Circularity in the Fashion Industry - A new hope

Updated: Oct 6, 2021


A ranking of the circularity performance of the largest 100 fashion brands operating in Europe provided some interesting insights regarding the efforts of these companies in one of the most polluting industries1. The retailers were ranked on their efforts to extend the life cycle of their products based on eight dimensions, including the availability of repair/maintenance services, the importance of circularity in brand communications and the breadth of pre-owned garment assortment amongst others. Combining the scores received according to each dimension produced an overall score between one and 10, with scores nearing 10 representing the so-called ‘’leaders’’. Out of all these fashion brands, the bottom 80% scored 2.5 or less. Furthermore, the data revealed that only 15% use recycled materials to a credible extent, while 39% do not use recycled materials whatsoever. While communication and promotion of circularity efforts are considered to be the easiest and fastest measures to implement, almost half of the brands assessed don’t do it at all and an astonishing 80% settle for only giving the minimum amount of care instructions required by law.

Reading this, the first feeling that comes to mind is despair. Only 3 companies achieved an acceptable score on the Circular Fashion Index. These (not fully unexpected) leaders in circularity include Patagonia, The North Face and Levi’s. What they have in common is that they invest in sustainability and see it as a business opportunity as well as an environmental requirement. More importantly, they openly communicate to the consumer the importance of prolonging the life of a product and of considering the environmental impact before buying another one of their products.

The global fashion industry significantly affects the environment by emitting greenhouse-gas emissions with an annual quantity almost equivalent to that emitted by the economies of France, Germany and the United Kingdom altogether 2. Not to mention the amount of fresh water, land, and oil consumed to produce the materials as well as the usage of toxic chemicals that often end up polluting effluent. Increasing the consumer’s awareness of the impact of their consumption behaviour on the environment is up there in terms of importance, along with the need to reducing the amount of new items produced.

(Source: Anna Sullivan, Unsplash)

With a new year ahead of us we find ourselves at the symbolic ‘’fresh start’’ after a tumultuous year. Rather than focusing on the things that are not right currently, let’s view this data as encouragement or as ‘’a new hope’’ (with a nod to George Lucas) that, as stated in the report, ‘’fashion companies do have the power to become more circular’’. The 3 aforementioned leaders in fashion circularity should be celebrated for their efforts, setting a great example for others in the industry to be inspired by. Across the 100 brands, although sporadically, a lot of immediate actions to embrace circularity are already happening, such as educating consumers, reducing the number of fashion seasons and addressing design issues. Consumer sentiment is also shifting with blogs and apps emerging for consumers to identify ethical and/or sustainable brands.

It is great to see the gradual changes occurring in both the industry’s and the consumer’s mindset and the technologies being developed to further enable the circular businesses. We are surely not there yet and although some actions towards circularity are happening, much work is to be done as highlighted by the circular performance ranking of the fashion brands. Fortunately, the past- and current situation as well as future of the textile industry is becoming more and more clear. Both the industry and consumers are to some extent aware of the detrimental effect of the linear way of production, consumption and disposal on the environment, our resources and society and that a circular economy is the aim of the path that we are currently on. While, the foundation of the path has been laid, we will have to carve our way towards it.

And it is up to us to decide on the efforts put into it.

Xenia Mutter, PhD

Materials science and sustainability enthusiast

Partner at eolos GmbH

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