By Charlotte Hope-Shannon
“The future of fashion is circular.” said fashion designer and sustainable campaigner, Stella McCartney, in 2019. “It has to be.” Not shy of criticism, the fashion industry has hit a crossroad of sustainable and ethical significance; one which has been increasingly publicised in the last year.
While our modern landscape has developed a new understanding of environmental necessity, the fashion industry is ultimately behind in the effort. Yes, the demand for sustainable justice is on a high, but how do we navigate an already saturated industry such as fashion and make it restorative versus destructive? And how do we, as consumers, balance our desire for something new with sustainability and responsibility?
Circular fashion, an industry buzzword that has swept the style world by storm; one which has gained existential growth during our current pandemic. The phenomenon of fast fashion production has caught the attention of environmentalists and sustainable designers alike, as e-commerce sales grew rapidly during our year-long lockdown. The increased presence of this term has accelerated the need for accountability in our industry and, for good reason.
We may have enjoyed a mini heatwave in March, but we also know the reasons behind it are anything but bright. Our constant desire for something new has ultimately sent us to a near point of no return.
With fast fashion brands such as H&M revealing aims to be 100% circular and renewable by 2030, it is clear that the demand for accountability is making waves. However, as we slowly move into a new post-pandemic world, the question remains, can we really afford to rely on big fashion retailors to make consumption sustainable when the limitations are so complex? Or is this another case of learning to run before we can walk?
Indeed, the limitations stand in abundance, with design, recyclability, consumer behaviour and ethics at the heart of the sustainable cycle. Whilst the route for big brands may be unclear, what is clear however, is the need for substantial change.
So, to celebrate Earth Day 2021, I spoke to four industry insiders to discover what circular fashion really means and what the future has in store for the fashion industry.
What Is Circular Fashion and What Does It Mean?
In simple terms, circular fashion means designing with sustainable intention. By adopting a cyclical process where clothing is designed, produced and renewed in a considered, sustainable and ethical model, the lifespan of our clothing does not simply end in a landfill. Instead, clothing is reused, resold and renewed, reducing the environmental footprint of the fashion industry.
Whilst circular consumerism has become synonymous with creativity, compassion and human accountability, the idea isn’t new. But with a rigorous shift in awareness in ethical and sustainable structures, the desire for a healthier, cleaner and more responsible industry is at an ultimate high. The linear economy that we once ignored, is no longer feasible and we need to encourage people to embrace the rental and resale markets as a long-term solution to fast fashion.
Isabel Spearman OBE, founder of the Daily Dress Edit (a platform which champions small slow fashion brands), ambassador for Smart Works Charity & Telegraph Stella columnist, agrees. “[Circular fashion] really does mean exploring rental fashion and rental options. There are several platforms for all of us which are free to sign up too. We need to encourage people not to save rental just for big moments but to get used to it in our daily lives versus getting the fast fashion hit. I think when people go to purchase, we want to encourage people to think about that purchase and its values.”
“Resale is growing 25 times faster than the regular retail market” says Sacha Newall, CEO & Co-Founder of fashion rental platform My Wardrobe HQ. “Consumers understand that both from a sustainability perspective and from a personal finance point of view, buying resale or renting makes more sense. Good quality well-made items that can be bought for the same price as fast fashion at resale will hold their value much longer than mass produced cheap items. And it makes a lot more sense to rent ‘trend’ pieces that may only be worn once or twice rather than buy them.”
For small sustainable brands such as Non-Manon founded by Marta Carvalho, circular fashion and resale is key to brand ethos, whether that be recycling old fabrics to create new garments or restoring worn-out pieces. For her, Marta explains, “it means caring about how it’s made, from quality control to planet-friendly materials, and educating your consumer so they make planet-friendly choices with their purchase.”
For Isabella Charlotta Poppius, fashion presenter, model and global fashion ambassador for One Tree Planted, “circular fashion is the future – and it should become the norm”.
“Like with any other new normal – it’s difficult and challenging at first, but eventually it does become second nature. The pandemic is a great example of how malleable we are and how we can adopt new everyday practices, such as mask wearing. I think if you look at your consumer habits in a similar way, you are able to make change – but I think it’s important to remember that we must allow ourselves to trip up a few times before we get it right. Otherwise, it can seem impossible for some” she says.
What Does The Future Of Fashion Hold With Circular Consumerism In Mind?
It may be difficult to envision a future where fast fashion doesn’t exist, but fair and ethical production, sustainability and circularity must take centre stage. We simply can’t ignore our planets cries for help.
Our desire for buying ‘new’ must evolve into something where ethics and sustainability stand firm. Pre-loved doesn’t have to mean old or boring.
