The hot trend on today’s catwalk is “sustainable fashion,” with big names like H&M and Stella McCartney hailing a new wave of socially conscious apparel. But in an industry based on bottomless consumption, ever-cheaper prices, and ever-declining labor and environmental standards, fast fashion and earth-friendly just don’t seem to match.
However, some designers are seeking to refashion our clothes with a green conscience under the label of the “circular economy.” A purportedly less exploitative production system, a circular economy is an integrated system that constantly recirculates and renews materials, through recycling, reuse, resale, or reduced consumption, to ensure minimum waste and exploitation.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), an environmental philanthropy, is campaigning to reshape the fashion industry with a circular-textiles initiative, and has teamed up with some of the biggest brands in fashion to help overhaul the business model. The hope is to reverse the hyper-consumption that is currently promoted in fashion—an industry on track to consume a quarter of the global carbon supply by 2050—and to recast the whole clothing supply chain into a system based on balanced consumption and less-intensive production methods.
A “circular” clothing industry, in theory, would be elegantly balanced: The fashion business model would be reoriented toward reducing consumption and waste at every step, from the cotton field to the storefront window. On the production end, reducing chemical-intensive synthetic fibers would sharply cut pollution. Manufacturers would systematically decrease the pace and intensity of production, so that a company’s energy consumption would automatically shrink to fit the reduced resource needs for fewer garments and less overseas exporting. As the carbon footprint downsizes in production, circularity would be encouraged in the retail market as well by designing more durable styles, which could be worn for years, rather than become disposable within a few months. EMF also recommends creating a second shelf life for used clothing by expanding the marketing of resold and rented apparel.