The United States throws out more than 15 million tons of textile waste every year. Even though virtually all post-consumer clothing is recyclable, only 15% gets repurposed. The rest goes to stuff landfills.
It’s a no-brainer that finding creative ways to reduce, repurpose, and recycle our clothing helps the planet. But can circular fashion help the economy, too?
If you’re intrigued by the idea of a circular fashion industry but don’t know if it’s economically realistic, read on. We’ll explain nine ways that a circular fashion economy is stronger than a fast-fashion economy, and how it’s already taking the fashion world by storm.
1. Fewer Machines, More Jobs
Mass-produced clothing defines our moment in fashion history. We can’t imagine a society that doesn’t have multiple big box stores in every city, all crammed with endless machine-made clothing duplicates.
Fast fashion and big business go hand in hand. Both rely on industrial-scale manufacturing to produce enough identical pieces. This means delegating labor to machines — or, worse, sweatshops.
Clothing can be mass-produced. However, it’s almost impossible to re-purpose en masse. Recycling clothing relies on skilled human work.
Post-consumer clothing has to be sorted by textile type. It has to be divided by quality into wearable garments, reusable fibers, and rags. From there, items have to be sorted by fiber type and individually prepared for recycling.
Unlike mass-producing clothing, this work is too hands-on for machines. Recycling clothing creates a demand for skilled human work.
2. Increasing Local Jobs
Even in 2021, the global fashion industry has a bad habit of sending labor to sweatshops. That’s exploitative enough to deter buyers. In addition to the social costs of using sweatshop, it undermines the local economy by outsourcing work.
The sweatshop-fed fast fashion industry can’t survive a circular fashion revolution. Sourcing more clothes from recycled sources decreases the demand for fast sweatshop fashion. It also creates more demand for local work, boosting the economy at home.
3. Boosting the Demand for Artisans
Some circular fashion industry work, like textile sorting, can be done en masse. But what happens to the textiles once they’re sorted?
The linear fashion industry relies on a few designers to create styles, using limitless supplies of standardized fabric.
However, using reclaimed materials means that the material isn’t standardized. Those working on the development side of the circular fashion industry need skill and creativity to work with post-consumer fabric.
Almost every post-consumer piece has to be individually designed from unique material. No two are exactly the same. That’s why the circular fashion industry brings a much higher demand for designers than the linear model does.
The traditional fashion design world is notoriously difficult to break into. Don’t be surprised to see young talent flocking to the non-traditional world of circular fashion. Plus, creating jobs for skilled local artisans will give the economy a boost at the same time.
4. More Room for Entrepreneurs
The fast fashion industry uses a big box model. Oversized companies employ a massive workforce, produce large amounts of product, and sell the product through worldwide clothing chains.
A nontraditional approach to the fashion industry disrupts this manufacturing model. For entrepreneurs, small-business owners, and other cornerstones of the economy, this is very good news.
Some recycled clothing will return to the market on big-name shelves. From Patagonia to Gucci, popular brands have proven that they can find their place in the circular economy fashion industry.
However, the circular fashion industry is a naturally more diverse market. It relies on individuality and creativity. That leaves room for small businesses, bespoke shops, and secondhand stores to thrive.
5. Encouraging Mindful Consumerism
At first, a fashion philosophy that encourages consumers to buy fewer products and wear them longer seems like a recipe for a market slump.
However, buying fewer pieces does not necessarily mean a market collapse. Instead, in a circular economy fashion industry, expect to see consumers buying fewer, more expensive pieces.
Partly due to a growing concern for the damage that fast fashion does to the environment, and partly due to consumer exhaustion from the endless cycle of new trends, consumers are already stepping away from the established fashion philosophy of “more-is-better.” The capsule wardrobe trend is still going strong after several years, showing that growing number of consumers believe that less is more.
How does all of this help the economy? A slow-fashion mindset forces consumers to think about what they are purchasing instead of instinctively grabbing the latest style only to toss it a few months later.
Yes, this means fewer purchases up-front. However, it leaves consumers financially free to spend more on investment pieces.
Since slow fashion is inherently more expensive, fewer purchases make more sense — especially if each purchase brings more value to the economy.
6. Selling Used Clothes
Did you know that we throw away the equivalent of $460 billion of clothing in good condition ever year?
We might not be able to reclaim all that value. However, reusing existing clothes gives financial worth to textiles that would otherwise be discarded.
Monetizing post-consumer materials is a risky move. Recycled fibers have to be market competitive for entrepreneurs to invest in them, and selling post-consumer clothes makes them more expensive. The majority of consumers may not have the time to sell their clothes individually and will continue to discard them.
However, the model of selling post-consumer clothes is already successful in certain markets.
For instance, Buffalo Exchange started as a small business based on purchasing clothing back from consumers to sell. This model has been so successful that the store has expanded into a nationwide chain while still keeping its niche fashion identity.
Since circular fashion costs more than mass-produced clothing, it’s important to put more purchasing power in the consumer’s hands. Buying back used clothing is an effective way to keep the money moving through the circular fashion economy. This empowers consumers to keep buying.
7. Sustainably Sourced Fibers
What types of fabric fibers are touching your skin right now? Where did they come from? How much did they cost to make, and who got paid?
When we think of a circular economy fashion industry, we often focus on what happens to clothes after they’ve been owned by a consumer. But sustainable fashion in a circular economy depends just as much on pre-consumer considerations.
Natural fibers have a smaller environmental footprint than synthetic ones because they don’t require as much chemical treatment during production. More importantly to the circular fashion industry, natural fibers are more durable and last longer. This means that these sustainably-sourced fibers can last through more transformations — perfect for circular economy fashion.
Fast fashion gravitates towards synthetic material because they’re easier, cheaper, and faster to produce industrially. The circular fashion industry needs the opposite: fibers that take a long time to fall apart. These are usually the ones that take a long time to make as well.
Natural fibers take more work to produce. High-quality wool, cotton, and silk are labor-intensive products.
These sustainable fibers have to be generated by skilled labor, and an opening for skilled labor benefits the economy.
8. Supporting the Global South
A circular fashion industry is good for more than one economy. In the current model of throw-away fashion, almost half of discarded garments are exported. They are baled and shipped to developing countries in the Global South.
Global developers are concerned that this runoff of global capitalism harms developing countries. Saturating the market with cheap products keeps local industries down.
This is just one of the many social costs associated with the linear model of fashion. However, taking a socially conscious approach can have economic benefits as well.
Mindful, circular fashion makes economic sense for the industries that generate fast fashion, and also those that suffer from them.
9. Raising Interest in Circular Fashion
Real-life fashion icons like Courtney Sarofim set the tone for other consumers. This Houston native graduated from Columbia University and currently holds the position of vice president at Landar Holdings. Though a busy mom of two, the socialite finds time for an active philanthropic career.
With multiple best-dressed awards to her name, Sarofim has a reputation for being chic even on the busiest days. When influential fashion icons like Sarofim lean into circular fashion, they raise awareness about its benefits.
The more visibility that circular fashion gets, the stronger the industry becomes. As slow fashion gains power, more and more consumers are choosing to support it with their purchases.
Making Circular Fashion a Reality
The demand for circular fashion is growing, and the supply of recycled clothing is quickly catching up. The circular fashion industry — and its benefits for the economy — is already becoming a reality.
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