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Circular Fashion: Transforming the Industry for a Sustainable Future

Sirada Boonsitanon
Sirada Boonsitanon

November 9, 2023

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  • Fast fashion is a problem due to its “take, make, dispose” model, causing overconsumption, environmental concerns, ethical issues and more
  • Consumers increasingly want to purchase from responsible fashion brands they  due to rising awareness of sustainability concerns, pressing for efforts in more sustainable practices
  • Fashion brands should  embrace circular fashion  and align their ethical practices with consumer preferences, fostering the fashion industry with conscious and responsible practices

The fashion industry, known for its creativity and innovation, has long operated on a linear model—take, make, dispose—giving rise to the notorious "fast fashion” culture. However, a shift is on the horizon as the circular economy reshapes the way consumers perceive and engage fashion. Consumers are increasingly mindful of sustainability issues, pressuring brands to transform and align with the global trend toward environmental consciousness.

woman in black long sleeve shirt standing in front of clothes
Photo by Arturo Rey on Unsplash

Consumers want change 

According to a survey conducted by Mastercard across 24 countries, "reducing waste, air and water pollution,” and “plastic pollution in packaging” are amongst the top priorities for consumers. The heightened awareness was amplified by the pandemic, driving people towards circular fashion for affordability, environmental concerns, and personal responsibility. 

This sentiment is further amplified by the pushback to greenwashing that is still prevalent in the industry. Fashion brands have been called out for using deceptive marketing, selective education, and half-truths to take advantage of consumers who are striving to make more environmentally-conscious choices. As a result, consumers are more intolerant of disingenuous efforts towards sustainability. Especially in the age of social media, negative publicity spreads rapidly, magnifying reputational harm. Rebuilding trust post-exposure can be costlier and harder than genuine sustainability investments.

Given this context, it is vital to explore sustainability issues in the fashion industry. These issues shed light on how evolving trends and consumer expectations are compelling brands to embark on a journey toward sustainability and embrace activities involved in circular fashion.


It's a complex, multi-faceted problem to solve 

Sustainability issues in the fashion industry are evident as the sector grapples with a multitude of environmental and ethical challenges. The rise of fast fashion, marked by inexpensive clothing for short-lived trends, fosters a culture of overconsumption. This relentless churn of garments contributes to an alarming amount of clothing waste, leaving brands with excess inventory due to unsustainable overproduction practices. Resource-intensive textile production processes, such as dyeing, printing, and finishing, not only consume vast amounts of water but can also cause water pollution due to involved chemicals, exacerbating global water scarcity issues.

The fashion industry’s carbon footprint spans the entire supply chain, from raw material production and transportation to manufacturing and distribution, contributing to climate change. The fast fashion process of producing inexpensive clothing also raises ethical concerns, as brands neglect workers’ right, offering low wages, poor working conditions, and sometimes employing child labour.


Case studies: H&M and Zara

Zara’s    ‘Join Life’    Initiative  

To convey these challenges, two prominent fast fashion giants can be examined: H&M and Zara. H&M, the second-largest fashion retailer globally, generates a vast amount of textile waste, perpetuating rapid clothing turnover, and employing various unsustainable practices. While the company has taken steps to appear more sustainable, questions linger about the genuine impact given their large-scale production. Similarly, Zara, a fast fashion pioneer, aims to enhance its sustainability image through initiatives like 'Join Life.' However, concerns persist about its fast fashion business model, its large carbon footprint, and lack of transparency in factory conditions and audit results. These cases emphasize the fashion industry’s challenges in  addressing sustainability within a framework that often prioritizes profits over responsible practices.  

Start with the right mindset

Circular fashion stands as a promising antidote to the sustainability issues in the traditional fashion industry. By emphasizing recycling, upcycling, and clothing maintenance, the concept is shifting the paradigm from disposable fashion to responsible consumption. The shift toward slow fashion and the emphasis on high-quality and durable products is a marked departure from the fast fashion ethos. Consumers now place a premium on quality and longevity, as seen in brands like Patagonia, which is a first mover in championing sustainability.

It starts with manufacturing. Circular fashion prioritizes waste reduction, eco-friendly packaging, and sustainable sourcing. Brands are increasingly adopting recycled, organic, and regenerative materials while ensuring transparency about their origin and environmental impact. There are also eco-friendly production methods like waterless dyeing and low-impact finishing processes. Finally, eco-friendly packaging, including minimal use and sustainable materials, enhances the fashion industry’s overall sustainability.

clothes hanged on clothes hanger
Photo by Noémie Roussel on Unsplash

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle  

Second-hand and vintage shopping is experiencing a surge in popularity, driven by consumers seeking unique styles, eco-friendly options, and budget-friendly choices. There is also growing anticipation for brands to embrace second-hand markets, offering preowned or vintage collections aligning with circular fashion. Clothing rental and subscription services have gained traction, allowing consumers to access high-quality fashion without ownership, reducing the environmental impact from production and manufacturing.

The proliferation of second-hand marketplaces and resale platforms, such as TheRealReal, reflects the fashion industry’s transition toward sustainability. These platforms extend clothing life,  seen as both sustainable and practical choices. Meanwhile, clothing recycling programs are on the rise, with consumers sending in old clothing for recycling in exchange for new pieces, emphasizing brands taking responsibility in product lifecycles.

Circular fashion progress is evident in these cases. H&M’s collaboration with Remondis, known as “The Looper Textile Co.,” collects and resells used apparel, redistributing 60% of items, downcycling 33% into auto insulation, and incinerating 5% for power generation. Similarly, Style Theory, an online clothing rental and subscription service, and ThredUp, an online thrift store extends the lifespan of clothing, reduce textile waste, and contribute to the circular fashion ecosystem. These case studies illustrate the transformative potential of circular fashion aligning  with evolving consumer expectations and sustainability trends.

red and white dining tables and chairs
Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

Not just about the environment, don’t forget the people  

As the fashion industry undergoes a transformative shift, addressing ethical concerns, including fair trade sourcing, responsible supply chains, and workers’ rights, is crucial. Circular fashion presents opportunities by reducing waste, emphasizing longevity, and embracing ethical practices, ensuring fair wages and safe conditions for workers.


Circular fashion is the way of the future  

Circular fashion’s potential extends beyond the fashion business itself. The growth of clothing rental services encourages conscious buying, allowing individuals to explore styles without contributing to waste and overproduction common in fast fashion. Clothing repair and resale platforms, including consignment, resale, and repair specialist platforms, extend the lifespan of clothing and reduce waste. Collaboration and sharing economy initiatives, such as clothes swapping activities, significantly reduce the demand for new clothing and promote longer garment lifespans.

The rise of circular fashion presents an array of opportunities to address ethical concerns, embrace sustainable innovations, and contribute to a more responsible and conscious fashion industry. As this movement gains momentum, it will not only benefit the fashion industry but also align with the goals of environmental stewardship and responsible consumption.

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