Despite being often associated with glamour and style, the fashion industry today accounts for up to 10% of global carbon dioxide output, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. It also accounts for a fifth of the 300 million tons of plastic produced globally each year. With textile production and garment manufacturing responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and landfills, fast fashion has been identified as a major polluter.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that a truckload of abandoned textiles is dumped in landfills or incinerated every second. It’s estimated that people are buying 60 percent more clothes and wearing them for half as long. More than 60 million tons, says Nature, of clothing is now bought every year – a figure that is expected to rise still further, to around 100 million tons by 2030.
In this backdrop, several manufacturers and brands have made significant progress in stimulating circularity in fashion. A term that emerged around 2014, ‘circular’ has rapidly become one of the industry’s most embraced sustainability concepts. Unlike the linear model, circularity is a model in which waste and pollution are thrown out of the design, products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible – including through reusing and recycling – and natural systems are regenerated.
Many brands embrace circularity as just one approach in its overall ethos, while others solely rely on it to achieve their sustainability goals.
- H&M says its circular approach focuses on 3 interconnected areas that cover its products and services, supply chain, and non-commercial goods, such as packaging and store interiors, offices, and distribution centres. Three of its brands created denim collections following the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign guidelines. Its sustainability report claims that it continues to produce collections made from recycled materials.
- & Other Stories produced a capsule collection using 100% recycled mulberry silk made from waste from the production of the silk itself. The brand also released a jewellery collection made from recycled sterling silver. The silver was collected through ‘urban mining’, a process of recovering precious metals from discarded household waste. Similarly, Levi’s says its merchandising, design, product development, and marketing teams have embraced a circular mindset that aligns with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular vision. Its SecondHand platform aims to make vintage items available to consumers. In 2021, it expanded the program in Europe. During the year, it collected products at eight stores in Germany, offering consumers discount vouchers on future purchases in exchange for Levi’s clothing in good condition. If jeans are too worn or damaged, consumers can still drop them oǷ at a Levi’s store for recycling and receive a gift card toward a future purchase. Its partner Blue Jeans Go Green then converts the used denim into insulation for buildings, a greener alternative to standard insulation.
- Back home, ethnic wear and lifestyle brand FabIndia launched and expanded a number of product lines that create clothing and homeware from recycled goods. Its ‘Shunya’ line of rugs made from recycled PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) yarn has continued to expand. It has also incorporated the traditional ‘Gudri’ technique into its clothing collections. The technique patches together fabric scraps from tailors and textile factories to use up rejected, leftover, and unused fabric scraps and reduce textile waste.
- Another brand which uses hemp is B-Label. Unlike cotton, hemp is a more sustainable, regenerative and organic crop that enriches the soil, is breathable and leaves minimal carbon footprint. The brand says that the fabrics are dyed with azo-free dyes, and it uses ethically sourced and manufactured buttons, and offers 100% plastic-free packaging. Also, it allows customers to buy and sell verified, pre-loved garments from their label through Relove.
- Among the major fashion retailers, Arvind Fashions says it strives to recycle the cutting and reject waste from its value chain and is exploring the possibility of recycling or reusing the postconsumer waste garments. A statement on its website says that it ran a pilot for its brand Unlimited to spread awareness among customers. The brand collected 5,700 garments from its customers, weighing approximately 1.3 tonnes, and they were segregated based on different parameters and potential to reuse or recycle is being evaluated.
- Similarly, ABFRL-managed brand American Eagle’s Give Love Get Love is ‘considered one of our most successful initiatives’. The brand, operated by ABFRL in India, has partnered with The Clothes Box Foundation on a denim donation program. It encouraged people in India to increase spending on planet-friendly brands in the next three years.
However, nascent understanding, high prices, availability issues, and lack of sustainable options are considered to be some of the major challenges. As environmental, social, and governance (ESG) transparency continues to gain importance across industries, fashion companies are expected to do more.
“The global secondhand market was valued at an estimated $177 billion in 2022 and is expected to nearly double by 2027, reaching $350 billion. With the rise of the e-commerce market, online resale is expected to grow by 21% each year on average over the next 5 years. Economic slow-down and inflation has seemed to work in the favour of the secondhand market, with many new people opting to shop secondhand in order to save money,” says Kirti Poonia, Co-founder of Relove.
A high increase of the investor interest in the re-commerce market is also a validation enough to attest to the unstoppable rise of the secondhand business, Poonia observes. “In 2021, $6 billion of venture capital funding was poured into re-commerce companies, expecting a 5x faster growth than the overall retail market. Recommerce market has become a priority for investors as buyer sentiment is slowly drifting towards sustainability.”
What is apparent is that the linear model of ‘take-make-dispose’ relies on cheap, easily available materials and sources, while a successful circular economic model aims to keep products, materials, and components at their highest value and utility. Such a model not only addresses sustainability issues like resource efficiency but also helps mitigate pollution.
In India, there is a need for a broader adoption of the circular approach to mitigate some of the major challenges. It is, however, obvious that the industry’s ambition to build a sustainable ecosystem cannot be achieved overnight.