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Circular Fashion: Why and How the Fashion Industry is Changing

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Circular fashion is all the rage right now. But can it turnaround the fashion industry from global polluters to sustainable doers? Let's dive into the details to find out!

Circular fashion
Circular fashion: giving clothes a new lease on life

Throughout the industry, circular fashion is growing in popularity as major brands are starting to realise the large-scale harm to society and the environment caused by the traditional ways of manufacturing their products.


The statistics demonstrate this urgent dilemma. In 2014, people purchased 60% more garments that they did in 2000, but keep them only for 50% as long. On a global scale, 85% of textiles head straight to the garbage tip, while the fashion industry as a whole creates 10% of all carbon emissions produced by humans. Here in Australia, every 10 minutes, we simply dump around 15 tonnes of clothing and fabric waste, adding up to approximately 800,000 tonnes of waste every single year.


Meanwhile, the fashion industry is plagued with the use of toxic chemicals, using heavy metals, flame retardants and a chemical known as formaldehyde, linked to some forms of cancer. The sector has also been ranked as second on the list of industries contributing most to modern slavery.


But the circular fashion movement aims to change all this for the better – fostering the safe, sustainable and ethical production of all types of fashion from shoes and clothes to garments and accessories.


If you’re looking to wear fashion more safely and much more sustainably, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we’ll outline the meaning of circular fashion, some key examples of circular fashion and how major brands are now adopting sustainable fashion practices as part of their growth strategy.



What is circular fashion?

Circular fashion refers to fashion such as clothes and accessories specifically produced to be circulated ethically and responsibly with the community. The intention is that a fashion product would remain in use (and usable) for as long as possible, prior to being safely disposed in an environmentally friendly way.

Circular fashion
Would you wear other people's clothes?

The core circular fashion principle is that fashion products – whether they be shoes, garments or sports apparel – should be created with ethics, long-term use, recycling and biodegradability at front of mind.


Circular fashion is the antithesis to fast fashion – where consumers are encouraged to buy more and more cheap and disposable clothes as often as possible. The concept of “buy now”, as we saw in the statistics above, has meant people are letting their clothes go to waste at an unprecedented rate. The human race now consumes about 80 billion new pieces of clothing every single year – that’s 400% more than we were consuming just 20 years ago.


In a circular fashion economy, the products should not simply be thrown away at the end of a ‘fashion season’ or ‘fashion craze’. The idea is that they are worn and used for the longest possible period – that they are treated properly, repaired if necessary and shared throughout the community via thrift shops, op shops (think Vinnies or Salvos), renting, swapping and other means.


When the life of the clothing piece has come to its end, it should be recycled so that it can be used to create another product. Alternatively, it should be thrown into the compost to give nutrients back to the natural environment.


The meaning of circular fashion, at its core, is that the entire life of the product introduces no harm to society, the economy or the environment. Rather, it’s rooted in creating a better world for everyone.


6 Prime Examples of Circular Fashion


The circular fashion movement is growing in Australia and throughout the world and below, we’ve outlined 6 key examples to demonstrate how it works in real-time.


#1 Op shops

Circular fashion
... got 20 dollars in your pocket?

Think of the famous op shops (also known as thrift shops) we Australians have grown to love - St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies), Salvation Army (Salvos), Anglicare and the Red Cross. These are all incredible organisations that help communities in need and encourage people to donate unwanted clothes and goods that they can sell back into the community at affordable rates.


As part of the Australian Parliament’s Inquiry into Australia’s Waste Management and Recycling Industries, the Salvos submitted that the Inquiry should “leverage the charitable recycling sector as a critical enabler of the circular economy and of reuse”.

Op shops are easily accessible, widely available and highly affordable for all members of the community. They’re amazing locations as people donate all clothes ranging from shoes and shirts to jeans and shorts that they no longer used and are then circulated to other people who need them.


The clothes are “pre-loved”, so they’re the best kind of sustainable fashion to wear. If you attend op shops in wealthy areas of your city, you may even be able to find expensive designer clothes at a fraction of the price.


In 2020, Vinnies also introduced re/CYCLE, an environmentally friendly inventory of cushions, blankets, rugs and throws – all crafted from recycled clothing and textiles that would have otherwise found its way into landfill.


