Beyond ‘Take, Make, Use, Dispose’: How to Design for the Circular Fashion Economy

Image: No Man’s Land (2012) – an art installation by Christian Boltanski

Fashion can only be truly sustainable by moving towards systems that are circular and actively regenerative. Nicoletta Stecca, director at Circular Economy Victoria and author of rén collective’s circular design guide, breaks down some the key creative strategies to consider.

The current global health crisis has highlighted weaknesses and complexities in the fashion industry: a sector that was already facing unprecedented upheaval long before the world was forced to a lockdown.

Nobody could predict this sudden halt in production, the prolonged shut down of retail outlets or the significant drop in consumer spending. However, health crisis aside, it’s a few years now that various players in the industry have been calling for urgent change.

A lot of the factors behind this pressing need to reform the fashion system come from the ‘linear indicators’ we use to measure the success of a brand. These include the cost and quantity of raw materials, the volumes and speed of production, and the rapid pace of distribution and sales. Although we can’t disregard how the economy of scales has allowed brands to maximise production efficiency, giving low-income households the opportunity to purchase commodities such as clothes, the performance indicators linked to a ‘take-make-use-dispose’ economy have generated complex environmental and social issues that can no longer be ignored.

If you are already having these conversations, and you are trying to make conscious choices either as a designer or a consumer, you’ll know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed. The factors to take into account when creating or buying sustainable products are endless and ‘sustainable fashion’ is one of the most abused expressions of the last decade. The term refers to making and marketing products while considering both environmental and socio-economic aspects, in addition to minimising the negative impact of the product lifecycle at every stage. This is a daunting task and the results are extremely difficult to measure, especially for small brands with a limited budget, while as consumers it’s hard to recognise a genuine initiative from a well-concealed greenwashing campaign.

Yet as the word sustainability begins to lose its meaning in the context of fashion, designers are going one step further and shifting to systems that are not only sustainable, but fully circular and actively regenerative.

So what does moving from linear to circular systems actually entail? Well, one of the main issues we are facing today is that our economy is still heavily dependent on harvesting or extracting natural resources. Their increasing scarcity makes the fashion industry particularly vulnerable, since 97% of raw materials used to produce clothing are virgin resources.

The concept of circular economy is based on a systemic approach to economic development, aimed at replacing the current linear system with a circular and regenerative one that draws inspiration from the effectiveness of the ecosystems surrounding us. 

In a circular fashion system, designers and brands make the most of products and materials, keeping them in use as long as possible. Goods are created so that they can be put into the system again at the end of their lifecycle and everything is produced from safe and renewable materials, in a way that enhances society and the environment.

Images: Jai Odell and Elizaveta Porodina

There is no simple solution to the current challenges the fashion industry is facing, but one thing is clear: the role of designers and brands has drastically changed and requires a shift in the creative process that takes into account the impact of the product throughout the entire value chain. 

Circular design aims to completely eliminate waste and pollution throughout the product life cycle, and to do so effectively, we have to understand and analyse three critical stages: pre-consumer waste, consumer waste and post-consumer waste.

While circular economy encourages us to apply a systemic approach and not a one-size-fits-all solution, there are some simple strategies everyone can consider when designing with circularity in mind. You can find in-depth analysis of some of the key approaches outlines below in rén collective’s free guide

Everything starts with your design: the way you conceive a product can make a world of difference in how it is processed, reused or recycled at the end of its lifecycle. The raw material you choose represents the first crucial step towards eliminating waste. 

The main issue that prevents recyclability of textiles is the use of blends, with the most common being cotton-polyester, often chosen to give the garment specific properties such as elasticity. Challenge yourself and favour mono-material fabrics, or open a dialogue with recycling companies to understand if recyclability will be an option in the post-consumer phase.

Nowadays, the variety of recycled materials is wide enough to ensure a continuous supply. The recycling industry, however, presents some critical issues regarding inadequate textile waste legislation, therefore the partnerships between governments and key players in the private sector will be crucial to regulate these practices in the upcoming years.

