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Circular fashion: The sustainable alternative to fast fashion

Circular fashion is a business model that directly challenges the fast fashion ethos. More and more consumers are starting to prefer it.

As an alternative to the wasteful hyper-production of fast fashion, circular fashion is a business model which emphasizes sustainable production. Learn about the guidelines of circular fashion and how companies are embracing the concept.

Table of contents

1. What is circular fashion?

2. Where did circular fashion come from?

3. Why isn’t fast fashion sustainable?

What is circular fashion?

Circular fashion is a system where clothing is reused and repaired constantly, cycling from owner to owner. The core concept of circular fashion is that instead of throwing out unwanted clothing, you would simply send it to the next person</b>; one secondhand clothing company estimates that a single piece of clothing can be resold to 40 people.

Clothing designed to be distributed in this way is manufactured by brands which pay close attention to sustainability in fashion. They typically ask four questions about any product:

  • Is the product made using entirely or primarily natural materials, and are the resources used good for the environment?
  • Does making the product reduce or create waste? If it creates waste, is this waste actively harming the environment?
  • Is the product made using green energy or fossil fuels? Is the energy source harming the environment?
  • How sustainable is the product? Can it be recycled?

The last question is crucial, since continuous recycling is the core of circular fashion.

The model advocates using fewer materials per item to make recycling easier, removing pollutants from the supply chain, reusing every element of the product as long as possible, and returning whatever cannot be reused to nature safely. Reusing every element of a product means not only the clothing itself, but also the tags and packaging.

Circular fashion involves more than just making the clothes. It also entails transportation and repair of said clothes. Rented clothing, lending clothing to your friend, and secondhand shopping are all practices that qualify as circular fashion.

Demand for sustainable fast fashion alternatives is rising, particularly among younger generations. 74% of millennial and Gen Z consumers say that they prefer buying from brands that are environmentally conscious.And a study by WRAP found that circular fashion is rising in popularity in the UK. 40% of people reported being interested in a subscription service, and 58% said they would use a clothing repair service.

Values-driven shopping is more common in general, and consumers care more about environmental issues in light of the climate crisis. People have begun keeping their clothes for longer, taking better care of their clothes, and shopping second hand more often when buying new clothes. At the same time, no one wants to sacrifice access to an endless library of styles.

This is the genius of circular fashion. You still have access to exactly the same range of clothing types and outfits, those outfits have just been resold or refurbished. The market for this form of shopping is exploding; by 2028, the secondhand clothing market is expected to be 1.5 times the size of the fast fashion market. Over 100,000 pieces of clothing are resold per day on ThredUP alone.

Where did circular fashion come from?

The concept of a circular economy has been around in other industries for some time, but it was not until 2014 that circular fashion emerged as a term. It was coined during a fashion industry seminar in Sweden.

Since then, the push for circular fashion solutions has dramatically increased. Interest in the topic was driven by observations of fast fashion’s flaws, particularly in terms of the waste and poor working conditions endemic to the business model. Incidents such as the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013 helped raise awareness that changes needed to be made.

Circular fashion was devised based on the way circular economies function in other industries. The principles of a circular economy are that there is market incentive to reuse rather than replace products, and that all forms of waste are somehow returned to the economy.

Not only are circular economies more resource-efficient, but they can even be more profitable. That’s because when you reuse, reprocess, or recycle materials for future use, you preserve their value instead of losing value. And by offering products as services, circular businesses extend that product’s life cycle.

An infographic detailing the circular fashion process

 

Why isn’t fast fashion sustainable?

Fast fashion is almost the polar opposite of circular fashion. It is built around lighting-fast response to trends, and depends on products being cheaper and cheaper to produce as well as consume.

Clothing produced by fast fashion brands is not designed to last, it’s designed to be discarded as soon as the next trend reveals itself. Because longevity is not a concern, fast fashion items are typically made from cheap materials like synthetic plastics.

Many companies keep up with trends by introducing new clothing lines every week. And when the fresh new trend changes every week, people don’t just buy more, they also discard more. The average American buys 70 pieces of clothing a year, which means billions of clothes get discarded every year in the United States alone.

Clothing is one of the least recycled items globally, because it is very difficult to reuse. This is due to the use of short-fiber fabrics, which cannot be used to make new fabrics, and blended fabrics, which would require hours of skilled labor (per clothing item) to separate.

That means the vast majority of discarded items are simply dumped in landfills or burned. The nonrenewable plastics used to make these items are major pollutants. If synthetic plastics are burned, they release harmful chemicals into the air and surrounding environment. Clothing left in landfills takes hundreds of years to degrade naturally and can leach chemicals into the soil.

Such a high degree of waste is just more evidence in favor of circular fashion. Because these clothes are so difficult to reuse and are thrown out so fast, $500 billion in revenue is lost annually.

Fast fashion companies are realizing that consumers want more sustainable fashion options, and they are trying to appeal to socially conscious consumers. This may be why, at the COP26 conference (a U.N. environmental conference) held in 2021, 50 of the world’s largest fashion brands expressed support for proposed regulations.

Said regulations included a call for companies to halve their carbon emission by 2030, reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,and source 100% of the industry’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

A factory where fast fashion clothing is made

Running a sustainable circular fashion business is easier with Lumiform. You can make sure your operations are as energy-efficient and sustainable as possible by performing an energy audit to monitor how much your facilities and equipment are consuming.

It’s also easy to track the materials you are using, where you are sourcing them, and whether you have been reusing waste. Simply use our checklist maker to create custom inspection forms which you can use to assess all of these things. You can also use Lumiform’s analytics feature to identify possible improvements.

 
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