What is circular fashion? The experts’ definition

girl in white dress with bag with hearts on

What is circular fashion? The experts’ definition

The circular economy is much talked about these days and its extension to fashion: circular fashion. We hear many brands talking about their circular fashion initiatives. They claim that they’re circular because they take back our clothes in return for money off new clothes, or because they’ve used some recycled materials in their production.

But is this really circular fashion or simply greenwash? What is the true definition of circular fashion? I decided to speak to some experts in the field to find out.

“What is the definition of circular fashion to you?”

That’s the question that I put to several industry gurus. Kresse Wesling CBE, co-founder of Elvis & Kresse; Emma Gillespie, founder of Belles and Babes; Lulu O’Connor, founder of Clothes Doctor; Sara Piccinni Leopardi, founder of Resrcle and Merryn Chilcott, Sustainability and Technical Manager at BAM were all kind enough to share their expert knowledge with me.

Table of Contents

What is the circular economy?

Nature is truly circular. Plants grow, bloom, and their waste and seeds go back into the earth to become the material to grow new plants. In the circular economy, our products are like plants. If we are to preserve our planet, we need to be circular with our materials and the products we make from them. 

Girl under a tree in nature
Nature is the most circular thing there is. Photo by Kevin Young on Unsplash

So where does circular fashion begin?

Trick question, it’s a circle! But, for the purpose of this article, let’s imagine that the starting point for circular fashion is the raw material input.


Truly circular fashion, for me, is where every element has been considered to leave as light a footprint as possible – from the fibres it’s made from, its design, who makes it and how, its life with customers, and what happens when it reaches its end of life. Merryn Chilcott, BAM

1. From the fibres it’s made from: Raw materials in the circular fashion model

In the linear model, the value chain begins with unrenewable resources such as crude oil, extracted from our earth not to be replaced. Circular fashion in contrast begins with renewable or recycled materials that don’t leave a footprint.

Emma Gillespie is the founder of Belles and Babes, a clothing rental brand with a difference. They offer maternity, nursing and organic and sustainable baby clothing for hire across the UK.

It makes so much sense. As any parent will know, maternity, nursing and especially baby clothes are used for such little time. The rental model keeps them in use for much much longer.

Talking about the raw materials stage when defining circular fashion, Emma says that the “environmental considerations of how resources are grown, produced and processed throughout their lifecycle” is a key part of the circular economy model.

And she’s right. Take the example of regular cotton. Many believe it to be a sustainable fabric, being biodegradable and made from a natural resource. But, the pesticides and insecticides used to grow it, not to mention the collosol water use means that it actually leaves a huge footprint.

Organic cotton on the other hand, and fabrics such as linen and hemp, are much kinder to our earth.

Organic cotton field
Regular cotton is way more polluting than organic cotton. Photo by Mr. Location Scout: https://www.pexels.com/photo/view-of-a-cotton-field-6698273/

Is using recycled materials circular?

This is a trickier question. Reusing materials that cannot otherwise be recycled or reused forms a circular solution to the pollution caused by throwing them away.

Elvis and Kresse, for example, have saved over 300 tonnes of London’s discarded fire hoses from going to landfill in the last 10 years. As they are made from a composite material they cannot otherwise be reused. Instead, they are recrafted into beautiful handbags and belts using a zero-waste design.

They are equally tackling the huge issue of leather waste and have signed a five-year agreement with the Burberry Foundation to take all of their leather off-cuts. This will save at least 120 tonnes of leather waste from going to landfill.

Other items that they salvage and reuse include auction banners, tea sacks and parachute silk.

All of these materials are being saved from landfill, moving them back into use rather than polluting our planet. Keeping items in use for as long as possible is a key concept of circular fashion.

fire-hide-camera-bag-dusty-pink-yellow-1_5000x.progressive
Just one of the beautiful bags made by Elvis & Kresse from old London fire hoses, lined by disused parachute silk. Image from Elvis & Kresse's website

Is using recyclable materials like plastic bottles circular?

Plastic bottles on the other hand can be recycled back into plastic bottles several times given the right technology and availability of bottles (the National Geographic Society estimate 2-3 times although new technology means that infinite recycling is becoming available).