“I envision a future where both brands and consumers work together towards a greener industry (and planet), because that’s the only way we’ll get there”, says Marta. “This future won’t become a reality until brands start focusing on their garments’ life cycles – and that means producing high-quality, long-lasting clothes, using biodegradable materials with non-toxic dyes, creating a brand culture that encourages their customers to buy less and better. Creating recycling programs like some fast fashion brands do is far from being enough – what kind of impact does an initiative like that have and how sustainable can it be when they keep promoting this culture of over-consumption?” she asks.
“I think brands have to go the extra mile to educate their consumers, but consumers need to be ready to listen, and a lot of people aren’t ready to do that yet. There is a lot of talk regarding the lack of size inclusivity within sustainable fashion, and people usually argue slow fashion brands are too expensive, and those are all extremely pertinent issues that need to be openly discussed in order to educate people and find solutions. That’s where transparency comes in”.
However, Marta is still hopeful for fashion’s sustainable future. “I think all goals are achievable [but] big companies have a lot of fixing to do and that’s on them. They need to be held accountable.”
Isabella, the first global fashion ambassador for One Tree Planted is also optimistic. “I like to be positive about these things” she explains. “It is promising that more than three in five consumers in a recent McKinsey survey said that ‘environmental impact is an important factor in making purchasing decisions’. However, according to Business of Fashion, garment production volumes are predicted to grow by 2.7 percent annually between now and 2030, which means that we as consumers have a responsibility to spend less on fast fashion, so that the demand to produce more isn’t there.”
“I think legislation needs to encourage sustainability in way of financial incentives – as bigger corporate fashion businesses will need to justify smaller margins and less profit. Again, we as consumers can voice these concerns to policy makers. A major focus in my opinion should be looking into how to make shipping and online shopping more CO2 efficient and working with delivery companies to achieve these goals.”
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Rental Platforms – The New Big Business
Whilst big businesses have a lot to answer for, rental platforms are seemingly paving the way forward for new technologies. Yes, our overconsumption is at an ultimate high, but it also means that we have greater accessibility to resale/ rental clothing than ever before. And big retail brands have the opportunity to expand on this with new sustainable policies. Shopping in 2021 has a new meaning.
“My Ventures offers brands, in any market sector, the opportunity to offer resale or rental direct to their customers. The technology can be fully integrated both in retail stores or with their websites and also offers a complete logistics and customer service option. There is no cost to the brands to integrate the technology solution” explains co-founder Sacha.
“The future of fashion and other consumer sectors is undoubtedly extending the life span of existing items [and] My Wardrobe HQ has demonstrated this in fashion. We already work with over 100 brands directly who are using MWHQ as a platform to rent and resell overstocks or returned items. We have seen exponential growth even during lockdown and brands are now using our tech and logistics to offer their own rental and resale solutions. It’s very exciting to know that there is a sustainable future for the fashion industry that retains the ‘fun’.”
Isabel Spearman is on a mission to support homegrown brands that champion slow fashion and believes we, as consumers, need to be more open to change. “I truly believe that we should all be more open to rental” she says. “and if we are purchasing something to think of that purchase as an investment. I genuinely believe that the future of sustainable fashion is in rental and re-sale, it’s the only sustainable way forward for fashion. To spend more but to get our money back by renting.”
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How Can We As Consumers Improve On Our Sustainable Fashion Journey?
We’ve all heard of the term ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, but do we truly engage with this model in our own fashion journeys or is it another marketing catchphrase we all ignore?
Yes, fashion is a creative outlet, but this should not be to the detriment of our planet. Whilst there are many encouraging signs to come out of fashion week this year, it’s not enough to just sit and admire sustainable designers. Whilst recycling is commendable, there’s so much more we can do to improve the fashion industry’s environmental footprint and, that of our own.
So, what can we do to improve our sustainable fashion journey?
We can, suggests Isabella, “make a pledge for two months to not buy anything new, but instead look into [our] your closet[s] to see whether you can alter, rent or repurpose any garments you may have and when you need that hit of ‘newness’ try renting or sharing closets with friends instead”.
Similarly, Marta calls on consumers to educate themselves. “To anyone starting their sustainable fashion journey, my first piece of advice is to educate yourself on the impact of your choices. Learn what’s going on behind the brands you’re supporting, ask questions, watch documentaries. When it comes to buying something new, first, re-explore your wardrobe, I can’t tell you how many times I felt like buying something new or trendy, and ended up finding what I wanted in the back of my closet, abandoned, from a few seasons ago. If you still can’t find it, know that there are plenty of planet-friendly alternatives, from slow fashion, made-to-order brands to thrift stores. But the number one thing you can do to be sustainable today is wear what you already own.”
As we continue to evolve in design, we must continue to evolve our mindset towards fashion. We must work together as brands, designers, manufacturers and consumers and embrace a circular system of change and reinvention.
Our narrative of consciousness, I feel, must transform empowered thought into innovative action.
What are your thoughts on Circular Consumerism? How will you be evolving your sustainable journey? Let us know in the comments below or join the conversation on our Instagram Page.