The Circular Economy in the Fashion Industry
As we learn ways to adapt to the ‘new reality’ brought by the ongoing health crisis, it’s becoming clear that it’s impossible to retain some of our old ways. This includes our ways of creating products and dealing with waste within the fashion industry.   

The numbers tell the whole story. The textile industry is the second-largest consumer of water in the world. It also emits more carbon emissions, about 1.2 billion tons annually, than the global aviation and maritime logistics industries combined. On top of that, 85% of the clothes we make end up in landfills. In short, we dedicate such a large amount of resources to objects that usually only last a season or two.
In recent years, we have seen efforts to resolve these problems, and one of them is the so-called circular economy. But what is it exactly, and how does it apply to the fashion industry?

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, most industries including textile have operated in an almost completely linear way. In this linear system, large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials were mostly sent to landfillS or incinerated. Some textile waste is also ‘downcycled’ into low-quality materials such as stuffing.
This linear system has a few drawbacks. First, it is oriented towards prioritizing the usage of virgin raw materials, thus creating problems when dealing with non-renewable materials. Second, a linear economy produces a lot of waste - and leaves it at that. As we all know, landfills are not black holes, and the waste we put in them often comes back to haunt us one way or another.

The circular economy aims to solve these two problems by closing the loop - that is, to create a link between the two ends of the chain. This means using waste material as raw material and minimizing, if not eliminating, the waste that is produced in the process.

Although the idea of recycling waste has been around for quite some time, the circular economy is innovative in the sense that it re-imagines production as a self-generating process. Instead of extracting raw material, it ‘upcycles’ waste. Rather than treating waste disposal as the endpoint of a product’s lifespan, it recognizes that waste that is otherwise considered as a lost value can be turned into revenue.
The circular economy emulates the cyclical nature of nature, where all things are part of a complex and never-ending process. Thus, a truly circular economy cannot be limited to one industry but should be linked to other systems.

The circular economy looks really good on paper. But in order to actualize a real working circular economy, we need to have the right techniques and technologies to improve the collection, sorting, and remanufacturing of new high-quality materials. Fortunately, more and more companies are dedicating themselves to this effort.

In order to actually ‘close the loop’, the real challenge is to turn waste material into raw material. This is exactly what some companies such as Renewcell have been trying to accomplish. Renewcell has found a way to dissolve used cotton and other natural fibers into Circulose pulp, a biodegradable material. Circulose is then turned into fiber, which is then turned into new clothes.

Another approach to the circular economy is by way of design. Worn Again, a company based in the United Kingdom, has focused on doing this by developing ‘out’ and ‘in’. By ‘designing out,’ Worn Again means designing products that are easier to upcycle once they reach the end of their life cycle. On the other hand, ‘designing in’ means creating products that correspond with the available recycled materials. This two-pronged approach allows Worn Again sidestep upcycling difficulties.
The key technology that enables them to do this is their novel regenerative technology. This allows them to separate, decontaminate, and extract polyester from non-reusable textiles and PET bottles.

We mentioned that a real circular economy should be linked to other related economies to be really circular. Today, there are now efforts to do this through collaboration.

One of the most successful at this is Aquafil, one of the leading manufacturers of innovative textiles. Some of its products include Dryarn and regenerated ECONYL nylon.
The ECONYL regeneration process is interesting because it collaborates with other projects and initiatives such as Healthy Seas to scour the oceans for waste to turn into resources. It is focused on looking for nylon waste such as fishing nets. Thus, aside from upcycling textile waste, it can also contribute to getting rid of other kinds of waste.  
When ECONYL executive Fabrizio Calenti first heard the proposal for their regenerative system, he found the idea “too risky.” This was way back in the 2000s when sustainability and circular economy were not yet the buzzwords that they are now. 
Today, the risks for brands are much lower, but we still have a long way to go. What matters, nonetheless, is that we know we are capable of changing our economic models. Ultimately, this means changing the way we think about clothes and the planet in general.

Closing the loop is just the first step. If brands adapt these technologies and if consumers themselves start making more eco-friendly choices, it would be a huge step towards eliminating waste and having a better relationship with the world around us. 

All images copyright and courtesy of Libby Oliver.  Featured images from portrait series Soft Shells