When they are recycled into clothes, or even other materials like carpets, with today’s technology it is very hard to then recycle those clothes or carpets at the end of their lifetime.

There are even reports that drinks companies don’t have enough plastic bottles to recycle. This is because the bottles salvaged are sent to be made into synthetic fabrics instead which is more lucrative.

Infographic plastic bottle to bottle recycling vs plastic bottle to clothes recycling
An ideal world view of how plastic bottles would be recycled

However, sustainability is a journey. And as new knowledge becomes available, we improve.

Sustainability is often not about seeking perfection and instead making progress. So at the moment there is still a place for synthetic fibres, especially when they come from recycled sources. But eventually, we need to decide if synthetic fibres can be part of a truly circular model. Emma Gillespie, Belles and Babes

A truly circular model means that garments would have a “planned flow of perpetual utilityKresse Wesling.

2. Design is key to circular fashion

The word “planned” is really important in Kresse’s quote, as many would argue that circular fashion really begins at the design stage.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation say that circular fashion is driven by design.

Merryn Chilcott of BAM, who are now creating 100% recyclable clothing also says that Truly circular fashion, for me, is where every element has been considered to leave as light a footprint as possible“. This consideration begins with design.

To be truly circular we need to do everything we can to ensure that our clothes remain ‘in the loop’ for as long as possible, which starts with designing them in ways that mean that they will last, can easily be repaired, and incorporating clever design features such as clothes that grow with children or ways in which they can be made more versatile for adults… whilst also ensuring that they won’t go out of style so that people will still want to wear them in 5 or 10 years or more. The fabrics that we use are a key part of these design considerations because they affect how an item washes and wears.” Emma Gillespie, Belles and Babes

High quality and versatile

There is so much to consider when designing new clothing according to circular design principles. Firstly clothes must be designed to be high quality, versatile and made to last.

Zero waste

Reducing textile waste in the production process is also important. Low waste and zero waste fashion design include using waste itself to create new pieces and zero waste or minimal waste pattern cutting. 15-20% of the fabric becomes waste in traditional pattern cutting.

This is where Resrcle come in. They have created a digital ecosystem to maximise the use of waste textiles where the “leftovers from one process become the raw materials of the next“. 

Resrcle want to increase collection and recovery of unused textiles, both pre and post-consumer, to reuse them to their maximum potential and minimise textile waste.

Resrcle exists as so much waste is created during the design and production process in mainstream fashion. However, zero waste design means that this waste isn’t even generated in the first place.

A great example of this is Elvis and Kresse who proudly use the full width of the fire hose in creating their luxury bags. And they weave together small patches of leather waste to create their beautiful leather garments.

Textile waste is commonly generated at the textile cutting stage. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Recyclable

As well as using recycled materials, circular fashion demands that our clothes are recyclable. This must be tackled at the design stage.

3. Who makes it and how: The production process in circular fashion

As well as raw materials and design, how our clothes are made is critical to circular fashion. To leave a minimal footprint and mitigate our environmental impact, sustainable practices including renewable energy use and closed-loop systems must be employed.

Closed loop systems are particularly important to circular fashion. They ensure firstly that harmful toxic chemicals are not released into local waterways, and secondly, that precious resources (such as sustainable dyes or the solvent used for lyocell) are reused. In other words, they are put back into the “loop”.

The production methods favoured by fast fashion brands to make products cheaper, like mass production, coal-fueled power plants and toxic chemical use, cannot be sustained by our planet.

It’s about valuing and conserving energy, materials, people and the planet as much as possible, at every stageMerryn Chilcott, BAM

All the guilt and waste of consumption would be gone. Only renewable energy would be used. We would all be so much happierKresse Wesling, Elvis & Kresse

4. Who makes our clothes

We also need to solve the problems around ethics within current fashion supply chains to ensure that everyone involved in a garment’s lifecycle is treated well and paid a fair wage – circular fashion must be sustainable in every way and cannot continue to be exploitative like our current system. Emma Gillespie, Belles and Babes

The terms sustainable fashion and ethical fashion are often used interchangeably. However, it’s true that a brand can be sustainable and even circular from a planetary viewpoint without giving much thought to the social or ethical implications.

