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Did the Circular Economy Find Its Groove in 2018?

2018 might go down as the year the circular economy hit the big leagues.

Once an entirely novel concept, the idea of keeping clothing, textiles and fibers in use for as long as possible—through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture and, as a last resort, recycling—is finally percolating through the mainstream fashion industry despite its flagrant resistance to change.  

Today, 94 brands and retailers representing 12.5 percent of the global fashion market back the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, a pledge organized by the Global Fashion Agenda, a nonprofit that stemmed from the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, to spur “action on circularity” in tangible and measurable ways.

The number is modest, to be sure, and the challenges ahead innumerable and complex, but there are plenty of developments to feel heartened by. More companies than ever are exploring alternatives to the traditional “take-make-dispose” industrial route. Over half of all executives profess to use sustainability as a polestar for nearly every strategic decision they make, according to this year’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry report. For boldface names like Gap, Nike, H&M, Zara owner Inditex, Kering and Marks & Spencer, circularity is now part of their everyday lexicon. 

Need more convincing? Here are just some of circularity’s tentpole moments this year.

Resale is booming

Good news for our overbrimming landfills: “Secondhand” is no longer a dirty word. 2018 marked a year of gangbuster returns for resale businesses like Depop, Grailed, ThredUp, Poshmark, The RealReal, Rebag and Vestiaire Collective, which made hay of millennials’ nebulous relationship with ownership, not to mention their pricking consciences over the social and environmental ills of fast fashion.

But don’t mistake these pre-owned purveyors for your grandmother’s basement rummage sales. Today’s resale experience is highly curated—even luxurious—as former digital natives ease from clicks to bricks. This year, for instance, saw The RealReal open a new 12,000-square-foot location in Los Angeles as an extension of its New York City flagship. Rebag, which traffics in coveted brands like Chanel, Gucci and Hermès, debuted five brick-and-mortar outlets over the past year: three in New York City and two in Los Angeles. Across the pond, Vestiaire Collective organized a pop-up with tony department store Selfridges in London.

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Even high-street staple Banana Republic now offers gently used high-end accessories like watches, jewelry and handbags on a Luxe Finds page on its website.

ThredUp, which values the current resale market for apparel at $20 billion, predicts the demand for pre-owned will swell to $41 billion by 2022. It doubled down on its claim in November by launching what it says is the first-ever clothing line created expressly with resale in mind, so that what goes around keeps coming around again and again. 

Renting ramps up

People don’t just lease clothes for fancypants occasions any more. Following the example of popular subscription services like Rent the Runway, mall favorites Ann Taylor, Express, New York & Company and Rebecca Taylor gave their customers the ability to take out and return clothing every month with no limits on the number of exchanges. (Think Netflix and its DVDs in the prehistoric days before streaming TV.)

If subscribers fall in love with a piece, they can purchase it at a discount. Otherwise, they can try on as many items as they like without stuffing their closets with clothes they’ll never wear or flooding thrift stores with fast fashion nobody wants. Everyone wins. 

Investors are feeling bullish about the clothing-sharing economy, too. And no wonder: “Our subscription business is up 125 percent year-over-year and is projected to triple in 2018,” Jennifer Hyman, Rent the Runway’s founder, said in a press release. In March, Rent the Runway garnered a $20 million investment from Jack Ma and Joe Tsai’s Blue Pool Capital, pushing its overall valuation to roughly $800 million. 

Repair is no longer retro

If it’s broke, fix it. That’s the philosophy behind initiatives like Patagonia’s Worn Wear, Eileen Fisher’s Renew and The North Face’s Renewed, all of which expanded efforts to buy back their garments from customers, refurbish the lightly worn for resale and recycle the unsaleable.

For do-it-your-selfers, European brand Vaude joined online platform iFixit to develop repair instructions for customers who want to mend their own garments. (It also set up a trading post on eBay so people can sell their used Vaude products.) Recreational retailer REI broadened its Used Gear site to include additional brands and categories of apparel, footwear and equipment. And Burberry, which came under fire after admitting this year to destroying $38 billion worth of unsold clothing and cosmetics, has promised ratchet up efforts to repair, donate and/or recycle its overstock.

Corporates get schooled

In order to be looped back into the fashion system, products need to be designed for the circular economy from the get-go. Nearly one-fifth of the signatories of the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment have established targets to train their design and product development teams on circular design principles, according to the Global Fashion Agenda.

