Circular fashion: the term is popping up everywhere. But what does it really mean? And what should we expect when it comes to circularity within the fashion industry? That’s what I’m exploring in today’s guide, which is kindly sponsored by BAM Clothing*. BAM is a long-time supporter of Curiously Conscious and they’re a fashion brand that’s actively working to be more circular.
This guide comes fresh from my Rethink Fashion Course, a four-month course run by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and Ellen MacArthur Foundation. On the course, I joined 12 sustainable fashion entrepreneurs to discuss and design ways to create a more regenerative future for fashion.
In this guide, I want to share what I learned, and combine it with real-life examples of circular fashion as it stands today. If you are to take anything away from this guide, I hope it’s an expectation of how we, as fashion fans, clothes wearers, and earth’s inhabitants, can do more to progress towards a truly circular, regenerative future, and expect better from our favourite clothes brands…
What Does Circular Fashion Mean?
Circular fashion is a broad term that incorporates three key circular economy principles to fashion:
- Designing out waste and pollution
- Keeping products and materials in use, and
- Regenerating natural systems.
Put simply, it’s about creating production cycles, where fashion brands are responsible for the creation, use, reuse, and recycling of their garments. (As opposed to straight production lines, where there is no real focus on the wearing, rewearing, and disposal of garments).
In my opinion, circular fashion is the next iteration of sustainable fashion. It’s the missing link in the traditional fashion lifecycle; instead of garments taking a linear journey from manufacturer to wearer to landfill (often in quick succession), it puts steps in place for garments to be reworn, remade, and recycled. In essence, it makes fashion brands responsible for their garments’ entire lifecycles. It prevents clothes from going to landfill for the longest time possible, while creating better practices that reduce waste and respect nature.
In this guide, I’ve broken down the circular fashion lifecycle into five chapters:
- Circular Fashion Design & Manufacture →
- Circular Fabrics & Materials →
- Circular Packaging & Other Solutions →
- Examples of Circular Fashion →
- Circular Fashion For Wearers →
…And that’s not all! This post is just a beginner’s guide distilled from my own learning and real-life examples. If you’re interested in this area of fashion, I encourage you to keep up with Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s work, as well as reading more into the subject. Books like Fibershed* and Doughnut Economics* have really opened my eyes to what’s possible!
1. Circular Fashion Design & Manufacture
Just as a fashion collection starts with design, circular fashion has to be considered from the design stage onwards as well.
I’m excited to be working with BAM Clothing* to bring you this guide. They are leading the way when it comes to designing and integrating circularity across their supply chain and fashion collection. Their new 73 Zero Jeans* demonstrate the processes I’ll be outlining throughout this guide, and aren’t they just gorgeous? BAM is working with Ellen MacArthur Foundation on The Jeans Redesign programme to create these. Plus, they were recently shortlisted for Draper’s Best Circularity Initiative Award too.
So, the first key principle of circular fashion is to design out waste and pollution and design in circularity. In practice, it combines identifying areas that cause waste and pollution and designing them out, as well as designing better.
BAM has designed out waste and incorporated circularity in a number of ways with their 73 Zero Jeans:
- Reduced water usage by 74% by using organic cotton and bamboo instead of conventional cotton,
- Printed the care instructions on the inside pocket, rather than a separate label,
- Tested their jeans to ensure they withstand more than 30 washes,
- Removed rivets and added an un-screwable button to ensure the entire jeans can be recycled.
For many fashion businesses, moving towards circularity involves prioritising people and working on impact reduction before reaching truly regenerative processes. BAM Clothing’s overarching goal is to be Impact Positive by 2030, which means they look at circularity from a carbon, water, chemical, waste, land use and people perspective too.
More great examples of this include:
- Kalopsia, a Scottish fashion manufacturer and social enterprise. They incorporate circular practices and waste reduction techniques while providing fair employment.
