Four ways to circular fashion explained – for smarter apparel investments

Whether you’re a fashion designer or consumer, through what could be considered small decisions, you are shaping the future of a sustainable fashion industry.  Let me explain how;

Already in the initial design process, designers and brands, make choices that will determine the length of a garment’s lifetime, its usage and ability to be reused, upgraded, remade or recycled. However, whatever choices that are made at this stage, the lack of circularity within the fashion industry is an issue that is equally shared between the supplier and the consumer. The supplier is responsible of and has the power to influence the issues connected to the creation of the garments, from idea, design and production process to the final product sold to the customer. However, the customer bears the other half of the responsibility through their consumption, needs, wants and demands. Once the garment is owned by the customer, it is up to the customer to ensure that the garment remains within a circular system, i.e. does not end up in landfill or incineration – but it is the supplier’s responsibility to make this possible.

Since it’s the supplier who creates the garment, the supplier must also ensure that this is made possible through design for longevity or recyclability. If these two aspects are not considered in the design process, the customer will either not be able to make smart choices, or they will act with the belief that they contribute to circularity when they’re not. For example, by recycling garments made from mixed and low-quality materials that cannot be reused, recycled or remade.

But by being better informed as a consumer, by understanding how or if a garment’s lifetime can be extended or its textile can be reused, you can also make better choices on your own, and by doing so, also influence the suppliers’ future choices and help shaping a sustainable fashion industry. Here are four ways to circular fashion explained:

Four ways to circular fashion:

  • Applying a circular perspective on the textile industry, the reuse of clothing and textiles is the best option – so if you’re already a thrifter, keep up the game! Reuse is not only fun, creative and circular but it’s also an effective solution because, apart from maybe repairing and cleaning the garments, not much more is needed to pass on the garments to a new wearer. However, this is only made possible if the producer made the clever decision to design and produce a garment in a timeless design and of good enough quality, so that both physical, and aesthetical characteristics of the garments will last long enough to be passed on to several wearers over time. But what if these conditions aren’t met?
Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash
  • Don’t despair, if the garment does not directly qualify for reuse, then the next option is to upgrade the garment. By upgrading a garment, e.g. By replacing plastic buttons with wooden buttons, a garment’s lifetime could be extended which, just like reuse, is effective both from a cost and energy perspective. And on top of that, in case the garment is designed in a mono-materials (i.e. the whole garment; fabric, threads, zippers, and, buttons, are made of the same material) the garment’s lifetime could be extended even further as it could be upgraded without having to compromise on the garment’s future ability to be recycled. Yay! However, some garments are still compound by low quality or mixed materials, and their overall quality might just not be good enough to be reused and passed on to a new wearer or its design might simply not enable an upgrade. If this is the case, there’s still a chance that the garment could be redone and used in new ways which brings us to a third alternative.
  • Remake – This option could open for new ways of usage and a greater variety of new design than what is possible when reusing or upgrading a garment. Yet, choices made in the initial design process do limit the ways the garment can be remodelled and reworked. This solution requires more thought power, work and energy from the designers and the production, both in the initial design phase, but also in the subsequent “re-production”. In many cases, remake is not physically or financially possible, which then makes recycling our last circular option.
  • Recycling might make room for increased flexibility and many new possibilities. A garment compound by monomaterials could if recycled, at best, return to its initial form or perhaps be transformed into a completely new garment. However, this process puts pressure on both the design process – to design a garment that can be recycled effectively, but also on the recycling process as it is costly and requires greater investments, time and labour. Also, it’s important to understand that many garments produced today, will not, nor can be recycled. If the garment I made out mixed materials for example, it is often cheaper put garments into landfill than to recycle them which, unfortunately is the strategy of many fashion business today.

So, just by knowing a little bit more about a garment’s preconditions, you can start applying a circular perspective on your next fashion investment and by doing so, help shaping a sustainable fashion industry.  