But is ethical fashion really key to circular fashion? Well, yes. If you don’t treat people well, you are contributing to the downfall of people and communities. This is not circular in any way! People are the lifeblood of our planet.

I like this quote as well, taken from Elvis & Kresse’s website: “We think that capital also has to flow in a circular way, benefitting the many and not just the few.”

And conscious consumers will accept nothing less than people being treated ethically and fairly to create the clothes on their backs.

Workers in factory
Workers must be treated fairly to maintain communities in a circular way. Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash

5. How we use our clothes

I believe that Circular Fashion, as all system thinking models, is about keeping materials, products, and resources in use for longer, hence improving environmental, social and economic outcomes. Sara Piccinni Leopardi, Resrcle

Keeping materials in use for longer

How we use our clothes quite frankly determines how long they’ll last. Washing on gentler cycles, with less abrasive detergents, less often, drying naturally and mending can all make our clothes last longer. And as a happy coincidence, this is much better for the environment!

BAM are a big supporter of washing our clothes less often and recently launched their Dare to Wear Longer campaign.

In fact, WRAP did a study that showed that we could all reduce the environmental impact of our clothes by up to 30% by just wearing them for 9 months longer. This reduces the impacts of the carbon and greenhouse gas emissions released during their production and processing.

Some sustainable fashion brands are now offering a lifetime clothing warranty including free repairs, helping us go way beyond the 9 months.

As well as lifetime guarantees, specialist companies such as Clothes Doctor can help us to make the most of our clothes:

Many clothes are thrown away simply because we’re tired of them. Or because they’ve lost their shape, colour or the appearance they once had. They are thrown into landfills, to then never biodegrade. In many cases, the clothing wears out because of really simple habits, like the clothes are washed too often or the wrong way, with the wrong tools. But there’s a really simple solution – through accessing the right knowledge and specialised products, we can nourish the clothes we already own. Instead of washing your favourite items with harsh chemicals and toxins, try a natural specifically designed detergent; or the next time you get a little moth hole – repair it, instead of throwing it away. That is my definition of circular fashion, taking proper care of our clothes, maintaining them with tools so they keep their quality, and last longer, all while feeling and smelling great. Lulu O’Connor, Clothes Doctor

Clothes Doctor help us to look after our clothes with their range of eco-wash laundry detergents and repair accessories such as their darning needles. Surely we can all wear our clothes for much more than 9 more months.

As well as keeping our clothes in better condition, the environmental considerations of human use, specifically washing, cleaning and drying, can’t be overlooked.

Laundry drying naturally on a line
Simple things like how we wash and dry our clothes can affect how long they last, and environmental outcomes too. Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Making our clothes last even longer: upcycling, swopping and second hand

Sometimes we just get bored with our clothes, what then? Well, upcycling has taken the world by storm, and we’re seeing some fantastic brands creating very cool designs. But we can also do it ourselves at home.

As well as upcycling, clothing swops are becoming a common way to keep clothes in circulation for longer. And if all that fails, second-hand platforms like Vestiaire Collective are making it easy to sell our clothes second-hand and even make a bit of pocket money.

The rental model

Carrie Symonds famously wore a wedding dress she rented for £45 on her wedding day. And the sharing economy is something that we’re all beginning to fall in love with.

As well as short-term items like baby, maternity, wedding and special occasion clothes, people are starting to enjoy the perks of renting their everyday clothes. Variety and newness in our wardrobe without the guilt or burden of owning.

Circular Fashion, for us, is a stress free way for everyone to be the custodian of garments which have a planned flow of perpetual utility and no conflict with people or planet. All the guilt and waste of consumption would be gone. Only renewable energy would be used. We would all be so much happier. Kresse Wesling, Elvis & Kresse

The more that we can rent or borrow our clothes, the more happier not only we will be, but our planet and natural resources too!

