What is the circular fashion movement? Can it solve the fashion industry’s massive sustainability problem?

What is the circular fashion movement? Can it solve the fashion industry’s massive sustainability problem?

The circle of life

Text: Gordon Ng

Editor: Jolene Khor

Fashion has a sustainability problem — that much is for certain. And, like virtually any and all businesses and industries in the world, it trades for profit with gross damage to the environment. The solutions we have at the moment are barely stopgaps, and the problems are not likely to change until businesses are ready to shift their priorities and restructure in ways that, unfortunately, are bound to harm the bottom line.

But we've got to do something anyway, and as far as consumers go, a movement gaining real traction is that of circular fashion. The idea is that the fashion industry, as it is or was, approaches the lifespan of garments as a linear one. It's produced quickly, it's sold quickly, it goes out of fashion quickly, and it's disposed of, sent to landfills, or burnt just as quickly. The main idea of the circular movement is to stretch the lifespan of a product and to connect the starts and ends of its life cycle.

The most obvious format of that is to create new garments out of old, discarded fabrics. One of the best examples of this right now is Prada's Re-Nylon program. The brand has essentially committed to halt the production of nylon products — one of the brand's permanent bestsellers, mind you — using virgin nylon. Instead, it's partnered with the textile manufacturer Econyl to regenerate existing nylon fabric into a yarn that can be recycled indefinitely. That means every nylon bag and backpack that comes out of the brand (the brand aims to achieve this by the end of 2021) will be made from recycled material that exacts much less of an environmental cost. The end of a product's life can therefore be turned into starting grounds for a new one.

Circular fashion is not just concerned with closing the loop on the fashion equation, though. Part of the movement also lies in the burgeoning luxury resale market — one that is expected to more than double from its value of US$24 billion in 2019 to US$51 billion in 2023. A large part of the fashion resale industry is in designer goods — it's no surprise, because the prices are far more forgiving than luxury retail, and the access more democratic. It's also possible, I believe, because these goods tend to be made with better materials, workmanship, and construction. It's why a properly made designer dress from a decade ago can hold up today — not just aesthetically but as a physical object to still be worn. With something like resale, the life cycles of fashion gets a real boost as products that have been released and sold in the market get more use and wear before they get disposed of and, hopefully, recycled.

Sneaker brand Veja is one example of a brand that has sustainability and a circular reuse of materials in its core. Its products are made using recycled materials that are responsibly sourced, and have become incredibly popular and fashionable. It is still, of course, far from perfect. Econyl is a happy example of efficacious fabric recycling, but many natural and synthetic fibers still pose a challenge. Even cotton, the most common fashion fabric, deteriorates as it's recycled. The yarn lengths, which determine the smoothness and quality of the fabric, get shortened each time it's recycled. Same deal with polyesters and plastic-based synthetic materials — the polymers degrade each time it gets recycled which makes the possibility of sustainability a finite one.

The research is still being done and, unless you're a scientist or researcher working on recyclable textiles, there isn't much about the system that we can change as lay people. What we can do (and what's great about the circular movement is that it centers itself on individual habits) is alter our habits as consumers — the way we shop, the causes we support with our money, and the relationship we have with fashion and clothing.