This, folks, is the new fashion dream: a beautiful item of clothing is crafted according to the most strident eco and ethical principles (100% organic, workers paid a living wage, low fashion miles). Its happy owner then wears it at least 30 times, and when it is no longer loved, the garment is taken to the charity shop to be sold and loved again (and maybe again and again). And when it finally becomes unviably shabby, it is recycled into desirable new clothing. And so the cycle continues. This — the so-called circular economy, where resources (fabric, energy, water) are kept in continual use for as long as possible — is the new nirvana for sustainable fashion.
Last month, at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, 22 brands — among them Burberry, Gap, Nike, H&M, Primark, Stella McCartney and Kering — signed up to Make Fashion Circular, an agreement committing to ditch fashion’s linear model of “take, make, dispose” and switching up to the circular economy. Indeed, we all have a part to play in this, by feeding the loop with our unwanted clothes and reducing the load on the loop in the first place, by buying less and buying better.
You may be surprised to hear that the driving force behind Make Fashion Circular is the world-record-breaking yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur, who, since her retirement from sailing in 2010, has worked to develop the circular economy. It starts to make more sense when you imagine her in her yacht, watching her supplies diminish. “At sea, you can’t stop to restock,” says the 41-year-old. “I was constantly aware of the limit of my supplies, and when I stepped back ashore, I began to see that our world was no different.”
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) has published some startling facts. “Clothing is hugely underutilised,” laments one of its recent reports. In the past 15 years, it continues, global clothing production has doubled, and of the 53m tons of clothing now produced annually, 73% ends up in landfill or is incinerated. Some garments are discarded after just seven wears. This, people, is that linear system of fast fashion in action. What’s more, the EMF estimates that currently only 1% of clothing is recycled into new fibres, and only 13% of all material is in some way recycled — a missed opportunity when any fabric can be downcycled into stuffing, rags or insulation.
We’re clearly years away from the full 360. According to the government’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap), fashion has the fourth largest environmental impact, after housing, transport and food. There are, however, some impressive circular business models emerging to address fashion’s many problems. The Renewal Workshop, based near Portland, Oregon, works with brands such as North Face and Outerknown, the surfer Kelly Slater’s sustainable menswear label, to refurbish excess or damaged products. “Brands send us their unsellable returns, which we clean, repair and prepare for resale,” says the co-founder Jeff Denby. “We have created a whole new category — renewed apparel — from clothes that would otherwise have been shredded and sent to landfill.” These clothes are then sold on Renewal Workshop’s website. Similarly, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher, the American womenswear brand, offer their own recommerce, selling reconditioned preloved clothing.
Also on the mission to divert clothing away from landfill is ReGain, an app that launched in April to incentivise consumers to send in their cast-offs in exchange for discount coupons for Superdry, New Balance and Boohoo, among others. This joins other high-street take-back schemes from TK Maxx, Cheap Monday, Timberland, H&M, & Other Stories, M&S and Zara, where the brands then either donate your clothing to charity shops or have them recycled into new fabrics. Marks & Spencer, whose “Shwopping” initiative (its name for take-back) has raised £21m for Oxfam, is currently selling a £149 “shwop” suit made from 55% recycled wool, while H&M’s latest Conscious Exclusive range features recycled silver and Econyl, a 100% recycled nylon made from old fishing nets and other nylon waste (also used by Stella McCartney, Gucci and Levi’s). And then there’s deadstock — old, leftover fabric — which is being used by Reformation, Christopher Raeburn and Enlist among others.
Arguably the most circular action consumers can take is to extend the use phase of clothing. This is a biggie. It’s not just about prolonging the life expectancy of clothes through better care (wash less, on shorter, cooler cycles — which also reduces microfibre shedding into the waterways — and avoid tumble-drying and ironing), though such measures will seriously reduce fashion’s impact. (“By doubling the time a garment is used, we can almost halve fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions,” the EMF states.) No, extending the use phase is also about the growing resale market, or, in other words, eBay, Depop and ThredUp — peer-to-peer platforms for reselling old fashion, whatever the brand — and their luxury counterparts Vestiaire Collective and TheRealReal (which has recently partnered with Stella McCartney to encourage customers to resell their Stella items through the website).
Not ready to relinquish your loveworn favourites? The sustainability champions have that covered, too — Patagonia repairs about 50,000 garments a year, Hiut Denim offers free repairs for life, and by 2022, Marks & Spencer will launch in-store repair services. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès also offer repair services. After all, doesn’t fashion deserve to live for longer?
How you can help
Join Style’s wardrobe detox - and win a TK Maxx gift card
Do you feel guilty about all those unwanted clothes in your wardrobe? Circular fashion is all very well, but there’s a huge leak in the system — we need to get those forgotten pieces back into the loop. In a recent survey, ReGain found that 67% of people in the UK would recycle more if they were rewarded for doing so. Well, we can help.
In partnership with TK Maxx — which, as a last-chance saloon for fashion overstock, already feeds the circular economy — we are launching #mywardrobedetox, a campaign to incentivise readers with a chance to win one of 5,000 £5 TK Maxx gift cards by giving their quality cast-offs a second life (by “quality” we mean items with resale value, not a T-shirt worn hundreds of times). Since 2004, TK Maxx has hosted what is now one of the UK’s longest-running charity clothing collections, Give Up Clothes for Good. These donations are sold in Cancer Research UK shops, raising millions for vital research into cancers affecting children and young people. However, Deborah Dolce, senior vice-president of TK Maxx, says: “Because people throw stuff away, charities are losing a huge part of their revenue.” Instead, here is a “win-win opportunity. A chance to clear out your wardrobe, give to charity and receive a voucher.”
So we want you to spend just 10 minutes having a closet clear-out. All you need to do is fill a bag with clothing and accessories and take it to any TK Maxx store next Sunday, June 24 — look out for the dedicated member of TK Maxx staff wearing a #mywardrobedetox sash, who will direct you to the in-store donation point. (Check tkmaxx.com to find your nearest store’s opening hours.) For a chance to win a £5 TK Maxx gift card, take a photo of your donation — either at the gold selfie frame by the donation point or anywhere in store — and share it on Instagram, hashtagging it #mywardrobedetox and tagging @tkmaxx and @TheSTStyle. Winners will be randomly selected by PromoVeritas (an independent promotion house), and notified by July 31, 2018. For T&Cs, visit thesundaytimes.co.uk/mywardrobedetox.
“The biggest thing consumers can do is not bin their clothes,” says Ian Palmer of Wrap. “If you don’t want them, pass them on — it not only continues their life, but also creates less demand to buy something new.” What are you waiting for?