Source: “Re:Textile- Feasibility of conditional design”. Feasability of conditional design – Re:Textile

How to become a professional thrifter

Thrifting is a great way to get to better understand your style, how you actually like to dress and what you feel the most comfortable in. It can sometimes feel overwhelming to enter a Zara store where collections and trends are renewed in a fortnight and where it’s easy to just feel like you’re so out of style that you would have to make some major investments to get your wardrobe back on a trend-track. Entering a second-hand shop on the other hand, might give you the opposite experience. For the uninitiated it might even feel like there’s nothing they like or want there.

But when you get into the habit of flipping through the racks of used garments, you will sooner or later start to notice a pattern. What colour section are you browsing first? Do you go through trousers or skirts? Blazers or jumpers? You will probably go through a trial and error phase, but after a while you will hopefully be able to distinguish a pattern. What are the common denominators for the garments you’ve bought – and loved?

Because the positive side effect from thrifting is that when you’re not constantly being fed with the latest trends – you are more likely to invest in garments that you really want or need.

Nevertheless, if you’re not an experienced thrifter, all you might see is endless racks and nippy clothes. But don’t despair, this guide is for you:

1. Think long-term

This is my first advice. A lower price, as is often the case with used garments, could make it tempting to purchase a garment that you might not be sure about. Could you see yourself keeping this garment for years? When it comes to all clothing purchases, new as used, I try to use the “one second rule”. This means that if you try on a garment and you have to ask yourself questions as “Is this my style? Do I like it? Should I buy it?” – put it back. If you like it, you’ll know. If you don’t know instantly, you will ask yourself the same questions when you’re considering wearing it in the future too.

The one second rule – If you must think about it, put it back. Follow your instant gut feeling. If you don’t feel great at once as you put on a garment, you won’t feel any better putting it on once it’s in your wardrobe.

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2. Investigate materials and invest in quality before quantity.

Following the same principles as above, but this time the question is whether you actually can keep the garment for longer. A quality garment can stay with you, or someone else, throughout a life-time – so make sure that you screen washing labels, seams, look out for defects and reflect on how the touch of the material feels on your body.

Also note that if a lower quality garmenet actually made it through the sorting and is put out to be resold in a second-hand shop – the quality could be better than you would expect as it made it past it’s first owner.

3. No fixing or modification needed

Let’s be clear about this. Unless you really are a seamstress or you plan to remake a garment completely; don’t buy stuff that you will need to fix or repair before using them – you just won’t. Is it broken or has other defects; wholes, lost shape or colour etc. Don’t buy it, if it’s already broken as it might be a sign of poor quality or, that the garment is reaching the end of it’s lifespan, which might disappoint you later, and you might end up never wearing it.

4. Know your body’s size

If you do, you’re going to know what to look for. You will not need to look for numbers and sizes as they won’t be consistent between different garments anyway. It saves you a lot of time and effort and you will probably dress better too.

5. Pricing

PPW – Price per wear or Price per use, this bespoken concept also applies to used garments. Just because it might be ridiculously cheap, what is the price in the long-run? How many times would you wear it? For all garments, new or used, you should take into consideration how much you would pay per wear as if you were renting the garment. You calculate the PPW by dividing the Price of the Garment with the number of times it has been or will be used.

Two examples:

A blazer for £15 that you wore twice. The equation will then be:
PPW = £15/2 = £7.5 per wear

A leather jacket in good condition for£150 that you will keep and wear 100 times a year for 10+ years:
PPW: 150/(100×10) =£0.15 per wear

6. Thrifting is also consumption

Lastly, I just wanted to add a short comment on consumption. It’s important to keep in mind that just because you’re buying used garments, you are still consuming and it’s also possible to develop unhealthy habits in second-hand shopping. Remember the “one-second-rule” and that whatever you buy should not be pilled up unused in the back of your wardrobe. Read more about how the second-hand market is contributing to our consumer society here.

Being a thrifter is more like a lifestyle and a hobby than something you can just occasionally do. It’s a process that takes time and effort to learn to master and it’s not made over a night. It might require you to make a couple of bad purchases and it will require you to open your eyes and view garments in a new light.

Best of luck and, most importantly – have fun thrifting!

Are charity shops supporting fast-fashion?

