Globally, more than half of fast fashion is disposed of within one year of production through incineration, landfills, or displacement to outside communities, while less than 1% of clothing is recycled.1
Acknowledging the imbalance between the consumption of resources and production of waste has set the stage for circularity within the fashion industry. In circular design, every piece of a product becomes a regenerative resource rather than waste, by making critical sourcing, production methods and supply chain decisions.
Define Sourcing Criteria
Material selection often focuses on design criteria like durability and structure. Circular sourcing prioritizes choosing textiles from recycled feedstocks, post-consumer, or industrial waste. Materials that cannot be reused, such as textiles that have high blend counts or fibers with certain finishes, backers, or coatings, should be avoided.
Establish Content Traceability
When upcycling textiles, different fiber qualities impact the ability to be integrated into circular systems. For instance, specialty textiles such as cotton shirting fabric have a fiber quality too high for fiber recycling. On the other hand, natural textiles without a high blend count can be sourced from and returned to recycled feedstocks.
Made For Circularity
Using post-consumer or industrial waste is one step towards circular design. Yet additives such as performance finishes, laminated backers, or aesthetic coatings are often applied to transform waste into textiles. These additives render them non-recyclable in the future. Check with the manufacturer to assess additives applied during textile production.
Garment tags provide important fiber information, but traditional sewn-in labels aren't always accurate. Look for labels that center supply chain traceability. Additionally, polyester labels create fiber and color impurities in the recycling feedstock, so creative modes of tag removal are needed before recycling.
Stretch the Lifetime of a Product
Maximize lifetime of products in use by designing for longevity, durability, maintenance and repair. Maximize lifetime of products after use by offering the take back program appropriate for the products next life.
Mending or product repair services are becoming more accessible to users through skill sharing that keeps clothes in use and out of landfills. Fixing Fashion Academy is fostering this repair revolution.
Rent or Return Models
Maternity, baby and children clothing designers acknowledge the massive underutilization of their product in its rapid use and disposal. Designers behind Borobabi provide a rental service centered on longevity, integrating lifetime return renting models so their designs can be continually resold.
Return -> Renew
Fabric or product take-back services like Returnity, FabScrap or TerraCycle cumulatively divert more than 250,000 pounds in a year for reuse, recycling or composting depending on composition. On a smaller scale, design programs like Patagonia’s Worn Wear reimagines previously used and worn garments into completely new products.
Designers can work small scale with online circular platforms for sourcing or selling natural fabrics through Queen of Raw, Thrifty Notion, Offset Warehouse or thredUp while keeping fabric out of landfills.
Sharing Circular Techniques
Open sharing platforms focused on zero waste design techniques like Make/Use, invite collaborations between a diverse range of users, from retail clothing consumers and makers, to large international brands, creating joint value and circular synergies.
Circular Design Tools
Open source platforms tools for product lifetime planning such as IFIXIT or Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy Resources offer tailored ways to optimize a material’s longevity by adopting rental, take-back or repair services.
“Everything you make returns to the earth as food, or poison.” - The Slow Factory.
Key Product Considerations:
- Material Composition: Is the textile’s content from recycled, renewable or regenerative sources?
Recycled- Sourcing a product’s content from previously used textile waste such as common recycled feedstocks of wool or cotton.
Renewable- A majority of textiles are made from nonrenewable sources while natural fibers such as linen or plant leathers such as Piñatex, do not deplete our natural resources.
Regenerative - Ecologically beneficial materials able to revitalize the energy source or agriculture that creates the textile such as the recent surge of organic or bio-fabricated materials such as algae.
- Material Management: Is the textile amenable to recycling, upcycling, or composting?
- Cradle to Cradle: Are the materials in the textile biodegradable & able to be returned to the earth’s biological nutrient cycles?
Compostable- Textile will break down into nutrient rich mixture viable for further soil use, predominantly only achieved in large commercial scales.
Biodegradable- Materials such as hemp, jute or bamboo which do not contain chemicals, will microbially decompose to fit back into the carbon cycle.
Deadstock- Often overproduced, excess pre-consumer fabric leftover from a brand’s order because of imperfections or other reasons.
These selected products highlight different circular design approaches.
Carved in Blue Denim Collection
Carved in Blue is a solution dyed denim collection where indigo dye pellets color the garments during fiber spinning rather than aqueous dye baths, reducing water consumption and wastewater outputs. Additionally the Bluesign, Fair Trade, USGBC, Oeko-Tex® certified collection uses Tencel fibers.
AlgiKnit is a compostable yarn made from readily abundant biopolymers. This product was designed as a sustainable, closed loop alternative for the apparel and footwear industries.
Mohair & Wool Upholstery Blend
Considering the entire life cycle, blends of natural fabrics like this mohair and wool blend with natural finishes, offer truly biodegradable, healthier end of life options. This Mohair product is Oeko-Tex® certified.
Dosa sources discarded natural materials as dye material as a localized waste design intervention. Over 1000 pounds of nirmalya, offerings of marigolds, roses, hibiscus, and coconut husks, are collected from Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai each night for dyeing and composting.
Textile artist Dani Des Roches sources deadstock towels from estate sales, etsy and other avenues to keep old fabric out of waste streams. Working on a small scale, Des Roches gives new life to deadstock by creating garments and hats.
“The Universe is circles within circles, and everything is one circle, and all the circles are connected to each other." -Black Elk of the Oglala, Black Elk Speaks 1961
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