Circular Fashion Instead of Fast Fashion

By Libby Dunne
Sustainability Consultant
LEED Green Associate, Fitwel Ambassador
Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)

fast fashion button on computerWe have all done it. You see an ad online for a t-shirt with a fun catch phrase or an image of your favorite animal. The shipping only takes 2 days, and best of all, it’s only $10! So, without knowing where the shirt is being made or shipped from, and without understanding the brand’s policies and initiatives, you order it. This practice is unsustainable for many reasons. Let’s break it down:

Cheap clothes are primarily made from synthetic material, the most common being polyester. Polyester requires a lot of water and energy to produce as compared to more sustainable fabric options. It is made from plastic, meaning the material does not break down nearly as easily as other materials, having lasting impacts on our landfills and oceans. An estimated 35% of microplastics in the ocean are due to washing polyester clothes. Additionally, synthetic dyes have toxic impacts if they reach nearby waterways.

This cheap shirt will likely not last long. Assuming it is made from a cheap fabric, the shirt will likely rip or tear easily, and colors will fade more quickly. This means that the shirt will likely end up in the landfill at the end of its life. An estimated 85% of textiles end up in the landfill each year, making the fashion industry a major source of waste.

fast fashion diagramThis process is called “fast fashion”. Overall, the fashion industry accounts for 10% of our carbon emissions and 20% of industrial water pollution due to these harmful practices. This is an example of what experts call a “linear economy”, meaning that products are created, and at the end of their life, eventually end up in a landfill. However, the industry has recognized the harm that fast fashion is having on our environment and is beginning to make changes to reduce this impact. Organizations and clothing manufacturers are moving towards “circular fashion” practices. Circular fashion, a component of a circular rather than a linear economy, prioritizes source reduction, as well as adaptive reuse of clothing products. Instead of ending up in a landfill, circular fashion strategies involve repurposing and reusing clothing and fabric for other purposes.

What are brands and organizations doing to eliminate fast fashion?

In March 2019, the United Nations launched the Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. The Alliance is designed to contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and focuses on both social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Their main goals include improving working conditions for clothing and textile manufacturers, reducing the fashion industry’s waste generation, as well as decreasing contributions to water pollution and carbon emissions. The Alliance also focuses on outreach, collaboration, and education, to capture the voices of sustainable fashion experts and share their ideas with a greater audience.

Individual brands are also taking initiative to reduce the impact their products have on the environment. For example, Patagonia’s Worn Wear program attempts to reduce the amount of clothing waste generated. This website provides a location where people can buy “worn” products for a discounted price. These products include secondhand items received through their take back program, clothing products with cosmetic flaws, or items that could otherwise not be sold normally. Additionally, when cleaning used items before adding them to Worn Wear, the products are cleaned using a CO2 technology in which no water is used. Instead liquified CO2 is used the clean the products and is reclaimed for future washes. Levi’s also has a secondhand clothing website where they too sell used products for a heavy discount. Additionally, Levi’s creates their jeans via their Water<Less program, which as helped them to save over 3.5 billion liters of water since 2011.

Textile recycling can be a bit harder, as clothing products are generally not included in traditional recycling programs. The American Textile Recycling Service is attempting to make clothing recycling easier and more convenient. ATRS facilitates installing textile recycling bins around the United States. Organizations can sign up on their website to host a textile recycling bin on their property. Donated clothes are then sorted and either sent to partner secondhand clothing stores, used for upholstery stuffing, or used for industry wiping rags.

What can you do to aid in the effort of reducing the impact that the fashion industry has on our environment?

One of the best ways to move away from fast fashion is to reduce clothing consumption generally. Purchase only what you think you need, or really badly want. Patagonia’s Worn Wear website states that “the best thing we can do for the planet is cut down on consumption and get more use out of stuff we already own”. This is the single best way to reduce the amount of clothing products ending up in landfills.

Another great way to support a circular fashion industry is by supporting brands that are taking initiative to combat this problem. Buying from brands that offset their carbon emissions, that offer clothing recycling programs, and make their clothes using sustainable materials is an excellent way to reduce the impact your clothing purchase is making on the environment.

clothing swaps save moneyBuying clothes secondhand also helps to prevent used clothes from ending up in a landfill. This is also generally cheaper than buying a brand-new item. Organizing clothing swaps with friends can also be a fun and free way to mix up your wardrobe.

Finally, find alternative methods to throwing out old clothes. Try to repair a torn garment if possible, donate the item if it is still in good shape, or find a textile recycling bin where that item can be repurposed.

mending clothes is sustainabaleCircular fashion is a fast-growing industry that requires a commitment to sustainability on both ends of the supply chain. While clothing manufacturers have the responsibility to use sustainable textiles, reduce waste, and reduce air and water pollution, consumers ultimately a play a major role in deciding where a used garment ends up. By finding alternatives to them ending up in landfills, consumers can play an important role in moving away from fast fashion and in promoting a more circular fashion industry.

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