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Want to Get Circularity Right? Start With Fashion Education

Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart’s “Cradle to Cradle,” published in 2002, still defines today’s circular era. The book’s tagline, “Remaking the way we make things” was heralded as a bellwether by well-intended designers and businesspeople as a sign to move beyond the linear, “take-make-waste” economy and into one where waste, ideally, isn’t produced at all.

Twenty years later, we haven’t realized the vision of a circular economy, many argue because we put more emphasis on the “things” instead of the “making” of them.

“The biggest misconception today is the idea that a product can be circular,” said Raz Goldenick, an assistant professor of strategic design and management at Parsons School of Design. “It’s not the product that’s circular, it’s the system.” But redesigning systems means starting with the right education.

Goldenick, who teaches students at The New School how to approach circularity with new business models, says more students need to learn about the climate crisis to compel them to address circularity across all facets of apparel, not just design. That 85 percent of our wardrobes go to waste and less than 1 percent of clothing gets recycled, according to the EPA, should be reason enough.

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After this, he says, it’s important that they understand the “hierarchy of circularity,” meaning they should move beyond recycling to understanding that strategies like reusing, rethinking and repairing are preferable to recycling and, thus, higher up on the hierarchy.

Goldenick also focuses on giving students a comprehensive understanding of the whole lifecycle of the product. The way the apparel industry is set up, professionals get siloed in their roles, which hinders the holistic thinking circularity demands. In essence, a designer, a textile engineer, and a business exec must each have a keen understanding of consumer behavior, materials, logistics and sales–and they must communicate with each other to design circular systems.

While more courses are emerging at prominent fashion schools, the lack of intentionality in circular design today originated with pedagogy, according to Michelle Gabriel. Gabriel, who went through one of the first cohorts at Glasgow Caledonian New York College’s Masters in Sustainable Fashion and today heads up the program, came up in a more traditional fashion educational system.

“I went to a worker bee design school that set students up to work in mass brands like Abercrombie and The Limited. Our curriculum was very practical. It was about interpreting the needs of designers through draping, patterning and sewing. I never heard the word sustainability.”

The reason for this, she says, is because the U.S. fashion education system was born out of a trade economy when manufacturing was booming but it didn’t change much when manufacturing went overseas.

“Even the most forward programs today aren’t reconceptualizing fashion–they’re preparing students to work in the industry of the past, not participate in shaping a new one.”

From 2007-2017, fashion design matriculation tripled in America. The oversupply of graduates was so prominent that it was dubbed the “Project Runway Effect.” While the intent behind the high interest in design wasn’t malicious, it rippled into a series of unintended consequences—namely that the industry had to make room for all the new designers. And it did so through unfettered growth. “This is a major reason why the industry keeps expanding and producing more, while consumption skyrockets,” Gabriel said.

Tara St. James, who got her start as a sustainable fashion designer and now runs Eleven Radius, a collaborative circular fashion group, sees the issues in education carry over into industry.

“Today so many companies are looking at end-of-life rather than next life,” she said. “They’re being reactive when a product comes back to them, trying to figure out how to monetize or manage it rather than using the data to feed back important learning into their design processes.” No matter how innovative a company is with end-of-life solutions, poor design decisions are irreversible.

Circularity, as it was intended, means that a product is designed from beginning to end to become a biological or technical nutrient—i.e. it can biodegrade into the earth without harm or be reimagined into something new without degrading in quality. To design circularly requires attention and feedback at all points in the process.

Most designers and technical teams lack the knowledge to make circularity work. For instance, many don’t know that many textiles used can’t be recycled. While companies like Circ, Renewcell, and Evrnu, are beginning to solve for this, there’s no technology, at scale, to separate blended textiles. The majority gets downcycled, tuned into shoddy for insulation, or goes to a landfill. Understanding the limitations of recycling, as well as what material performs best for a garment’s intended use, would inform better design decisions at the outset.

“There’s also the expectation from companies today that if they send their product to a recycling partner, they will get a finished yarn or product back to put back into their lines to ‘close the loop,’” St. James said. “The reality is that it’s more likely to be turned into something else.” Like Nike’s program to take back shoes and turn them into playgrounds. It’s not shoe-to-shoe recycling, but it’s a step in the right direction. St. James agrees that more pre-competitive collaborations like this are needed to drive meaningful change at scale.

“But the real elephant in the room is that we’re simply overproducing,” she said. “Most clothing companies today have built circularity on top of growth models designed to make revenue from new clothes, not reimagine a system where value could be extracted from new services that keep the product in circulation longer.”

A broader range of people who come from interdisciplinary backgrounds working in fashion could be one way forward, according to Gabriel. Apparel supply chains, after all, touch almost every facet of the industry from trade to science to technology to sales. “Fashion has always been dominated by ingroup and outgroups, but this causes homogeneity and slows change,” she said. “I’d like to see more people— historians, environmental scientists, whomever—come in to temper the uniformity.”

As for support that existing designers and apparel professionals need, St. James says the first thing to address is the knowledge gap. This could be in schools or through company initiatives, like Madewell’s employee program, which trained more than 50 members of its design team in circularity last year.

Even with the right knowledge, however, circularity is challenging without industry connections to service providers. Like sustainability, there’s no one right way to approach circularity, so companies are largely figuring it out on their own. Because of this, St. James says a database or platform that directs design teams to the right companies and helps them share learnings is needed.

For instance, companies like MAKE ANEEW can handle waste, repair and remanufacture. Tersus does sorting, cleaning and repair at scale for worn inventory. Others like Trove, ThredUp and Treet do reverse logistics and resale.

Beyond service providers, certifications can bring legitimacy to circular design. The only big name in the game as of now is the the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, whose founders not only wrote the book on circularity but created the first standard. “Cradle to Cradle Certification is circularity made tangible on the product level,” said a spokesperson from the Institute. “Our program requires an integrated approach to sustainability and the willingness to transform the system, business models and supplier partnerships.” (The certification covers not just circular design but social and environmental components, as well.)

Today about 100 apparel businesses—chemical companies, thread and trim producers, yarn and fabric mills, brands, and retailers—have Cradle to Cradle Certified products. With the certification only on the market for six years, however, these businesses are early adopters. Raab hopes to see the momentum continue with brands expanding their certified lines beyond capsule collections and into entire product categories so more consumers recognize the label.

To get there, it’s still largely up to design teams to embed circularity in their supply chains, which is the largest source of emissions for most apparel and footwear brands.

Carmen Gama, a Parsons grad who founded MAKE ANEEW, believes the right change is happening in schools. She took classes with Yvonne Watson, now associate professor of fashion, who introduced concepts of sustainability and zero-waste design. “Students flocked to these classes and Parsons began to engineer a new curriculum around them,” Gama said.

When Gama graduated in 2015, she was part of the last group to go through the university’s past curriculum. Despite this, she says, “I wanted to find solutions, not be part of the system. My teachers gave me the tools to do this at a time when circularity was just beginning.”

Gabriel agrees more sustainable design courses are a good thing but cautions against circularity becoming the sole focus at the expense of other sustainable systems. “We can’t circular ourselves out of existing production and consumption dynamics but we can adopt it as one tool in an integrated kit.” 

This article appeared in Sourcing Journal’s Circularity Report. To read the full report, click here.