Major steps forward have been taken in engineering new bio-based materials, which are providing valuable alternatives to the use of leather, nylon and PVC. From plant-based materials to bio-based polymers and algal cultures, these cutting-edge materials represent our best chance to create textiles that can be reintroduced into the biological cycle. Some suppliers currently available on the market are Piñatex, Bananatex, Vegea, Orange Fiber, Fulgar and Desserto.

Images: Desserto is a leather alternative made from cactus plants, Credit: Desserto

The way you design your pattern and the various components of the garment is another critical step. You can get creative and conceive a zero-waste pattern, combining that with the use of digital manufacturing tools such as the laser-cutting machine to avoid fabric waste.

One great way to keep materials and products in use for as long as possible is to design for disassembly; this strategy consists in creating objects with various materials and components, assembled in a way so they can be removed for reparation or replacement. This approach increases the durability of the product and allows the brand to recycle the single components, too.

Modular design is a similar technique, which consists in creating a product composed of various parts that can be added or removed, providing the customer with a versatile quality garment or accessory that will be hopefully used for a long time and on multiple occasions.

Being a great designer is all about using a human-centred approach and identifying the real problem your clients may have before creating for them. The truth is consumers don’t really need to own a product, that’s why conceiving a product as a service like Mud Jeans is probably one of the most circular strategies we can put in place, as it helps to reverse the damaging trend of overconsumption and mass production while providing customers with access to the products, as done by Rent the Runway, they need when they need them. 

With more informed, connected and demanding consumers, education and transparency are vital in building customer trust and extending the life of a product while fostering a more conscious approach towards fashion consumption.

It’s important to tell the story behind each product and share the effort that was put into choosing materials and processes so that the consumer can perceive the value behind each purchase. Furthermore, offering customisation services is a simple way to engage with your clients during the creation process, as well as a means to strengthen their emotional connection with the item. 

Image: Alessandro Bello

For bigger players in the market, the future of consumer relationships is all about technology: we have been talking about blockchain for a few years now, with controversial debates on its reliability in increasing transparency and guaranteeing the customer full traceability of the product, from the raw material to the store. However, in the past few months, with digital fashion shows happening and retail heavily shifting online, the trend that seems to dominate the scene is the pairing up of big-tech and fashion. The opportunities within this realm are nearly infinite; what is certain is that there will be a stronger digital component in the future of fashion, with more virtual reality and experience-based fruition and less physical products.

If you have implemented some of the previously mentioned circular strategies, you will have prepared the foundations for this stage. The goal in the post-consumer phase is to experiment with strategies that allow you to maintain the product in circle the way it is, without having to apply any time, money and energy-consuming interventions. 

You can try and resell your product if it’s still in good condition, following Eileen Fisher‘s example and offering your customer a take-back program, to then sell the items again at a reduced price. Alternatively, you can take back your products to restyle them, using some parts to create new, unique items.

Another interesting program, this time by Freitag, contemplates a ‘swap service’ for pre-loved products; you could get your customers involved through an engaging campaign, giving them the opportunity to swap unwanted items for “new” ones while increasing customer loyalty.

Finally, if you have the infrastructure, you could offer your customers the option to get their previous purchases repaired, extending product longevity and strengthening a trust-based relationship with the consumer.

Image: Freitag’s F-ABRIC collection

The complexity of the challenges we are facing has exacerbated the need to reconsider the way we create and consume fashion goods. We must radically change our relationship with clothes and redefine the role the industry has in the future of this Planet.

The path ahead is not an easy one and a systemic change requires a significant effort from all the actors involved. A real shift calls for innovation, which cannot be achieved without developing key collaborations among brands, not-for-profit organisations, governments, consumers and communities. Now more than ever we need to instate a cooperative spirit aimed at creating a new economy – regenerative and inclusive – that measures growth around the values of social wellbeing and environmental regeneration.