The circular economy is in fashion

London is a leader in fashion and textiles from high street to haute couture. It is home to world-class designers like Burberry, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, and has a strong tradition of nurturing new talent in its fashion and design colleges. The industry is big business too; according to Oxford Economics the value of London’s consumer clothing market is predicted to reach nearly £30 billion by 2030, making it the largest in the world, ahead of New York and Tokyo[1].

Big business, big impact

Fashion is an exciting, fast moving sector and a major contributor to the global economy. Yet its complex, global supply chains are extremely wasteful and polluting.

According to figures published in a report from the Ellen McArthur Foundation earlier this year, green house gas emissions from textile production in 2015 totalled the equivalent of 1.2bilion tonnes of CO2, more than that of all international flights and maritime shipping combined, and yet more than half of the ‘fast fashion’ clothes we buy are disposed of in under a year[2].

The report A New Textiles Economy: Redefining Fashion’s Future calls for a transformation in the way that clothes are designed, made and sold and radical improvements in recycling and highlights the need for a new level of alignment and collaboration throughout the supply chain. With its unique combination of design tradition, fashion innovation and business opportunity, London is well placed to help drive the global industry away from environmentally harmful and wasteful practices towards creation of a new textiles economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

New styles of fashion

Great examples of the way this is starting to happen can be found right across the London fashion scene. For example, London-based swimwear designer Riz makes high quality tailored board shorts using recycled plastic. Stripey Squirrel offers a range of clothing for babies and children made from second-hand and pre-loved materials. London designer label Kitty Ferriera’s collection is made from natural and up-cycled materials, while up and coming designer Bethany Williams makes her collections using materials and textiles that others would regard as ‘waste’. The Elvis and Kresse range of bags and accessories is handcrafted using ‘rescued’ raw materials, such as decommissioned fire hose.

The idea of extending the life of items of clothing in preference to throwing them away is becoming increasingly popular in all corners of the market. WRAP is offering support for a whole new generation of ‘fashionistas’ learning to Love Your Clothes with skills for repairing, altering, redesigning and upcycling. Resource London, LWARB’s partnership with WRAP, is targeting 16-24 year olds with its Love not Landfill campaign to promote donation and second hand shopping. Meanwhile, the London based, international on-line market place and style platform depop is thriving.

“The idea was to attract a whole new generation of young people who could not only use the site to buy and sell in a modern way but also have fun in discovering what is cool in fashion and design,” said Simon Beckerman, founder of depop in an interview with the Financial Times last year. Launched in London in 2012 and headquartered here, the site now also has offices in New York and Milan.

It is a growing sector for start-ups. Loopster has spotted an opportunity in the market for reselling grown-out-of second-hand children’s clothing. Clothes sharing platform Nu Wardrobe, which launches in London later this year, aims to provide its users with a ‘constantly changing wardrobe that is convenient and inexpensive’, while at the same time extending the life of each item and significantly reducing waste.

Closing the loop

If the industry is to achieve the step changes that are required for a new textiles economy, then significant technical advances will be required too, to enable new circular business models.

Collaboration between industry, education and business in London is actively encouraging innovation with a whole range of initiatives and awards designed to capture and encourage emerging talent including the Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion in partnership the London School of Fashion, and the City Challenge competition Circular Fashion For London. The Textiles Futures Research Centre at the University of the Arts London is setting up a Centre for Circular Design to champion circular economy research in the sector. LWARB are signed up to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative and are working with the GLA to look at ways to reduce the impact of fashion industry.

Whether it is through changes in behaviour that mean we keep our clothes for longer, resell them, or choose to rent, hire or share instead of owning outright, the goal is to get maximum value from the clothes we have and to keep them out of the waste stream for as long as possible. Eventually, when they can no longer be used because they are worn out or too damaged for repair, they become raw material for another process.

Dutch jeans label MUD is pioneering a jeans leasing model and technology for closed loop recycling of old jeans to create new denim cloth. Worn Again, the trail-blazing textiles business that started in London by upcycling unwanted textiles into new products, is now developing a new textile-to-textile closed-loop recycling technology.

“The potential for circularity in clothing and apparel, where raw materials are kept in continual circulation, is completely achievable yet the barriers preventing it are challenging,” says Cyndi Rhoades, CEO of Worn Again.

Despite those barriers, it is exciting to see how the London fashion scene is embracing the challenge and using its energy and design skills to help us all to make better choices in the way we buy, use and dispose of our clothes.

 [1] 1, Oxford Economics: Future trends and market opportunities in the world’s largest 750 cities – How the global urban landscape will look in 2030 (2014).

[2] Ellen McArthur Foundation: A New Textiles Economy: Redefining Fashion’s Future (2018)

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