One of the biggest structural challenges facing a sustainable transformation of the fashion industry is the constant strive for increased growth and profits. During the past decade, fast-fashion brands have been subject to a particularly rapid growth and when media and customers are calling for environmental responsibility, many fast-fashion brands opt for clothing donations or recycling, in charity shops or in-stores, as a mean to demonstrate circularity in their businesses. So how could charity shops be supporting the fast-fashion industry?

Let’s start of with the basics. How does a company grow? In order to increase profits, you can either; increase your sales or decrease your costs. An increase in sales entail increased production, which implies a raise in the use and exploitation of resources from our planet – resources that will take thousands and thousands of years to be restored (if they ever will).

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Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

So, if you choose not to increase sales, what about the other option, to cut costs? In a short-term perspective, thinking about your own wallet, saving, or cutting costs most often means giving up on something that you like, making your life just a little bit less comfortable. And surprise, surprise the same logic apply to the trillion-dollar fashion industry, the only difference is that cutting down on costs more often means making it less comfortable – for someone else. The cuts could be done by moving production to a country without unions and minimum wages and with no regulations of the use of chemicals and exploitation of the earth which then often result in cuts of workers’ salaries, and pollution of the local nature and water.

Sadly, cost-cutting or sales-boosting is still the day to day reality and ultimate goal for many fashion companies.

So, if fast-fashion brands gradually aim to increase sales year by year, they are supporting and encouraging a constant outflow of low quality garments from their stores – garments that eventually most likely will end up in landfill – or in charity shops. However, with a lingering climate threat, also the fast-fashion industry is under pressure to take action and communicate new strategies towards sustainability. A common way to respond to society’s pressure is to encourage customers to come back to the stores and the retailer will recycle the garments for you.

The catch to this initiative is that retailers often offer a 10-15 % discount voucher on their next purchase for recycling so that customers will return to the stores to recycle and in the meantime buy new clothes. Encouraging recycling might thus have a reversed effect and instead boost sales which contribute to an increase in the use of the planet’s resources. Take a look at one example here.

Besides this, fast-fashion garments normally holds lower quality (remember the costs-cutting) and might not even survive a second wearer as these clothes might not even make it through the assortment and quality screening in charity shops. The materials, such as cotton or polyester, often used in these garments, can only be recycled a couple of times and must often be mixed with virgin cotton in new textiles as recycled cotton has shorter fiber length than virgin cotton. In addition to that, if the a t-shirt consists of mixed materials such as cotton with acrylic, or the fabric has mixed colours, it can’t be commercially recycled at all.

So this takes us back to the charity shops. If encouraging and justifying a new purchase with a recycled garment rather is a bad excuse than a sustainable solution, can the same logic be applied on the concept of charity shops?

When donating to a charity shop, most people probably pat themselves on the shoulder and walk away feeling a little saint-like and a bit at ease because someone just took ownership of those old rags that they never wore and only used up space in their wardrobe. But just because you donated your clothes, it doesn’t automatically mean that they can be sold or used by someone else. There are so many low-quality garments produced and sold today that charity shops don’t even try to sell many of the donations they receive as many garments are made of “disposable quality” – which make them impossible to resell or rewear.

Are they parasitizing on the fast-fashion industry, and indirectly supporting the false image of a circular fashion-system, making customers believe that as long as you donate and recycle, you can feel good about yourself and keep shopping the new hot stuff?

– 2nd1stJournal

But as charity shops nurture on peoples’ laid off clothes, in fact, their whole survival is based on a constant outflow and inflow of clothes, aren’t charity shops doing almost the same thing as fast-fashion brands? Are they parasitizing on the fast-fashion industry, and indirectly supporting the false image of a circular fashion-system, making customers believe that as long as you donate and recycle, you can feel good about yourself and keep shopping the new hot stuff? Are charity shops in fact, slowing down the change (or the obliteration) of the fast-fashion industry, and so implicitly support this industry’s continued existence?

If customers would be better informed, acted rationally thereafter, and only bought quality garments that they actually need, and want to keep for a lifetime in the first place — charity shops could finally move away from being people’s trash cans and personal recycling assistants and serve their true purpose as an important player in a circular economy.


