EPISODE 93: How to future proof your business through the power of circular design




Hello and welcome to episode 93 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. For this episode, I wanted to revisit the circular economy and, in particular, the role that circular design plays in realising that new economy. If you followed me for a while, you would know that in 2020, after 18 years in the fashion industry designing, developing and sourcing product for global companies I really doubled down on integrating circular design principles into my work. I had been learning more and more about it before then, but the last four years has really been putting it into practice in both helping brands and businesses to create products through hands-on design and also within an advisory capacity to help businesses understand what circular design looks like. And through that process, it really identified that there is a big knowledge gap in designers understanding how to actually design circular products, which is why this year, I've launched a Circular Design Workshop. It's specifically designed for apparel product teams to help them upskill so that they can deliver on broader business goals of becoming circular, and it's a very practical session that builds on design's best practice that I've learned over my 20 years in fashion, because spoiler a lot of the practical decisions that are involved used to be the norm and then it layers on top of that the circular design thinking so that your products are future fit and ready for the circular economy. So if that's something you're interested in, I would love to meet with you and discuss some of the options. You can email me info@belindahumphrey.com and we can set up a time. 

Before I get stuck into today's topic, I do want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land in which I work and record this podcast on the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, and I pay my respects to elders, past and present, and acknowledge that sovereignty has never been ceded. 

So the idea of a circular economy isn't a new concept. Cradle to cradle and biomimicry are all existing versions of circular systems, with the oldest example of this being nature itself. It's just undergone a little bit of a glow up and this has seen a dramatic increase in panels, discussions and articles about the circular economy. And if you think about a lot of our current business models, it makes sense that businesses are interested in a different way. It's no secret that the large majority of business models currently operate in linear model of the “take make waste” system, and this is leading to a whole raft of issues, with the most important being climate change. 

The circular economy offers up a different way of operating. It aims to minimise waste and promote a sustainable use of natural resources through three principles:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution,
  • Circulate product and materials in use longer and at their highest value, and 
  • Regenerate nature.

    These principles can be used in all industries and applied at different stages of a product's life cycle. In the case of the fashion industry, garments can be made using regenerative agriculture as well as using natural colourings and dyes, and this results in a lower impact of raw materials and safer garments for the health of the workers at farm level, consumers and the environment. If the products are then being designed using better design choices and decisions that result in a higher quality product, then clothing can also last longer, be repaired, thrifted and recycled more easily and, as we have seen, businesses start to integrate and take back their products, such as ReSelfridges, designing and producing product in this way is essential for those alternative business models to work, and that's the important bit, so I want to reiterate it again the decisions made during the design phase of a product are crucial to implementing those principles and diversifying your business models. You can't unscramble an egg, so to speak. In the same way, you can't drastically redesign a product down the line to fulfill the principles. This is why using circular design in the beginning of a product's life cycle is crucial in being able to realise the circular economy. 

    As I mentioned earlier, there are more and more businesses talking about a circular economy, and business leaders and CEOs are also making it a priority. If you follow me on LinkedIn, you would have seen that the circular economy, sustainability and circular fashion are top priorities according to a new survey of 100 board and senior executives, including CEOs, retail directors, chief operating officers, sustainability directors and finance directors in the UK, US and Australia in November 2023. 

    We know that the linear take-make-waste system isn't working anymore. It's harming the planet, we're essentially extracting more than the planet can replenish and it's affecting our climate, biodiversity, habitats, as well as us. Six of the nine key planetary boundaries that measure environment health across land, water and air have been broken, largely because of this system. The circularity gap report found that by adopting 16 circular economy solutions across four global systems, including manufactured goods, it's possible to reduce global material extraction via a third, returning consumption to safe limits, and this could reverse the overshoot of those planetary boundaries. 

    I can't stress enough the linear system isn't working anymore, even if there are skeptics out there that still deny climate change. Even if climate change wasn't happening, this business model of continually extracting means that resources are going to be used up at some point and businesses will be forced to consider other ways to manufacture goods and diversify their business models. 

    Now, like I said, I've long been convinced of the merits of moving to a circular economy and integrating circular design into fashion, but if you've been following along for a while, or if you know me, you would know that even if I'm excited about something, I will always look to see what the challenges are and I never take things at face value. I'm always investigating, I guess, the backstory of things, why that might be true, who's involved in those decisions, who's paid for a study. So of course, it makes sense that this episode. I wanted to go into some of the challenges. The first one is that less than 1% of textiles are actually recycled and despite a lot of promising initiatives, particularly with fabric-to-fabric solutions, they're still yet to scale, particularly where blended fabrics are concerned. 

    The next one is that there are a lot of trade-offs along the way. For example, sometimes making something that is more durable isn't great for the environment and might inherently use more plastic. 

    And finally and most importantly, consumption levels must be reduced and, particularly in higher-income nations, societies must shift their purchasing practices or behaviours to sufficiency rather than excess, because even products made from recycled, renewable and safe inputs and designed in a circular way have a resource cost. 

    Which brings us to the end of today's episode. Hopefully that's given you a refresher on the circular economy and the role that circular design plays and why it's so important to start upskilling design teams and bridging that knowledge gap so that they can play an active role in realising a circular economy. As I said earlier, if you're ready to start upskilling your team with a circular design workshop, send me an email info@belindahumphrey.com and we can have a chat about some options. As always, you'll find the show notes and any links for today's episode on the website belindahumphrey.com in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time. 

    Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch, head over to or you can find me on Instagram @BelindaHumphrey_ 

    Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change. 


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