- GLOW, a London-based knitwear brand working to employ BAMER women from low socio-economic backgrounds. By tapping into important heritage, craftsmanship, and highly-skilled employment opportunities, they create truly sustainable fashion.
2. Circular Fabrics & Materials
In my guide to sustainable fabrics, I touted natural and regenerated fabrics as the best options available. When it comes to circular fashion, there are three more things to look out for:
- Mono-material garments – which can help with end-of-life garment recycling
- Recycled natural materials – textiles like reclaimed down or recycled cashmere
- Regenerative natural materials – textiles that come from regenerative farming, promoting better land use, more carbon sequestration and less waste/pollution
For BAM, they’ve already started incorporating better material choices across their garments and future collections. Synthetic fibres make up less than 10% of their overall fibre usage (5% polyamide and 4% elastane), while they switched 20% of their polyamide to recycled polyamide this year and have a target to increase this to 90% by the end of 2021. They are also planning to introduce recycled elastane, recycled cashmere, and viscose made from post-consumer cotton into their range within the next two years.
I’m particularly interested in seeing more recycled and regenerative natural materials in fashion. Designers who accompanied me on the Rethink Fashion course demonstrated a few ways of doing this: Sophie Hawkins uses natural indigo denim, Alice Robinson and Sara Grady work with regenerative farms to produce leather, and Chip[s] Board uses potato skins to create bio-plastic buttons. All brilliant examples of circular materials!
3. Circular Packaging & Other Solutions
Alongside the garments themselves, packaging, software, and other innovations can support circularity in fashion.
For packaging, recycled materials that are reusable and recyclable is the goal. BAM removed conventional plastic from all of their packaging in 2020, and now uses the following types of packaging:
- Paper-based packaging for socks, underwear and accessories,
- Single fabric stitch for socks, replacing plastic kimble tags,
- Compostable garment bags for larger items – a mix of home compostable and industrial – which they’re looking to improve on going forwards,
- Recycled paper swing tags with recycled paper cord, attached using re-usable metal safety pins, and
- Paper mailer bags.
As for additional solutions, blockchain definitely deserves a mention. With fashion supply chains being translucent at best – Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index only ranks five big brands above 60% – blockchain can enable everyone to see where materials, labour, and all other elements of their garments come from.
Technology can also support post-consumer garment traceability. Fashion brands like Katla and Ninety Percent* already use QR codes on their garments. These provide more information about their production, styling ideas, and care instructions.
And even simpler, printing vital information onto the garments themselves (rather than labels) is a great idea. Labels can fall out of clothing, smudge during washing, or be cut out by the wearer. By printing garments’ composition, care instructions, and other information onto the clothes themselves, it can help to remind us on how to look after our clothes, as well as inform second-hand shoppers, swappers, and resellers of the true value of clothes. Plus, when clothing reaches the end of its lifecycle, these instructions can help identify how to recycle them.
4. Examples of Circular Fashion
When it comes to showcasing the best that circular fashion has to offer, there’s so much to choose from. Garments made from regenerated materials, garments made-to-be-made again, garments that are cycling through the second-hand and vintage market…
Here’s a selection of my favourite examples of circular fashion:
BAM 73 Zero Jeans*. BAM’s jeans are made from bamboo viscose and organic cotton, improving biodiversity and soil health while reducing land usage by 50% and water usage by 74%. They include care and repair information on the inside pocket. And they’re designed to be easy to recycle: rivet-free and with one un-screwable button!
North Face Recycled Down Jacket. Just like I avoid first-hand leather, I avoid purchasing down because I don’t want to support the plucking of birds. My North Face recycled down jacket is both a revelation and a joy to wear!
Baggu Tote Bag. There’s something delightfully playful about reusable designs that are made to look disposable. My reusable tote bag from Baggu is a favourite of mine, made from 100% nylon, 40% of which is recycled.
McCurdy-Lim Algae Sequin Dress. Despite being a one-off, conceptual design, the algae sequin dress created by Charlotte McCurdy and Phillip Lim is brilliant. It uses algae – a natural plant-like organism that sequesters huge amounts of carbon – in place of plastic sequins derived from fossil fuels.
