What is a Circular Economy?

The term circular economy is a relatively new term, but it isn't a new concept. Cradle to cradle, industrial symbiosis, and biomimicry are all existing schools of thought, with the oldest example of this, being nature itself.

Essentially it is based on 3 main principles:

  1. Design out waste and pollution
  2. Keep products and materials in use
  3. Regenerate natural systems.

It is a holistic approach to evolve beyond a take-make-waste system the industry (and arguably the world) currently operates in.




According to a Mckinsey study, the fashion industry currently emits about the same quantity of greenhouse gases per year as the entire economies of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. By 2030, it will need to cut its emissions by about half – or else it will exceed the 1.5-degree pathway to mitigate climate change.


On the other hand, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation proposes that following a Circular Economy would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 48% by 2030. Extremely close to what is needed.


Having defined the key principles for this business model and its potential for radical change, let’s move onto some key areas to consider when applying it to circular fashion design:


    1. Design for sustainability and circularity in mind. Break down all the steps in your product development process and analyse what is being used, where it came from, what it is made out of, and by whom. Secondly, go through the process of mapping out how it will then be made, used, and ultimately disposed of.
    2. Produce sustainably. Consider all natural resources whether that is raw materials and the power used in production.
    3. Keep it in use for longer. Create long-lasting items but also rethink ownership through rental, take-back schemes, and repairability.
    4. Design for compostability. Materials should be able to return to the soil quickly (or other carbon capture projects if they are synthetic) if they are no longer able to be kept in use.


So far, it seems like this model is the answer we need, however, there are some key challenges at the moment. The main one being that technology is not where it needs to be to complete the cycle. For example, historically, only textiles that were 100% one fibre type are able to be mechanically recycled and respun. It’s only very recently that processors are starting to overcome this to include blends or similar fibre types. Without this advancement, materials are “down-cycled” meaning that they aren’t suitable to use again for apparel and are used instead for things such as insulation.


However, despite its challenges, businesses are proving this model to not only be financially viable but a good business decision. Kate Brandt, head of sustainability at Google explains that by remanufacturing and recycling auto parts the car company Renault has generated half a billion Euros in revenue. She reports that by applying these principles we could see an estimated additional 4.5 Trillion dollars of value by 2030. Google joins many other companies such as Nike, Walmart, Inditex, Kering, Eileen Fischer, Nudie Jeans, and Ganni in committing to realising a fully functioning circular economy.


Finally, I read a quote recently that stopped me in my tracks and shifted the way I was thinking about the product development process. Perhaps it might be helpful when considering your circular economy?


“What would you do differently if you were responsible for taking back all the products you sold?”

(Harvard Business Review)


More Posts