There’s a growing understanding among the most prominent brands that the traditional linear business model, based as it is on constant consumption of natural resources and sales driven by built-in obsolescence, is not sustainable. Particularly in the world of fashion, a more circular model is needed if companies are to continue to trade while protecting the planet from unnecessary damage and conserving its finite resources.
To most people, a circular economy means recycling, and working toward a closed-loop production cycle is certainly one of the most powerful strategies available. Major apparel retailers including Levi’s, Puma, H&M and American Eagle are now working with Swiss recycling firm I:CO to offer clothing and shoe collection points in their stores. Old fabric can be mechanically recycled into useful materials like building insulation or cushion filling. Better still, the loop is closed by recycling or repurposing the fabric and using it to make the brand’s new clothing, avoiding environmental damage and saving on the resources which would otherwise be consumed in producing new fabric.
Where it’s possible, of course, a more efficient way to recycle an unwanted garment is to sell it to a new wearer. Companies working with I:CO can pass on any serviceable used clothing they collect for resale by charities, but many companies are now owning that process too. Ethically-motivated adventure-wear retailer Patagonia, and Swedish jeans designers Nudie, for example, collect used branded clothing in store to be resold in a designated section of the shop. Patagonia has also set up its own multi-seller eBay store, allowing customers to list used Patagonia items together under the brand.
Better still is to ensure goods are repaired and reused for as long as possible. Many Levi’s stores now have their own tailors, happy to resize or restyle your denims to extend their life so you won’t need to buy a new pair so often. Nudie not only has its own free denim repair shops, it also allows wearers to order a free repair kit online.
Thoughtful and responsible design can also result in enhanced durability in garments that would otherwise wear out before they became dated. Levi Strauss company Dockers’ Wellthread men’s clothing line is a small capsule collection of classic pieces designed and made to last – with features like reinforced buttonholes and pockets – and for easier recyclability at the end of a garment’s useful life.
Perhaps the most radical step a retailer can take in support of a circular economy is to avoid selling goods at all. Leasing and temporary ownership schemes, already a popular way to keep up-to-date with cars and mobile telephones, have a sustainability advantage in that they allow responsible manufacturers to retain ownership, and therefore control, of the materials in their goods. Dutch jeans designer, Mud, is tapping into the potential for such an approach in fashion, providing its jeans as a service rather than selling them outright. Levi’s estimate a pair of their own jeans will be discarded after about three years on average, although they could last for decades if cared for. In most situations, the customer is left to decide whether to return them for recycling, donate them to charity, or add them to landfill. Mud customers, by contrast, lease a pair of jeans for a fixed period of at least a year, paying a monthly fee and returning them at the end of the agreement. This allows Mud to clean, repair or restyle the jeans before re-leasing them, or at least to ensure the fabric is recycled into new Mud jeans.
With growing consumer concern about wasteful business practices, providing disposable fashion is no longer an acceptable means of ensuring continued profits, and will become less and less viable as awareness continues to spread. While the above brands accept that they will lose potential individual sales, they are all cleverly fostering longer-lasting customer relationships through their efforts to reduce fashion’s negative environmental impacts. Supporting consumers’ efforts to avoid over-consumption by helping them to repair, restyle or recycle their clothing and even to sell items on under the brand can help to build a sustainable relationship with the consumer that goes far beyond a one-off exchange of funds for goods at the till.