Two babies from the UK wearing clothes from Belles and Babes' subscription boxes
Belles and Babes offer baby clothes and maternity and nursing clothes to rent reducing waste for these short-lived items. Photo courtesy of Belles & Babes

6. End of life

For many, what happens to a garment when it reaches its “end of life” is what really decides if it can be called circular. In the linear system, garments are simply thrown away and forgotten about and may end up being burned or sent to landfill. This disrespects every natural system on our planet and disvalues our precious clothes and the materials they were made from.  

Circular fashion must regenerate nature. Clothes need to be recyclable or biodegradable to be considered truly circular. And this is somewhere where there is still much room for improvement: 

Recyclability … is a huge challenge in itself because it requires a massive change in technology and infrastructure that we just don’t have at the moment. Emma Gillespie, Belles and Babes

Circular fashion’s ideal lifecycle

Share this Image On Your Site

Stumbling blocks to recyclability and biodegradability of clothes

While plastic-to-textile recycling is now well established, textile-to-textile recycling is still lagging behind. Mechanical recycling (tearing up the fabric and using it as insulation or car seat stuffing for example) is possible, but degrades the quality of the fabric so that the next stage will likely be landfill or burning.

And chemical recycling, where fabric is dissolved and made back into new fabrics, has traditionally resulted in lower-quality fabrics being produced.

However, as well as a lack of infrastructure and technology, blended materials are very difficult to recycle. Plus, fabric treatments, including flame retardant chemicals affect recyclability. And, natural materials blended with synthetic ones will not biodegrade.

Polycotton and fabric blends

That has, up until now, ruled out polycotton just for starters. This blend of polyester and cotton is seriously popular. In 2016 the market was valued at over 35 billion USD, and was predicted to grow to over 57 billion USD by 2024!

You may think that your 100% cotton t-shirt would be exempted, but often it may have polyester stitching which is stronger and more flexible than cotton stitching. Studs and buttons in jeans need to be cut out to recycle them too.

Innovations in circular fashion

There is however light at the end of the tunnel.

Circ

One example is Circ, a cutting-edge textile recycling company with the small goal to recycle 10 billion garments by 2030, 10% of the global apparel market!

Their technology dissolves the polyester part of the polycotton blend to make new polyester and degrades the cotton part into a high-quality form of cellulose. This then forms the raw ingredient to make lyocell, viscose or rayon in a way more efficient way than taking cellulose from trees.

It’s amazing, their plan is to “entirely eliminate the demand for raw ingredients needed to make clothing by creating new clothes entirely out of old ones“.

This is just the beginning but Circ already has partnerships with clothing brands including Patagonia and Inditex. If they even come close to achieving their hefty goals, they’ll be helping to take circular fashion from a niche market to a mass market reality.

Ellen McArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign project

Over 100 brands have signed up to this initiative to help find ways to make denim more circular. This includes making it longer lasting, less toxic in production and easier to recycle.

Some of the solutions include reducing the amount of elastane used, getting rid of/replacing rivets, creating harder-wearing denim and using less toxic chemicals in production, sandblasting and stone washing. They’re also increasing the use of organic/recycled content.

The Jeans Redesign logo is proudly displayed on the jeans that pass the strict requirements of this circular initiative.

Primark jeans redesign
Brands that meet the Jeans Redesign criteria like Primark pictured here can use the logo in their clothes. Photo courtesy of Primark

WELLICIOUS YOGA

This ethical yoga brand weren’t happy that most stretch sports clothing takes from 20-200 years to biodegrade. So they came up with their own range of compostable yoga clothing!

Made from GOTS organic cotton and a compostable elastane, their clothing is 100% biodegradable. As it’s made from natural materials their clothing is much better for the skin too (see Is polyester bad for you).

Compostable clothing really represents a huge step forward in the circular fashion movement and let’s hope that more brands follow suit!

(As an added bonus, Good Maker Tales can get 10% off this brand with the code GoodMakerTales10).

So what about current “circular fashion” initiatives on the high street?

Some of the more common initiatives we’re starting to see include the following. But do they fall into the definition of circular fashion?

1. Clothing recycling programmes

Many fashion industry brands are now inviting you to take back your old clothes to be recycled in return for a money-off voucher to buy new clothes. While this looks like a great initiative, is it actually encouraging people to get rid of their clothes and buy new ones even sooner than they otherwise would? 