By promoting a circular wardrobe to all facets of society, op shops have played and continue to play a vital role in the movement for sustainable fashion.



#2 Renting clothes

Circular fashion
Cinderella as a service, anyone?

Rent the Runway (RTR) is all about just that – renting clothes. Users are able to select an online ‘plan’ for which they pay a monthly price and are able to rent choices from thousands of different designer clothes. It started as an online platform but now has physical stories in New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, San Francisco and Chicago.


RTR offers dresses, gowns, pants, sweaters, activewear, jumpsuits, sweaters and more that are available to rent – all produced by more than 700 designers. You’re able to rent the clothing for as long as you want, and you can swap them with more clothes when you’re ready for the next load of clothes.


In a detailed Swedish study on renting everyday clothes, the author suggested that “companies could improve their environmental and social production standards if they [understood] the rental business as part of their sustainability strategies”.


After slumping due to the Coronavirus, RTR reported booming business from February 2021, when COVID-19 vaccines began their distribution. It reflects a growing recognition that renting is an excellent way to own a circular wardrobe and allow members in the community to enjoy fashion in a sustainable way.


#3 Buying unwanted clothes online

Circular fashion
AirRobe CEO/ Founder, Hannon Comazzetto

AirRobe is a game-changing pre-loved marketplace that brings retailers and fashion lovers together in the circular economy with just one click. An Australian marketplace connects with online retailers to store the images and details of purchased items in the customer’s AirRobe account, as a private listing. Then months or years later, if the customer feels ready to move on from the item, one click makes it a public listing, and they can choose to re-sell, rent or in some cases, recycle. The customer can edit the estimated resale price and add condition notes and add more images if needed, too. The virtual wardrobe also details the positive impact you’re making on the planet and the monetary value of your wardrobe, too.


As well as a growing list of merchants, AirRobe features independent vendors of good quality secondhand fashion, and collaborates with fashion stylists by developing branded AirRobe stores for their extraordinary archives. Fashion and celebrity stylists Natalia De Martin-Crevani and Lydia-Jane Saunders re-sell the likes of Gucci, Prada and Versace, and sustainable stylist Joanne Gambale of Slogue introduces a curated selection of vintage and archival designer, from Yohji Yamamoto to Romance was Born.


AirRobe founder Hannon Comazzetto believes AirRobe will encourage a wider span of consumers to think about fashion’s potential circularity.

“No other secondhand retailers are doing this integration with merchants as far as we’re aware,” says Comazzetto, who began reselling as a teen but felt the process would be more popular if it wasn’t so “clunky”.

“It was so time consuming and I wanted to make it simpler by cutting out the upload.”

Now she’s on a mission to incentivise the creation of – and the investment in – timeless, long-lasting pieces by giving fashion brands and consumers the tools to monetise the circular economy. AirRobe is evolving into a platform for change in consumer habits. “We’re giving retailers the chance to become early adopters of this circular business model,” she says. “Consumers are beginning to see their wardrobe as an asset.” Merchant partners such as Sweden’s Reve Ultime so far already tick many of the sustainable boxes, and that comes with a higher price point. “Merchants using the plugin have found shoppers buy more high-value items because they know they can reduce the overall lifetime cost of their purchase,” says Comazzetto.


The model encourages consumers to stop thinking of fashion as instant, short-lived and disposable, but rather as an investment they will look after, because they may sell it on down the line, like a house or car,” explains Comazzetto.


It’s now widely agreed that the most sustainable product is the one you’re saving from landfill. Circular fashion is here to stay and this innovative collaboration is making it easier for you to be part of the movement. Did you know that re-selling extends a garment's life by about two years, which cuts its combined carbon, waste, and water footprint by 82%? Together, we can make a real difference.


#4 ThredUp: the new online op shop

Circular fashion
Nice threads never go out of fashion

Brick-and-mortar op shops are not the only kind of op shop. ThredUp is a novel type of thrift store – that’s amazing for “your closet, your wallet and the planet”.


Sustainable fashion is at the core of ThredUp message. They’re not out just to make a buck. They’re also passionate about shopping with purpose and to completely reject the throwaway culture that has become so engrained into our everyday lives.


In their online store, you’re able to recirculate your clothes through their website or mobile app, and truly embrace a new world of circular fashion at your fingertips.


