What is a circular economy?

By: Katie Greiss

You may see us using #circulareconomy on our Instagram posts and wonder what exactly it means. Officially, circular fashion is a new way of doing business that extracts as much value as possible from resources by recycling, repairing, reusing, repurposing, or refurbishing products and materials—eliminating waste and greenhouse gas emissions at the design stage. (Government of Canada).

A circular economy promotes the upcycling of products as well as the materials required to make it. Most business models are based on a linear economy – new materials are extracted, used to make a product, and then both materials and product are discarded after their intended use. This model is not sustainable, especially with a growing world population and increasingly urgent climate crisis.

How does the fashion industry play into a circular economy?

The fashion industry, as one of the most polluting industries in the world, is built on a linear system. Textile production relies mostly on non-renewable resources - including oil to make synthetic fibres, fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to dye clothing. Textiles are often underutilized, especially in developed countries. Many clothing items are only worn a handful of times before being thrown away, destined to the landfill. To avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis, the fashion industry must shift toward a circular business model.

A circular fashion industry embodies the following principles:

  1. Clothes are designed to be high-quality, durable, and to be worn for a multitude of occasions. Fast fashion brands, known for producing lower quality and poorly-made items, would become obsolete.
  2. Business models value their products and maximize their use. For a circular model to succeed, clothes must be made with the end goal of being fully recyclable or upcycled for other uses to avoid wasting material.
  3. Clothing production processes run on renewable energy and abstain from extracting raw, non-renewable materials. They must regenerate natural ecosystems and avoid releasing harmful substances or microplastics into the surrounding environment.
  4. The environmental and societal cost of materials and production is reflected in the price of the garment. This would encourage thoughtful, ethical consumer decisions.
  5. A new textile economy is profitable and attractive. Companies must be able to justify new systems in a way that is financially beneficial.

There are many new and upcoming business practices that allow a circular economy in the fashion industry:

Rentals. Short-term and subscription rentals are a great model to combat the problem of rapidly-evolving fast fashion trends and clothes that are bought only for special occasions. There are so many fantastic Canadian clothing rental services, such as Dresst, Station Service, FlauntBox, and Fitzroy, that take the guilt out of purchasing an outfit for a single event. Some of these companies even have a subscription service so you can experiment with many new looks without the negative environmental cost! 

Resale. We already know how quickly the clothing resale market is growing as we've mentioned before, and many large fashion brands are beginning to partner up with resale/consignment companies. Consumers are taking action against fast fashion, and businesses are noticing and changing.

Repair. Accessible services to help maintain the integrity and condition of high-quality clothes keep items in circulation longer. Increased demand for longer-lasting clothes offers new opportunities for brands to include repair or restyle services for their garments. Some brands that already provide these services as well as other incentives to keep clothing in good condition are Patagonia, Filson, and Lululemon.

While a circular economy will not solve fashion’s climate problem, it does help. The fashion industry grows approximately 4% globally every year, so larger systemic changes are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Support brands that release fewer, but higher quality and timeless pieces. Taking good care of your clothes, swapping, and resale are all great ways to contribute to a circular, greener economy!