Many people think that if something can be recycled that they don’t need to worry about it, but there are SO MANY clothes to be recycled that adding to this amount cannot be a good thing. Plus the end product is a degraded textile that is one step closer to landfill. And recycling uses energy too!

For take-back programmes to be really circular, they would not be encouraging people to buy even more clothes that they don’t need. And we need to ask ourselves if the companies behind these initiatives act in a truly sustainable manner in other areas of their business. Or are they continuing to mass-produce toxic fashion while showcasing this one green initiative?

Girl holding clothes on hangers
Take-back programmes can only really be circular if they are not encouraging people to buy more at the same time. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

2. Fashion made from recycled materials

We should ask a similar question here too. Are companies that make their products from recycled materials acting sustainably across their whole business? Are they using recycled materials for all of their products, or are they using a small percentage of recycled materials in an even smaller percentage of their range?

And what type of recycled materials are they using?

We applaud companies like Elvis & Kresse, a certified B Corporation Company, who are genuinely saving disused materials from landfill. They are doing it consistently across their whole business because they believe and know that it’s the right thing to do. And with 50% of profits going to charity they are making a genuine difference.

Other companies may use a very small percentage of recycled materials in some of their ranges. Whilst it may be a trial to begin with, if it’s not rolled out eventually across all of their ranges, perhaps marketing is the end goal, not saving the planet.

3. Second-hand and rental

A lot of major fashion brands are now beginning to offer their products second-hand and even for rental. This also seems like a great step forward for circular fashion.

It could be if this meant that they were reducing their production of new garments made from virgin resources as a result.

However, where sales of new garments continue to rise, what impact is their offering of second-hand or rental clothes having? Is it just making people want to buy even more?

On the other hand, if they’re introducing a new concept to the market, and those customers go on to rent and buy second hand in place of buying new, then this can start to have a positive impact on the way people shop.

Girl in vintage second hand jacket
If second hand shopping replaces buying new it can contribute to the circular fashion model. Photo by Laura D Vargas on Unsplash

And some of the less common initiatives: 

1. Lifetime warranty

Some brands are now offering lifetime guarantees on their products. This has to be the most super sustainable option out there, as long as they’ve been made sustainably in the first place. Even if you do change your mind about the product, you can always sell it or give it to someone else to keep for their lifetime!

Crann sunglasses, Bottega Venetta and Patagonia are just some of the brands pioneering this move. It could be potentially risky for them but it shows their faith in their product, and their belief that you should only have to buy something once.

2. Recyclable clothes

This is an even smaller market and hopefully a growing one. It is very exciting to see brands like BAM now releasing “recyclable” and not just “recycled” clothes. Their 73 Zero jacket is not only made from 98% recycled polyester but is 100% recyclable. 

BAM want to get the current 73% of clothing that ends up in landfill down to zero. Fully recyclable clothes really do represent a huge step forward towards the goal of making fashion circular.

Where they are processed and manufactured using clean energy and closed-loop systems, and where people are encouraged to care for their clothes better, fashion really can become circular.

BAM Clothing UK 73 Zero running jackets
BAM Clothing UK 73 Zero running jackets. Image courtesy of BAM

Closing the circle

So, you’ve made it this far, is the definition of circular fashion what you expected?

Circular practices in fashion are not limited. From reusing disused fire hoses, to melting the polyester out of clothes, to renting baby clothes to creating great eco-friendly products to make our clothes last longer. There are some amazing brands out there leading the way to make fashion circular. We could be nearly there!

Is there anything else that could hold us back? Maybe ourselves? One last thought:

The biggest challenge to achieving circular fashion may actually be a cultural and social one rather than a technical one… it’s another (thing) to create the huge shift that will be needed so that people don’t want to buy or own as many clothes and so that people are proud and not ashamed to wear clothes that are old and repaired.

We need to recognise and respect the value that is contained within our clothes so that we would never dream of throwing them away… Orsola de Castro really did hit the nail on the head when she said that Loved Clothes Last. We need to want the change and stop turning a blind eye to our current broken model. Emma Gillespie, Belles and Babes

Circular fashion is the only future for fashion. Photo by Hong Nguyen on Unsplash

Full quotes

“What is the definition of circular fashion to you?”

