Episode 37: Why Circular Design is not a free pass to keep producing




Circular Economy, Circular Design, Circularity, fashion design, Repairing, Repair Cafes, Polyester, Cotton.



Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.


Hello, and welcome to episode 37 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. In today's episode, I wanted to revisit the circular economy and circular design. There are a lot of questions around circular design and what it means and how to do it but there's also an increasing amount of businesses who have come under fire lately for using the term. So I wanted to revisit it and talk a little bit about where things are at the moment.


Firstly, let's talk about what a Circular Economy is. It's described as a more holistic approach to move beyond a take-make-waste system that the fashion industry and arguably the world currently operates in. Essentially, it's based on three main principles, design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems. Within the fashion industry, there are a few key areas to consider when you apply it to circular fashion design.


Number one design for sustainability and circularity in mind, break down all of the steps in your product development process, and analyse what is being used, where it came from, and what it's made out of and also by whom.


Number two produce sustainably, consider all the natural resources being used, whether that's raw materials or the power used in production.


Number three, keep it in use for longer, create long lasting items, but also rethink ownership through rental, take back schemes and repairability.


And number four, design for biodegradability and compostability. Materials should be able to return to the soil quickly and easily if they're no longer able to be kept in use. Now circular design isn't really a new concept, for example, Cradle to Cradle has been around for a while, and is a similar school of thought that revolves around similar principles and of course, the oldest example is nature itself who goes through different stages and is continually regenerating. But when we talk about the circular economy, and particularly this school of thought within fashion, it is difficult there are a lot of entrenched systems and processes, as well as missing technology in this area. So there are still quite a few challenges to be able to fully realise a functioning circular economy.


For one, as far as I know, and I'm happy to be corrected as I'm navigating this minefield along with everyone else, polyester garments can't be recycled into new garments, it's not being recycled garment to garment. Plastic used in bottles can be recycled multiple times. However, once you take that plastic and turn it into yarn to make garments, it can't be recycled, particularly if you've blended it with elastane or Lycra. I think there are trials of recycled polyester garments up to maybe 5% elastane but like I said, that's trials. That's not really a working system ready to scale. Now I just want to add in another little statistic that says every piece of plastic ever produced is still with us. So if it's not being recycled, maybe it's being down cycled. And I've seen some initiatives where plastics have been collected and moulded into things like park benches, and floorings and things like that. But I guess it probably comes as no surprise to most that It all exists, particularly with so many articles on microplastics.


Then when we look at cotton, the cotton that's recycled, the staple fibres get shorter and shorter each time they're shredded or mechanically recycled. So it can't be infinitely recycled. The textile exchange states rules on how much it needs to be blended with Virgin cotton for strength and the percentage depends on the yarn count. I think only getting to the heavier weight fabrics is when you get closer to 100% of it being recycled cotton, but everything else T shirts, Jersey fabrics, you know sweat fabrics, Terry's, that will have to be blended with Virgin cotton. The one benefit that cotton has over polyester is it will integrate back into nature, providing it hasn't been dyed or printed in toxic dyes, of course.


So you can see when we only look at a couple of the most popular materials that are most widely used in the industry, there are still gaps or limits with the technologies that are needed to be able to make these products circular. And that's not really even accounting for what happens once they get made into garments, what they're blended with or what's stitched into them, whether that zips or snaps, or if there's coatings put on them for waterproofing or moisture wicking.


The reason I wanted to highlight those two areas is because when you start to really dissect your process and materials, you understand just how many components or areas there are to consider. For materials, you need to look at what goes into making them how they're put into the garment, and what happens at the end. But it would seem that even the brands that are talking about a circular economy, with all their knowledge, are still producing items as they normally would. One of the main issues that I see is that they're still producing low quality items, whether that's workmanship or material, but it's not durable, and therefore it breaks down. It's planned obsolescence, and it isn't designed to be long lasting or easily repaired.


