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Circular economy Burberry
Photography Thurstan Redding, via @burberry

WTF is a circular economy, and can it stop fashion trashing the planet?

At the 2019 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the likes of Nike, Patagonia, and adidas put forward a new manifesto that could change the face of consumerism – but what is it all about?

You don’t need us to tell you that the human race is trashing the planet and that the fashion industry is a huge part of the problem. Over the course of the last few years, sustainability has become the buzzword on everyone’s lips, with every brand worth its salt rushing to set up some sort of corporate responsibility program that will supposedly reduce the damage that it’s wreaking on the earth and its inhabitants.

All good in theory, sure – but the reality is that, for all its efforts, industry growth and the demand for new clothes is increasing at a much faster pace than any progress currently happening in the direction of sustainability. As outlined in a recent report by the Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group, fashion is way off target if it’s going to become a truly responsible economy in the coming years, with drastic action needed to reduce water pollution, develop ethical fabrication processes, and lower carbon emissions if we’re ever going to hit the IPCC’s 1.5 degree global warming target.

Conversations as to how the industry will achieve this loom large at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. Taking place annually in the Danish capital, industry giants including Nike, H&M, and Kering congregate to discuss how they’re combating fashion’s many, many problems. With 2019’s event held last week, this time around, the big topic was ‘the circular economy’, as ‘circularity’ replaced ‘sustainability’ as a buzzword across many of the summit’s panel talks, discussions, and workshops.

As explained by Michael Braungart and William McDonough in their must-read book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, the circular economy is a way of designing and creating products without waste, while protecting and enriching the world we live in. It’s a way of hacking capitalism to get us out of the mess we’re in, by creating a clear business incentive for sustainability.

But what is it all about, and what does it mean for us?


Currently, things are made with a linear lifespan – companies take raw materials out of the ground, or from plants and animals, and turn them into products, and eventually it all ends up as trash. Even the (new) clothes you try and return might actually end up in landfill. While there’s plenty of recycling going on, it’s not efficient enough, and most of it results in decreased value – your old jeans might end up as rags or insulation, if they’re recycled at all.

But in a circular system, products are designed to be recycled again and again, without any loss in value. The theory is that we would have a near-perfect recycling system, so that we wouldn’t need to use any raw materials in order to make new things. So, when you wear out your old running shoes, they could be broken down into their constituent parts and then turned into a brand new pair of running shoes.


Most of the fashion industry’s enormous carbon footprint comes at the raw material stage – cotton, for example, uses tonnes of water, while polyester is made from crude oil. So a truly circular system would drastically reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, because brands wouldn’t need to dig anything up from the earth or process crude oil every time they wanted to make some new stuff.


A circular system creates a huge financial incentive for sustainability – it would mean brands that make the most recycle-able products have the most efficient products. But in order to make sure their stuff is properly recycled, they’ll need to have some sort of recovery system. This could be a buy-back scheme, or a full-blown rental model.

To go back to the running shoes analogy, rather than buying new sneakers every time they’re worn out, you could instead subscribe to a sportswear brand’s rental program, where your shoes are replaced and recycled when they reach the end of their lifespan.

A rental model would give you more flexibility in your wardrobe choices, too – you could change up your clothing choices whenever you feel like it. It’d allow you to keep wearing new stuff – a consumer behaviour which is unlikely to change – without trashing the planet. It might sound far out, but it’s already happening in other consumer industries: cars (DriveNow), music (Spotify) and movies (Netflix).

“Rather than buying new sneakers every time they’re worn out, you could instead subscribe to a sportswear brand’s rental program, where your shoes are replaced and recycled when they reach the end of their lifespan”


While fashion’s progress is slow, there are moves already being made toward a circular system. On the second day of the summit, Nike launched its Circular Design Guide, an open-source, ‘living document’ that aims to promote circular design philosophy. As explained by the brand’s Chief Design Officer, John Hoke, the guide includes case studies from other apparel brands like Levi’s and Fjällräven, on how they have started to implement more circular practices.

adidas also recently announced the FUTURECRAFT.Loop, a running shoe made from 100 per cent TPU (a plastic similar to polyester and nylon) from the sole right down to the laces, which has been designed to be recycled again and again. While adidas hasn’t revealed how or when it will launch the shoe, it could be part of some sort of buy-back or subscription scheme.

Sustainability icon Patagonia, meanwhile, has been keeping clothes alive via travelling repair workshops. The brand has a team of trucks that roam America and Europe repairing clothes – anyone’s clothes, not just Patagonia’s – as well as a recycle program that takes back any and all Patagonia products. As the brand’s EMEA General Manager, Ryan Gellert, explained at the summit, the brand has repaired clothes its sold since day one, and is currently conducting 100,000 repairs a year.


There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the air right now, and with an industry as enormous, complex, and profit-driven as fashion, things aren’t looking great for the future. While many of its big players have already signed a commitment to circularity, what’s missing from the conversation is a way of ensuring brands have a clear incentive to recover and recycle their goods after they’re sold. As things stand, a radical new model of consumption seems like the only viable way we will be able to reduce our carbon imprint while still making and wearing new clothes.