The concepts “circular material flows”, “cradle-to-cradle” and “closed loop systems” are rapidly gaining grounds, since just a few years back. Not only environmental organizations, networks and research institutes, but also clothing companies and fashion brands, have begun to address and endorse the concept and theories behind a “circular economy”.
For example the Swedish brand Filippa K, who is one of the most sustainability conscious and forward thinking fashion brands in Sweden today, are now openly talking about the valuable insights and lessons to be learned from conducting a life cycle analysis within a fashion company. In early 2013, they completed a strategic life cycle analysis (SLCA) with the help of The Natural Step. In the study, The Natural Step traced and assessed the entire supply chain of one of Filippa K’s women’s garments, from the early phase of fiber production to the final product hanging in the shop. At a Fashion Talk during Mercedes-Benz Fashion week in Stockholm last week, Elin Larsson (CSR manager at Filippa K) told the audience that their study was an eye-opener for the company. It brought insights not only as to the amount of resources that are needed and the environmental impacts that are generated during the various stages of textile production, but also how much resources that are being used for transportation and marketing, such as wrapping, bags, hangers, tags etc.
Evidently, using a cradle-to-cradle approach and undertaking a life cycle analysis can be an efficient way to spot what key areas should be targeted for the company’s in-house sustainability work. The insights generated in such as study will naturally vary from company to company.
A circular economy: the concept and its principles
Where does the concept of circular economy originate? It is hard to know for sure, but one organization that has worked hard to promote the concept and its positive economic implications for society, is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Ellen MacArthur was a former long-distance sailor, who had a turning point in life when completing and winning her last solo round-the-world sailing race in 2005. She then realized how dependent we are on Earth’s finite natural resources, how everything is interconnected, and how we need to start making use of our limited natural resources in a much more sustainable way. The answer she saw was the necessity to convert to a more circular economy globally, by closing the loops of materials, both natural and man-made. She decided to devote her life to this new quest, and in 2010, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Since then, the Foundation has grown remarkably in respect and influence, as a key knowledge base, educator and promoter in the field.
For the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a conversion to a circular global economy is necessary because:
“The linear ‘take, make, dispose’ model relies on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy, and as such is increasingly unfit for the reality in which it operates. Working towards efficiency—a reduction of resources and fossil energy consumed per unit of manufacturing output—will not alter the finite nature of their stocks but can only delay the inevitable. A change of the entire operating system seems necessary.” (source)
But what does a circular economy mean? According to the Foundation, “The circular economy refers to an industrial economy that is restorative by intention; aims to rely on renewable energy; minimises, tracks, and hopefully eliminates the use of toxic chemicals; and eradicates waste through careful design.” (source) The concept is illustrated in the system diagram below (source).
In order to progress towards a circular economy, the Foundation encourages companies and other actors to adopt a set of strategies and actions, which can be summarized as follows:
- To minimize waste by designing products that can be disassembled and recycled at their end of life;
- To strive towards efficient energy use, as well as using renewable energy sources,
- To promote diversity and adaptiveness rather than efficiency, so as to create greater resilience in the face of sudden changes or disturbances; and
- To use a systems approach to both natural and man-made systems, by acknowledging interactions, feedback effects, non-linearity and unpredictability of especially the natural systems.
Moreover, a circular economy involves careful management of materials flows by all actors in society. It makes a significant distinction between material flows of biological nutrients and technical nutrients. While biological nutrients should reenter the natural systems after extraction and use, technical nutrients (read “components”) are man-made and should circulate (“in high quality”) in society without entering the biosphere (or natural systems). The foundation has made various videos to educate on the concept, such as the one below:
What does this mean for the fashion industry?
According to the Foundation, manufacturers and retailers in society should:
“…increasingly retain the ownership of their products and, where possible, act as service providers—selling the use of products, not their one-way consumption. This shift has direct implications for the development of efficient and effective take-back systems and the proliferation of product- and business model design practices that generate more durable products, facilitate disassembly and refurbishment and, where appropriate, consider product/service shifts.” (source)
But how do these principles translate into strategies and concrete practices for a fashion company? First of all, “selling the use of products” may imply the adoption of a rental system for a fashion company in which clothes can be rented for a certain time and to a certain fee. Uniforms for the Dedicated, a Swedish fashion brand with a commitment to becoming the world’s most sustainable fashion brand, has recently initiated this “functional service” to its customers. Secondly, “take-back systems” have been adopted by various fashion brands and chains, such as H&M and the Swedish brand Boomerang. The third strategy, i.e. design practices that generate more durable products, are quite widely used in the fashion world, e.g. by Filippa K, who sees “high quality and timeless design” as its primary sustainability strategy. The fourth strategy, “facilitation of disassembly through design”, is perhaps the least adopted approach today. An exception is the Swedish brand Matilda Wendelboe who was an early pioneer in adopting a cradle-to-cradle (C2C) approach, by using fabrics that are degradable and compostable. Arguably, the company produced the world’s first compostable women’s collection (read more here). Another early pioneer with a sincere belief in the C2C approach is the Swedish company Bonkeli Design; all of their children’s clothes are ecological, produced locally and compostable (since 2010), and some are even C2C certified. Their goal is to produce all of their clothes according to the C2C design concept by 2015.
Case-studies with relevance for the fashion industry
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has developed a resource database, including reports, educational material, business toolkits and case studies, with the aim to support and encourage progress towards a circular global economy (source). In the fashion field, for example, two valuable case studies have been published and are available online. One is the business model developed by Mud Jeans. The other one is the Wear 2 project, which uses a new yarn that enables items to be selectively disassembled, and hence suitable for reuse, resale or recycling.
In the area of fashion design, the Foundation has proposed an activity for teachers to educate design students of a circular approach to fashion, so called “Activity 6”. During the course, the students learn how to develop new textile products using system thinking and a life cycle approach. For example, they are educated on how to “design out” waste from the product lifecycle. Also, they learn how to evaluate the impact of a product from start to end of life, and how to take into consideration the difference between biological and technical components.
Progress of international fashion companies
But what about the progress of other international fashion companies and chains? How far have they come in adopting the concepts of a circular economy? Both H&M and Marks&Spencer have initiated large-scale collection projects for reuse and recycling of textiles. H&M launched its LongLiveFashion! initiative in 2013, and has currently collection boxes on all of their 53 markets. The North Face has also installed collection boxes (called Clothes the loop). Yet another company is Rapanui Clothing, which has a genuine ambition to use a cradle-to-cradle approach.
During the last two years, various articles have been written on the potentials of a circular approach within the fashion industry. For more reading, online articles have been published by The Guardian (by Will Henly and by Gunter Pauli etc), by Ecotextile News (in October and November 2013), Los Angeles Times, the blog Refinity, Waste Management World (WMW), and by Innonet Lifestyle.
If you are living in Sweden and want to become engaged in the promotion of a more circular economy, the network Cradle Net is a good way to start. Of course there are similar networks internationally, such as the C2C network.