“I believe that Circular Fashion, as all system thinking models, is about keeping materials, products, and resources in use for longer, hence improving environmental, social and economic outcomes.”

Sara Piccinni Leopardi, Resrcle


“The circular economy is a completely different way of thinking, and fashion is no exception. To be truly circular we need to do everything we can to ensure that our clothes remain ‘in the loop’ for as long as possible, which starts with designing them in ways that mean that they will last, can easily be repaired, and incorporating clever design features such as clothes that grow with children or ways in which they can be made more versatile for adults such as different ways to wear one item or ways to make them suitable in different seasons, whilst also ensuring that they won’t go out of style so that people will still want to wear them in 5 or 10 years or even more. The fabrics that we use are a key part of these design considerations because they affect how an item washes and wears, and then most obviously the recyclability which is a huge challenge in itself because it requires a massive change in technology and infrastructure that we just don’t have at the moment, not to mention the environmental considerations of how resources are grown, produced and processed throughout their lifecycle. Sustainability is often not about seeking perfection and instead making progress, so at the moment there is still a place for synthetic fibres, especially when they come from recycled sources, but eventually we need to decide if synthetic fibres can be part of a truly circular model. We also need to solve the problems around ethics within current fashion supply chains to ensure that everyone involved in a garment’s lifecycle is treated well and paid a fair wage – circular fashion must be sustainable in every way and cannot continue to be exploitative like our current system. Finally, the biggest challenge to achieving circular fashion may actually be a cultural and social one rather than a technical one, because it’s one thing to be able to design clothes that will last etc but it’s another to create the huge shift that will be needed so that people don’t want to buy or own as many clothes and so that people are proud and not ashamed to wear clothes that are old and repaired. We need to recognise and respect the value that is contained within our clothes so that we would never dream of throwing them away – there are a lot of things that need to change, but Orsola de Castro really did hit the nail on the head when she said that Loved Clothes Last. We need to want the change and stop turning a blind eye to our current broken model.”

Emma Gillespie, Belles and Babes


“Truly circular fashion, for me, is where every element has been considered to leave as light a footprint as possible – from the fibres it’s made from, its design, who makes it and how, its life with customers, and what happens when it reaches its end of life. It’s about valuing and conserving energy, materials, people and the planet as much as possible, at every stage. Circularity will play a huge role in BAM reaching its goal to be impact positive by 2030.”

Merryn Chilcott, BAM


“Circular Fashion, for us, is a stress free way for everyone to be the custodian of garments which have a planned flow of perpetual utility and no conflict with people or planet. All the guilt and waste of consumption would be gone. Only renewable energy would be used. We would all be so much happier.”

Kresse Wesling CBE, Elvis & Kresse


“Many clothes are thrown away simply because we’re tired of them. Or because they’ve lost their shape, colour or the appearance they once had. They are thrown into landfills, to then never biodegrade. In many cases, the clothing wears out because of really simple habits, like the clothes are washed too often or the wrong way, with the wrong tools. But there’s a really simple solution – through accessing the right knowledge and specialised products, we can nourish the clothes we already own. Instead of washing your favourite items with harsh chemicals and toxins, try a natural specifically designed detergent; or the next time you get a little moth hole – repair it, instead of throwing it away. That is my definition of circular fashion, taking proper care of our clothes, maintaining them with tools so they keep their quality, and last longer, all while feeling and smelling great.”

Lulu O’Connor, Clothes Doctor

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE…

Girl being greenwashed

NEVER BE GREENWASHED AGAIN.

Join our mailing list for more like this, and get your exclusive free copy of our guide to sustainable fashion certifications.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

GET YOUR FREE GUIDE: 5 SUSTAINABLE FASHION HACKS INSIDERS SWEAR BY TO SAVE YOU MONEY!

Sign up for your free guide and the latest sustainable fashion news, exclusive offers & the latest from us direct to your inbox every fortnight

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Good Maker Tales Ltd registered in England and Wales at: 124 City Road, London, EC1V 2NX. Company number 14279167.

© 2023 All rights reserved