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The Circular Economy for Fashion Faces Major Challenges

One year after the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) rallied the world’s leading brands and retailers, including Nike, H&M and Inditex, to usher in a circular economy for apparel by 2020, roadblocks continue to impede progress.

A key problem, the signatories of the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment have said, lies with the comparative novelty of the concept, which in turn limits the knowledge around circular products and the breadth of best-practice examples at scale, the GFA wrote in a Year One status report published this month.

“There is a need for further industry alignment on how circular products should be designed and for a call for greater collaboration on the development of tools to do so,” noted the organization, which holds the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in Denmark every year.

Take, for instance, the collection of used garments, which a burgeoning number of brands are using to telegraph their circular bonafides. Several signatories have expressed their desire for a more efficient framework, one supported by greater collaborative effort between brands and NGOs and is unhindered by local legislation, GFA said.

Likewise resale, a strategy that extends the longevity of garments and keeps them out of the landfill, is an area still ripe for disruption and innovation.

“Shipping, sorting, storing and repair can easily become costly which is something that brands with lower price points, and therefore lower resale value, are finding particularly challenging,” GFA said. “Further research into alternative business models for companies across market segments and price points needs to be explored.”

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Still the biggest complaint among signatories is the availability—or lack thereof—of post-consumer recycled fibers.

“One company explained that it had yet to find suppliers able to commit to providing recycled post-consumer textiles, while others indicated that their suppliers are already at capacity,” GFA wrote.

Although there’s plenty of of grist for the mill—87 percent of the 53 million tons of clothing produced globally each year is either incinerated or landfilled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation—turning old fibers into new isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sorting clothes, cleaning them and stripping them of zippers and buttons is laborious and time-consuming. Fibers that are mechanically pulverized can lose structural integrity and make for inferior cloth. Blended fabrics, which are as ubiquitous on the high street as they are in collection bins, are nearly impossible to sunder into their original constituents. 

Despite inroads in recycling by trailblazers like Re:newcell, Evrnu and Worn Again, even the most promising technologies are still years away from achieving scale. Getting them over that hump will require a concerted effort. 

“There is a strong need for an accelerated industry effort to bring scalable and cost-efficient recycling technologies and systems to the market,” GFA affirmed. “Getting these efforts to scale goes beyond individual company investments and will require further involvement from regulators to incentivize the use of recycled materials.”

GFA says it will address these “barriers to change” by continuing to engage with a wide swath of stakeholders, including policymakers, to align and clarify industry-wide solutions.

“The developments over the past year are promising,” GFA added. “However, a greater collaborative effort is needed in the coming years to accelerate the industry’s transition into a circular fashion system.”