#5 Poshmark

Circular fashion
Sustainable fashion, all in the palm of your hand

Poshmark is another fantastic online store embracing circular economy principles where you’re able to buy, sell and browse a large range of sustainable fashion. But you won’t just find hand me downs at these places. You’ll be able to find top designer brands like Nike, Gucci, Coach, Louise Vuitton and Michael Kors.


If you’re a seller - All you have to do is list your clothing, share it and earn cash (all by promoting a circular fashion economy).


If you’re a buyer – browse from thousands of different brands, fund your match and buy.


#6 Trove

Circular fashion
Trove CEO and Founder, Andy Ruben

Trove is yet another store that really dedicates to putting the hard work behind the circular fashion economy – this time, they’re radically changing how consumers act in the United States.


Trove has partnered up with some of the world’s leading brands (including Levi’s and Patagonia, which we discuss below) in order to create profit by helping the planet and energising the circular economy.


By partnering with California-based Trove, a clothing brand is able to embrace the “resale”, by reselling unwanted clothes or their already used merchandise.


This is not simply the sale of second-hand clothing that was already sold once. This is about large brands channelling their stock so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill, where the clothing of so many large brands end up.


Big clothing brands adopting circular fashion.


New e-commerce platforms and op shops are not the only stores embracing the circular fashion economy.

Circular fashion
Guilt-free fast fashion - the dream, right?

Large clothing brands are now beginning to realise that fast fashion is the driving factor behind the fashion injury being a major contributor to climate change - and now the second largest polluter in the world (behind oil).


Below, we’ll outline how some of the world’s biggest clothing brands are joining the circular fashion movement.


Levi’s

Levi’s recently announced a “re-commerce” site known as Levi’s Second Hand, which is fundamentally about keeping clothes out of the landfill and still in circulation. Clothes include goods like jeans and jackets, only sold online.


Customers based in the U.S. are able to drop off their jeans and denim to Levi’s shops and receive a credit voucher they can redeem. Levi’s then takes the clothes, fixes them up and sells them through Levi’s Second Hand.


According to Levi’s, it’s about “connecting people to timeless styles they otherwise may not have found, and most importantly, saving clothing from going into a landfill”.


Patagonia

Patagonia is another major clothing brand that has embraced a circular business model, and has now been called the “fashion industry’s only large company that lives and breathes circularity”.


The idea is that, once a product is worn, the company recycles it or, in need be, repair it – keep it in our economy so that people can use it for its entire lifetime.


Glen Morden, the Head of Product Innovation at Patagonia, has stated that the company seeks to achieve a ‘business of recycling’’ through:


1. Reducing their clothing’s environment footprint; and

2. Embracing the circular economy.


The company has launched several campaigns rooted in the concept of environmental sustainability and circularity. For example, the company publishes details of its entire supply chain so consumers are completely aware of what they are buying.


They also offer the Worn Wear” service, where you can recycle, share and repair used or broken clothing. The key component of this service being to reduce consumption, utilise what we already have at home and – once done – trade it in for some credit.


Thrifting vs fast fashion: who will win the day?


The circular economy and fast fashion are on diametrically opposing sides – the former seeking the combat the harm caused by the latter.

Circular fashion
Make it and they will wear it... Maybe

Buying second-hand goods from places like op shops and Airrobe, as well as renting your clothes from Rent the Runway, are highly effective ways to counter the growing threat that the mainstream fashion industry is presenting to our national environment.


With around 84% of clothing ending up in landfills every year, it is now more important than ever to reuse and recycle the clothes we have – rather than simply disposing when our garments have so much more to give.


We recommend the following tips

  • Recycle your old clothing or the clothing you no longer wear

  • Don’t buy cheap clothing crafted from synthetic fabrics, which may have toxic origins

  • Purchase brands accredited by the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA)

  • Encourage brands that are not ECA-accredited to become so

  • Exchange clothing with friends, family and others who are willing


With COVID-19 and the prevalence of working from home encouraging the growth of e-commerce, it is the perfect time to ditch the linear economy and embrace the circular fashion model. If you're into fashion and are looking for ways to reduce waste, why not try swapping out your single-use bin liners for a (super cool designed) reusable and sustainable garbage bag from TOMbag?

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