and fast, to avoid the disastrous effects of climate change in the next five years. According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the United Nation’s body for assessing the science related to climate change, we are on track to raise global temperatures 1.5 degrees celsius which “...poses large risks for natural and human systems, especially if the temperature at peak warming is high, because some risks may be long-lasting and irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems (high confidence)”.

The Global Fashion Agenda, “Pulse of Fashion Report 2019 Update” reported that “Fashion companies are not implementing sustainable solutions fast enough to counterbalance the negative environmental and social impacts of the rapidly growing fashion industry”. Currently, any gains derived from sustainable initiatives within fashion companies are negated by growth of those brands.

We are not going to buy our way out of this problem by purchasing new “sustainable fashion”. Even “sustainable apparel” produces a carbon footprint. No one would go naked if we stopped producing clothing right now; there is plenty of existing apparel to wear, swap, trade and resell.

What are some of the best resources out there for educating yourself on sustainability?    

The landscape is constantly changing but here are a few.  

Book Recommendations:

Fashionopolis and Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, by Dana Thomas

Overdressed and The Conscious Closet, by Elizabeth Cline

Cradle to Cradle and The Upcycle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

 Any personal words of wisdom our advice for the Display Copy reader?    

 My advice would be: 

  • Fall in love with what you own. Be your own stylist and get creative.
  • Wear and take care of what you own. Learn to spot clean, mend, adjust, wash and naturally dye your garments. Or hire tailors, seamstresses and cobblers who can help you.
  • View your closet as a tightly curated collection. Only purchase things worthy of being added to your collection.
  • Develop your personal style vs. chasing trends.
  • Challenge yourself to not purchase any new clothing item for 1 year.
  • Vote with your dollar and commit to only buying vintage and thrift instead.

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