More on this topic: Watch this TED Talk by Leslie Johnston, Founder of Fashion for Good.

Synthetic textiles – why you should avoid them

Synthetic textiles have many good qualities, they are cost-efficient, they can be shaped in many different ways, they can be used to create a certain texture and lasting garments that don’t stretch or change shape or colour, and they are also easy to wash and maintain. As a result of its characteristics, the development of synthetic fibers revolutionized the fashion industry in the 1960s. 

Since then, synthetic fiber textiles have paved the way for what we today like to call the “fast-fashion industry”. Cheap materials in combination with low production costs equal low retail prices and today we can consume clothes like never before – almost like disposable items. 

Great. Or it would have been if it wasn’t for the tiny fact that everything that we produce, consume, own or discard, in one way or another comes from the earth. A fact that may be easier to grasp when you think of “natural fibers” – such as wool, linen, or cotton. Having this mind, it might come as no surprise that one of the most important (and easiest) things you can do for the environment, is to invest in “good” textiles according to the climate change campaign group, Extinction Rebellion. Adversely, this also means that we should avoid investing in artificial – synthetic – fibers, and here are three reasons why: 

Nylon

Nylon was introduced already in the late 1930s’ and has since been used for the benefits of its elasticity, abrasion, mildew and water resistance as it dries quickly. You might think about nylon stockings, but nylon is often blended with other natural or synthetic materials due to its many advantages. Nylon is made from petrochemicals, which is chemically obtained directly from cracking or chemical processing of petroleum oil or natural gas and is thus non-biodegradable. The nylon production creates and emits a greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide which is 300(!) times more potent than CO2 and it can also cause a skin irritation called dermatitis. However, today better – greener – options exist such as Econyl which is nylon made entierly from recycled nylon collected from our oceans and landfill.

Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash
Acrylic

Acrylic was introduced in the 1950s’ and has many of the same benefits as wool; it is soft, warm, light-weight, it preserves colour well and it doesn’t wrinkle – yet it is produced at a (much) cheaper cost compared to wool. 

Sounds great, but the disadvantages of using acrylics are many, and they are scary too! Firstly, it takes a lot of resources to produce acrylic as its production is one of the most energy-intensive ones compared to other textiles. And as if that’s wasn’t enough – acrylic is also suggested to cause cancer to the people working in the production or manufacturing of the acrylic textile. And as if that isn’t enough, research has found that acrylic textiles releases over 700,000 microplastics every single time it’s washed. This is more than any other synthetic material

Polyester

The most commonly used synthetic textile used in a whole 55% of clothes produced today thanks to its cheap production, versatility, strength, resistance to heat, shrinking or wrinkling – polyester always stays the same. But as you might have guessed, this synthetic textile is also a bad guy. Polyester is less energy- and water-intensive compared to other synthetic textiles, but its production has a very negative impact on the water supply as polyester textile cannot be dyed using natural or low impact dyes and instead requires very strong chemical dyes whose residues often are emitted in water streams causing problems, not only for the life in the oceans but also for wildlife and humans who are depending on those water resources. 

Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash
So what is the better choice?

Learning more about these three synthetic textiles, you might be wondering which one is worse? Or reversely, which one is better than the other? The answer to these questions is that they are all bad and should all be avoided. All synthetic – “man-made” –  textiles are non-biodegradable and non-renewable (but the could be recyclable) as they essentially are made from oil – yep, good old petroleum. In addition to this, synthetic textiles are often produced in countries such as Indonesia, China, and Bangladesh that all have weak, ambiguous or a lack of environmental regulations for emission, pollution, exploitation of air, water, land, and nature. This means that pollution of air and water easily can be surpassed and is often discharged creating dangerous living conditions and causes problems not only for factory workers – but also for the residents living in these areas. Finally, synthetic textiles are one of the biggest sources of pollution of microplastics (acrylic is just one of them) and every time you wash a garment, it gives away thousands of microplastics that are washed out in lakes and oceans.

Next time that you are tempted to buy that cheap low-quality jumper, think twice and look for natural textiles, recycled materials or secondhand garments instead, there are tons of good quality and price worthy options out there.