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The circular economy is being lauded as the answer to many of our global problems, but what does this mean for our clothes?

“Its a new way of looking at the fashion industry. All industry needs to look at their impact on the planet. The reality is there are really exciting alternatives."
Stella McCartney

The circular economy might sound like a complex idea to understand, but in reality it is a simple concept. Circularity is a system that operates in a closed loop, as opposed to a one way, or linear, system. In a linear system, we take resources from the earth, make them into products, use these products, then throw them away. In this system we are treating resources as infinite, and when we discard them their value is lost. But as we know, the earths resources are not infinite supply. With a circular economy instead of throwing something away when we are finished with it, it gets fed back into the system, and its materials and components are reused in some way. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to accelerate the global transition to a circular economy, define it as a system that is regenerative and restorative by design, one that entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, with waste designed out of the system. They estimate that in Europe,  EUR 1.8 trillion of value for Europe’s economy could be gained through applying circular systems across industries. So what does this all mean for the fashion industry?

Why do we need it?

We are starting to understand the social and environmental impacts of over production and consumption of our clothes. With more than 100 billion garments produced annually, and consumption predicted to rise 63 percent by 2030, a continuation of business as usual would result in three times our current consumption of the planet’s already overused resources. Across the industry, only 13 percent of textiles are recycled after clothing use in some way. The majority of these enter the second hand market, with less than 1 percent being recycled into new clothing ​representing a loss of more than USD100 billion worth of materials each year.​ 85 percent of the 53 million tonnes of textiles produced each year end up in landfill or incinerated. Read more about Fashion’s Impacts here. To continue to survive, let alone alive and kicking, the fashion industry needs to shift radically, and redesigning its operating model through circularity plays a key role.


What is Circular Fashion?

There are two main ways that circularity is being addressed at present. At a base level, keeping our clothes in use (and out of landfill) for as long as possible is one way to achieve more circularity. This is being done in numerous ways, from resellers such as Vinnies and consignment stores like The Real Real, to brand repair and resale sites from Patagonia and Eileen Fisher.


Secondly, through recycling clothes into new fibres to make new products - whether they become new clothes or are downgraded into another textile based item. There are numerous challenges the industry faces to achieve true fibre to fibre recycling. A lot of technology is currently being developed, however large scale investment and infrastructure is needed to take these to scale, including fibre sorting capabilities. Innovative solutions are starting to appear from Osomtex which mechanically recycles post consumer and post industrial textile waste into new yarn. Their technology can recycle single fibre inputs such as cotton, or multiple fibre inputs and these are chopped up and blended with virgin fibres to create new yarn. Cotton and wool fibre can be mechanically recycled and it too is usually blended with virgin fibre - some denim brands already use this technology. Chemical recycling of cellulose based fibres is also possible, with Evrnu one company that is turning post consumer textile waste (garments) into new cellulose fibre. For synthetic fabrics recycling has been relatively limited, with only a small amount of chemical recycling. It is much more common for mechanical recycling of PET bottles to be made into recycled polyester material. Chemical recycling of blended fibre materials such as poly/viscose is in development and will require serious investment and collaboration to take it to the scale needed to present as a viable circular solution. 

There is a real push for brands to move towards safe materials that are optimized to go back into the circular system, either biologically such as back into the ground or technically, such as being chemically recycled. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and Fashion Positive provide many resources in this area.

When we look a layer deeper in the fashion system, circular systems can also come into play through optimised use of resources; recycled wastewater, reused chemicals, capturing steam from processing and using it as heat and energy for new processing, cutting and production scraps upcycled into new materials, savings on use of virgin fibre eg. cotton or crude oil, and the resulting reduction in water, energy and chemical load from processing. In a world where we are facing soaring carbon emissions, increasing shortages of water and arable land, and are working to cap global warming to less than 2°C, reducing these inputs plays a crucial role.

Industry Initiatives

The Global Fashion Agenda is a non profit leadership forum on fashion sustainability based in Denmark. It calls on fashion brands to commit to defining a circular strategy, set targets for 2020 and report on the progress of implementing their commitment. Since 2017, 93 fashion companies, representing 207 brands, or 12 percent of the global fashion market have committed, including Eileen Fisher, H&M, Target, Loomstate, Nike, ASOS, Inditex and Mara Hoffman.

Commitments vary as each company has set their own circularity targets for 2020. Adidas will start an instore system to collect used garments while ASOS has committed to training their design teams to use circular design techniques and move towards incorporating recycled materials. H&M will provide money for research towards textile recycling and will increase the volume of used clothing collected and resold and Mara Hoffman will implement a garment collection scheme for all web customers by 2020. Find out more about brand's individual commitments here.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation are focussed on a circular future and have recently launched the Make Fashion Circular initiative, bringing together some of the largest names in the fashion industry with Burberry Group plc, Gap Inc, H&M, Nike Inc, Stella McCartney and HSBC being named as core partners.​ Make Fashion Circular aims to provide leadership to the industry in moving towards a circular economy, and pushes for collaboration across the industry to drive change.

"By joining forces to Make Fashion Circular we can harness the creativity and innovation that is at the heart of this USD 1.3 trillion industry to create a system that delivers benefits for everyone."   Ellen MacArthur.

Circular Fashion Principles

Make Fashion Circular has three key principles to create a more circular system:

  1. Developing business models that KEEP CLOTHES IN USE. For example Resell, clothing swaps, store take back schemes, garment repair and upcycling.

  2. Using RENEWABLE AND SAFE MATERIALS. For example, using high quality renewable fibres that are made in a safe and non toxic way.

