Fashion and the Circular Economy

The clothing industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. Here’s how we can change that. 

The fashion industry has a problem. In the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled, driven by a growing global middle-class and the rise of fast fashion. In the coming decade, that could go up by at least another 50%. Sure, the world’s population is increasing, but there’s something drastically wrong here. Especially when you consider that less than 1% of material used to make clothes is recycled into new clothing. 

You probably already think more carefully than most about what you’re buying. You donate, you recycle, maybe you even have certain items repaired. But without a fundamental rethink of the entire clothing industry, this won’t be enough. 

As the world’s rich and powerful met in Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) last month, a report was published. Material use continues to rise, it said, but the proportion being recycled has fallen. “The world needs a circular economy. Help us make it happen,” cried the WEF. It’s high time fashion did its bit. 

What exactly is a circular economy?

You’ve probably heard the term, but what does it really mean? Essentially, it’s the opposite to a linear economy. Traditionally, the clothing industry has worked like this:

A circular economy, however, aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, get the maximum use out of them and then repurpose the products and materials. It seeks to benefit businesses, society and the environment by working like this:

What does it have to do with my clothes?

Textiles and clothing are fundamental parts of everyday life. But the industry is a massive polluter – 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the apparel and footwear industries. Creating a simple cotton shirt typically requires fertilisers, dyes, more than 3,000 litres of water and a long, carbon-footprint-stomping journey to its wearer. 

And yet the rapidly changing trends and poor quality of fast fashion mean some things are thrown away after just a few wears. According to a recent report, Europeans consume an average 26kg of textiles per person per year. We discard 11kg per person. 

So, what does fashion need to do?

To improve its sustainability, the industry needs to find alternatives to non-renewable resources – in its materials and its production methods. That means cutting out harmful pesticides, dyes and coatings as well as using renewable energy wherever possible. It also needs to recycle more – a lot more. 

Together with consumers, it must change the way we value what we buy. Clothing should be an investment wherever possible, not something to be bought on a whim because it was on sale. Greater transparency from brands about what goes into making their clothes can help to educate shoppers, forcing us to think harder about what we're buying. 

Innovation has a major role to play. US start-up Evrnu, for example, has created a technology that breaks cotton waste down into a liquid and remakes it into stronger, higher-performing fibres. It hopes to be on the market by 2021. Blockchain technology could help transparency and traceability throughout the supply chain. 

What do we at Brothers We Stand do?

In short, circular economy principles inform our entire strategy. We seek to bring you menswear that has been manufactured in the lowest-impact way. Often this includes the use of recycled materials. Here are just a handful of examples: 

Ecoalf uses recycled nylon, cotton and wool in their jackets and footwear. 

Mud Jeans are made from up to 40% recycled post-consumer denim.

Elvis & Kresse make bags, belts and wallets from upcycled fire hose and military parachute silk.

 What can you do?

Every little helps! Here are a few ways to help bring a little more circularity into what we wear. Ultimately, the power lies with you, the consumer. 

  • Look for durability on hard-wearing wardrobe staples like jeans and jackets.
  • Fix damaged clothes whenever possible. Find a good local repair shop. 
  • Upcycle: old t-shirts make great cleaning cloths, for example.
  • Share the love: community fashion swaps are growing in popularity.
  • Spread the word on social media about sustainable events and brands. 

Words by Geoff Poulton

Illustrations by Rachel Finegan


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