Gap, for example, aims to school its cross-functional product teams on circular design techniques and best practices by 2020. Nike plans to implement sustainability training, including circular design, for all product creation roles in footwear and apparel. Both Lacoste and Hugo Boss have pledged to incorporate circular design principles into their design briefs from 2020 on.

In February, H&M rolled out a new training program to educate 100 percent of the staff in its buying office, including designers, on how to build circularity into its design processes. The retailer also updated its Conscious Material internal training program to take a components-first approach,” it said.

Asos, Britain’s No. 1 online fashion retailer, joined forces with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion to pilot a circular fashion training program for its designers. Once refined, the program will be rolled out to the rest of Asos’s staff on a continual basis.

Technology levels up

Scientists finally bulldozed one of the biggest barriers to textile recycling: how to tease apart blended fibers. The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, in partnership with the H&M Foundation and fabric manufacturer Novotex, constructed a plant in Hong Kong to scale up the breakdown of cotton-and-polyester-blended garments. Over in Amsterdam, Circle Economy debuted Fibersort, a machine that automatically sorts large volumes of mixed post-consumer textiles by fiber type, creating consistent input materials for textile recyclers.

Illinois-based Natural Fiber Welding, which uses a patented “fabrication platform” to imbue short-staple recycled natural fibers with the same performance and utility as their long-staple virgin counterparts, is getting a boost as a member of Fashion for Good’s Scaling Programme. So is Ecovative, a New York biomaterials firm from New York that uses mushroom roots to grow—rather than manufacture—Mycoflex, a high-performance biological foam with the potential to replace petroleum-derived plastics in footwear, accessories, outerwear and lingerie.

Other, albeit smaller, efforts to keep fibers out of landfills are also gaining steam, including work to turn agricultural byproducts—from chicken feathers to banana peels—into high-value textiles that don’t place additional stress on land, water or energy. 

Closing the loop on plastic

Is virgin polyester falling out of favor? Maybe. 

It’s a pretty low-hanging fruit for businesses that want to boost their eco bonafides. Per Research and Markets, recycled polyester is forecast to see “promising market growth over the forecast period owing to rising environmental consciousness across the globe.”

This year, Adidas promised to use only the recycled stuff in its products by 2024. Everlane started phasing out virgin polyester, beginning with a line of outerwear derived from old plastic bottles. Primaloft, too, is edging toward fleece and insulation fibers that are not only 100 percent post-consumer recycled but also completely biodegradable, which sidesteps the problem of microplastic pollution.

On a macro level, Burberry, Stella McCartney, H&M and Inditex joined the United Nations, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and more than 250 brands, retailers and organizations in October to pledge to eradicate plastic waste at the source and eventually creating a circular economy for plastic. Signatories have agreed to keep existing plastics in circulation, reusing or recycling them into new packaging or products.

Suppliers are priming their own pumps as well. North Carolina’s Unifi, which aims to recycle the equivalent of of 20 billion PET bottles by 2020, said it recently surpassed the 12 billion bottles mark. In Sri Lanka, Eco Spindles built a 13,000-square-meter processing plant to transform post-consumer plastic bottles into 960 tons of recycled polyester yarn per year—enough to constitute 15 percent of the supply required by Sri Lanka’s textile and apparel sectors.

Better materials are birthed

Jeans got greener this year—figuratively anyway. G-Star Raw innovated the first-ever denim to be certified on a Gold level by California’s non-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII), meaning it showed exemplary performance in terms of human and environmental health, material reutilization, renewable energy use, carbon management, water stewardship and social justice.

Not to be outdone, European retailer C&A feted the world’s most sustainable jeans, the first retail offering to be certified C2C Gold (they follow the “world’s most sustainable T-shirt,” which C&A unveiled in 2017).

Both products are open source for industry use as part of the institute’s pre-competitive Fashion Positive program, which is creating a library of circular materials that are beneficial for both people and planet.

“The collaborative, forward-thinking approach taken by C&A in being the first retailer to create jeans that meet C2C Certified at the Gold level, one of the highest levels of C2C certification, represents another significant milestone in the shift towards truly sustainable fashion,” said Lewis Perkins, president of the C2CPII. “C&A’s decision to provide open access to the source guide for this product is an equally significant contribution to the future of sustainable fashion and the growth of the circular economy.”