Secondly, there's still a lot of reliance on fossil fuels. A textile exchange report from 2020 stated that synthetic fibres have dominated the fibre market since the mid 1990s, when they overtook cotton volumes. Synthetics made up 62% of the global fibre production in 2020. With polyester making up 52% of that, just 15% of that was recycled polyester. And then, 99% of that was coming from PET plastic bottles, not garments. So you can see in the figures, it's telling us that the lion's share of polyester is still virgin polyester.


Going back to my earlier point, designing for durability and engineering quality within your garment is a key Circular Economy principle. Without that it's difficult to use the other levers in a circular economy such as retail, reusing, renting, or redesigning. As an example, when my first son was born, I bought a beautiful ceramic lamp and had a little LED light in it, it was a ceramic koala, it was gorgeous, I loved it. But over time, the cord got pulled at some point and it pulled off the connection point in the plate. So I emailed the designer who I bought it from to see what could be done. And they said they used to have lamp a repair kit or replacement sort of bulb and cord section. But because of COVID they haven't been able to get those anymore and so it was sort of just end of  story. It was like "oh, sorry about that we can't really help" just a bit of a dead end really.


But I wanted to keep this lamp you know, it wasn't a cheap buy it was beautiful, aside from the fact that this part of the lamp had broken so I wanted to find a solution. And then I remembered that they were these Repair Cafes and I don't know if you've heard of them, but they set up little community spaces where people volunteer their time to be able to repair things. Often they have people that can repair electrical goods and also, I think there was a man there repairing chairs and woodworking furniture. So anyway, I booked in and I got a chance to meet with this lovely man Terry who ended up he was able to fix the lamp, he did a bit of a work around and and it was amazing. My son loved having his lamp back and I think Terry enjoyed the thrill of being able to get this lamp working again. But it was a reminder to me that as part of a design process, there should be avenues to be able to repair things, even for this lamp to have a different opening to make the repair easier and even the switch that was used, it was glued together, it wasn't screwed together. So there was no chance of opening it had to be basically cut off, and so there is no switch effectively. I have to plug it in and out of the PowerPoint, but it still looks beautiful. And it was saved from landfill.


So, but back to the fashion industry. What is it meant to do? Well, the uncomfortable truth, in my opinion, is it needs to produce less. We're over producing and over consuming. There's a brilliant video about 20 minutes long from Fashionscapes called A Circular Economy and I really recommend you watch it. I'll put the link in the show notes on the website. But it warns of the dangers of the circular economy being used to greenwash and has some very credible voices within the industry. It even features Australian wool grower Charles Massey and talks about his regenerative farming journey. But essentially, we need to be producing less. I can't remember this statistic, but a large percentage of clothing produced doesn't get sold. And I know from my experience, around 30 to 40% of it doesn't get sold at full price. So why are we creating all this stuff that people aren't buying? If we're producing we have a responsibility to produce better quality, consider what inputs we're using, how we're putting them together and what's going to happen to them when they reach the end of life. And the second part of that is diversifying business models that aren't reliant on new stock all the time. Regardless of what materials you're using, there are huge amounts of resources, which also includes the human resources that go into creating them. With this approach, we can start to have a greater chance of changing the system to be a true circular economy.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation proposes that following a circular economy would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 48% by 2030, which is extremely close to what is needed. According to a McKinsey study, they stated that by 2030, the industry needs to cut its emissions by about half, or else that will exceed the 1.5 degree pathway to mitigate climate change. And 2030 is only eight years away. So the time for change is now.


In the words of Alberto Candiani, who owns the denim mill Candiani "Capitalism will totally fail if circularity doesn't really happen at some point".


So hopefully, that's given you something to think about when you're looking into the circular economy and your own design process and what it all actually means. Like I said, that film's a great insight for anyone interested in circularity and where things are at the moment. And like I said, you'll be able to find the link for that in the shownotes if you head to the website and go to the podcast section. Also, I'll be starting my one hour zoom coaching sessions again from May. It's one hour where you can ask me anything about the fashion industry and sustainability and you can find more information about that on the website as well belindahumphrey.com in the website shop. 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 belindahumphrey.com 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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