  3. Creating solutions that TURN USED CLOTHES INTO NEW CLOTHES. For example, upcycling waste materials to new products through design, recycling waste textiles into new fibre through mechanical and chemical recycling. 


Growth linked to consumption

The growth of most businesses is still based on more people buying more clothes. Developing a circular system that recycles waste clothing into new materials to make more clothing will facilitate this model to continue, and many question if this is the best way forward. There are new business models emerging that offer alternative approaches to circularity, moving away from the consumption and ownership model we have now, by selling the services their products provide instead of selling the product itself.

Access over ownership

MUD Jeans are leading the charge towards a circular system for our clothes with access over ownership. The Netherlands based brand's lease-a-jean model is based on the concept that the consumer pays to 'use' the organic denim jeans and then returns them for a new pair. The old pair is then either resold as vintage, or chopped up, blended with virgin fibre and recycled into new yarn to make new jeans. On average, one new pair of jeans takes 7,000 litres of water to produce. Through recycling the jeans sent back and using an innovative water filtration system, MUD cuts this water usage by 78 percent. This represents resource savings on multiple levels for the brand and introduces the customer to the access over ownership model for an everyday item of clothing.






For Days is another brand shaking things up. They launched their clothing subscription company mid 2018. The Los Angeles brand produces organic cotton T shirts, tanks and sweaters and a monthly fee gives the consumer access to a set amount of products. When you send each garment back, they will replace it for you and recycle the style into new fibre to make new T shirts.

Access over ownership is also in play at US womenswear brand Ann Taylor. Infinite Style is their online subscription rental service that gives you access to hundreds of Ann Taylor garments for one flat fee, while European brand Filippa K offers its upmarket womens and menswear garments to lease for a one-off fee.

Repair and reuse

Other brands are taking a different approach. At Eileen Fisher, you can return your used garments for a store credit through their take-back program, and the brand will reuse each item, through repair, rework and recycling. The brand started collecting its used garments 7 years ago before it had a solution for them. The 'new' garments are sold through secondary platform Eileen Fisher Renew.

For Patagonia, the concept at the heart of their business is to manufacture, repair and recycle products in order that they last a lifetime. By designing durable products that can be repaired, Patagonia ensures that garments stay in use for as long as possible, something the brand encourages by providing a lifetime guarantee for all of its wares. If the customer no longer wants an item, then Patagonia will sell it through their Wornwear platform. like Eileen Fisher, this has created an entirely new revenue stream for the company.

G-Star RAW has also been pursuing circularity for its denim. It first introduced the pilot for Renewed Denim made from recycled G-Star RAW jeans in 2012. In May, the company presented its 2.0 version made with yarns upcycled from G-Star jeans that were collected, sorted and shredded to create new fibre. Blended with new organic cotton the product contains no added polyester. The jeans are 98 percent recyclable thanks to the elimination of rivets and eco-finish metal buttons instead of zippers.

Redress is a non profit working to reduce textile waste in the fashion industry. Through their Redress Design Award, emerging designers from around the world are educated about sustainable design techniques to drive growth towards a circular fashion system, with the winner getting the opportunity to work with the R Collective to contribute to a commercial collection utilising luxury textile waste. 

Christopher Raeburn is a UK designer who has pioneered the reworking of surplus fabrics and garments to create distinctive and functional pieces. From his REMADE studio in London, Raeburn creates innovative and luxurious designs using decommissioned military parachutes, liferafts and jackets for a range of menswear, womenswear, luggage and accessories.

“It’s incredible what you can do with material that would otherwise languish in landfill” says Kresse Wesling, founder of Elvis and Kresse, the UK brand who utilises decommissioned firehoses to create luxury handbags and accessories. They are early adopters of circular thinking and are now working with Burberry to create a 3 piece system to utilise leather waste.

Renewal Workshop takes discarded apparel and textiles and turns them into Renewed Apparel, upcycled materials or recycling feedstock. Renewed garments are sold through its online store.


The resale market is predicted to overtake fast fashion in the next 10 years. Examples of successful models include Grailed, a peer to peer luxe menswear retail and resale site, and The Real Real, a luxury online consignment store. Stella McCartney has partnered with The Real Real to offer consignees of Stella product a coupon to be redeemed at the designers store. Through online marketplace Vestaire Collective you can buy and sell pre-owned high end designer clothing and accessories, while ThredUp is a more affordable mid market online consignment store.

Clothes libraries and wardrobe sharing platforms are also emerging; Village Luxe offers an endless world of high fashion available to borrow from 'the most covetable closets' in NYC, and at Lena Library in Amsterdam, you can borrow clothes instead of books.

Brands looking to integrate circularity into their business can consider implementing circular design strategies into their design process. These include designing for disassembly through choice of materials, components and construction, choosing single fibre materials to allow for end of life recycling, and designing for durability and long life. Setting up a take back system for the end of the first users life is another important consideration. When Eileen Fisher began taking back their garments, they didn't have a clue what they were going to do with them, but as time passed they were able to understand the scope of the project and so develop a solution. This concept of Extended Producer Responsibility is a requirement in France, where brands must provide end of life disposal options to their customers, and its likely that other countries will introduce similar regulations in the future.

Explore the Circular DesignGuide created by The Ellen MacArthur foundation, in conjunction with IDEO, which offers circular innovation methods as well as interviews with designers, creative exercises, case-studies and links to technical tools.


By introducing new business models, fashion brands can unlock enormous value both in cost savings and in revenue streams. As a society we are rapidly moving towards a new way of using our clothes, and brands that act quickly will also benefit from first mover advantage.  

If you are looking for guidance on the best way to move your brand towards a circular system Contact us.

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