Cradle 2 Cradle Certified Garments. If you’re looking for more circular garments, take a look at C2C’s registry.
5. Circular Fashion For Wearers
Now, it’s your turn. How can YOU make fashion more circular? If you wear clothes, you can most likely help make fashion circular. Here’s a few ideas…
How many times do you wear your clothes? If the average is less than 30, it’s time to rethink your wardrobe. Try reducing how much you buy, and instead rewear what you have. According to a 2015 survey of 2,000 people, clothes are worn as little as seven times before being thrown out! By simply making the most of what you have, you can support a more circular economy.
To help improve how often you rewear clothes, learn how to care for your clothes. Personally, I like to wash my clothes as infrequently as possible. When I do, I use eco-friendly detergents, and hand-wash my delicates and woollens. Plus, when needed, I take my clothes to be altered or repaired.
On the note of repairing, let’s talk about remaking clothes. Whether you go to your local laundrette to get alterations, or try a modern-day approach like The Seam and The Restory to fix your most beloved pieces, altering, repairing, and keeping garments at their highest value level is integral to circular fashion.
Making and mending clothes is a forgotten art, and something I’ve tried but am simply terrible at. If you’re craftier than me, why not try remaking your clothes yourself?
Returning & Recycling
In an ideal world, when a garment reaches the end of its lifecycle, you should be able to return it to where it originated. This is still a fairly new process, but it’s one we should come to expect at all fashion brands. Producers and retailers of clothing should ultimately be responsible for the entire lifecycle of their clothes!
BAM takes this responsibility seriously. When speaking to Merryn, BAM’s Sustainability Manager, I got to better understand what they can currently offer:
“There’s still massive challenges around the technologies that exist to recycle different types of textiles. There are very limited options at the moment, especially for recycling clothing back into clothing. There’s a fair amount of R&D happening around chemical recycling which uses a chemical process to break mixed fibre clothing down and turn it back into new fibres (like polyester, viscose or lyocell) with companies like Worn Again and Renewcel working on scaling these technologies up. BAM are also contributing the research needed in the area of textile disposal by funding a research project this year which is looking at the compostability of our mixed fibre clothing.”
While BAM works on the infrastructure and logistics of collecting and sorting used clothing, and changing people’s behaviour, they are also re-introducing their partnership with Sharewear, a charity committed to ending clothing poverty, later this year. BAM customers will be able to send worn clothing from BAM, as well as up to four additional items, to Sharewear through their partnership programme. These will then be distributed to people suffering from clothing poverty.
If your clothing is at the end of its life – i.e. it’s not wearable anymore – instead of donating it, try one of these suggestions from environmental charity Hubbub:
- Upcycle worn clothes into smaller, useable items such as face masks, dust cloths, or patchwork blankets
- Take worn out clothing to a textile recycling bank
- Ask your council about textile waste collections
- Arrange a donation to an animal shelter
What Does The Future Of Circular Fashion Look Like?
There’s so much more work required to make fashion circular. From sustainable fashion policy to materials research, blockchain technology to unified textile recycling, the industry has a lot to work on.
BAM is actively involved in furthering circular fashion design. They worked with MBA students at the University of Exeter to come up with more ideas on how they can be circular, which include:
- A subscription model for underwear and socks where BAM takes responsibility for recycling the worn-out clothes
- Technology for customers to see how their clothes are being recycled by BAM
- Technology for customers to have full visibility of the origins of their clothes
- A platform for likeminded sustainable brands to be able to facilitate the resale of their products to maximise their lifespan.
Development doesn’t stop there: BAM has agreed to fund and contribute to vital research at several UK universities into textile waste, composting textiles and the effects of microfibres on freshwater habitats.
And on my side, I’m delighted that RSA and Ellen MacArthur Foundation will be hosting another Rethink Fashion course this year, so keep an eye out for that too!