What is circular fashion?

The central concept behind circular fashion is the avoidance of waste. Circular fashion revolves around clothing that is designed, sourced, produced and provided in a format that encourages re-use, recycling, and recirculation. The creation of circular fashion involves the establishment of traceable supply chains, sustainable resource use, ethical treatment of workers and adding value to ‘end-of-life’ products.

In order to create increased circularity within the fashion industry, brands, retailers and customers must take conscious steps towards zero waste by both preventing textiles waste through effective resource management and sustainable design; and by reducing textiles waste by advocating increased utilisation from clothing and by establishing efficient recycling systems.

Sustainability has become a buzz word within the fashion industry, with many brands using the term to generate positive PR and attract environmentally minded consumers. A quick search on Instagram revealed that #sustainablefashion has been tagged in over 7 million posts! Interestingly though, research has shown that whilst many companies within the fashion industry have been quick to adopt a focus on sustainability into marketing campaigns, many still possess unethical and highly wasteful supply chains.

Problems with fast fashion:

The promotion of ‘fast fashion’ in recent decades has been a primary driver of non-circular and unsustainable fashion. Fast fashion is the idea that clothes are seasonal and throw-away products that need to be regularly changed and hinge upon low costs of production and rapid delivery times.

The demand and supply of novelty, seasonal fashion has resulted in a constant stream of clothes that are intended to be worn a handful of times and then discarded, ending up in landfill or incineration plants. The fashion industry has subsequently become exceptionally wasteful and throw-away. In fact, clothing production has doubled since 2000 to 100 billion tonnes annually, whilst simultaneously the average number of times a garment is worn has decreased by 36%[2]. In the UK £140 million of clothing is sent to landfill every year[3] and over half of clothing donated to charity shops or textile recyclers goes to landfill or incineration[2], meaning that only 1% of clothing is recycled in the UK.

The adoption of fast fashion within the industry has also led to extensive environmental damage as the exponential increase in demand has been met via resource mismanagement and human exploitation. Clothes are increasingly being produced using oil, as synthetic materials are far cheaper and easier to produce in vast quantities than natural materials. The amount of oil-based synthetic fibres used in production, such as polyester, has doubled since 2000[1] with it now used in 60% of apparel[1] and requiring 70 million barrels of oil annually. Additionally, synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon and spandex can take up to 200 years to biodegrade, in comparison to natural materials most of which biodegrade within a year, with some such as hemp and cotton decomposing in only a few weeks.

The fashion industry also has a significant carbon footprint. Textile production accounts for 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 of global emissions annually[2] – more than the emissions of shipping and aviation combined! The current growth rates of synthetic production are predicted to account for 26% of the global carbon budget by 2050[4].

Additionally, textile production requires a significant amount of water. For example, cotton requires a huge amount of land and water to grow – just 1kg of cotton clothing can require 20,000 litres of water in addition to vast quantities of pesticides to grow [5]. In fact, fabric production accounts for 20% of global water pollution.

Workers’ rights and ethical treatment of staff is also often abused by fast fashion. Many fashion brands’ supply chains are based on exploitation of people and resources. Workers are forced to manufacture clothing in inhumane conditions and receive shockingly low wages. In Bangladesh, most workers earn the equivalent of £25 a month, far below the living wage, leaving many unable to support their family with food, shelter, and education. There are currently approximately 74 million textiles workers, 70% of which are women of colour.


The fast-fashion company has recently come under fire after staff in Leicester exposed poor working conditions, underpayment for hours and a lack of proper protective equipment against Covid-19. The company’s shares fell by 12% following the accusations and many customers have turned away from the brand. This event has highlighted the issues of fast fashion and demonstrated that its cheap and disposable nature is incompatible with sustainability.

Opportunities for change:

Circular economies and sustainability within the fashion industry is becoming increasingly mainstream. Consumer habits appear to be changing, with customers moving away from fast-fashion and a constant changing wardrobe and instead curating their clothing collection with select items of higher quality, made with sustainably sourced natural materials.

Several top fashion houses are leading by example, by moving away from traditional seasons and showing more timeless pieces at fashion shows. Some have even reduced the number of shows and collections.

Stockholm cancelled its 2019 fashion week to explore more sustainable alternatives and this year as a result of COVID-19, London held a ‘Virtual Fashion Week’ in June. Although not without its technical issues, many designers said it allowed them to access the event when they previously were not able to due to costs and travel and it promoted innovation with limited equipment and products.

Key figures are also supporting sustainable practices and breaking away from a single-use culture. One highly visible British example is the Duchess of Cambridge, who is regularly photographed recycling outfits. Consumer culture around fashion is often driven by the actions of key influential figures and as such, more are needed to promote circular fashion for it to become fully integrated into mainstream consumer behaviour.

What can businesses do to adopt more circular practices?

Textile producers and retailers should create garments that are built to last, are easy to mend and can be easily recycled. A cultural shift is required, there is a need to sell the message of ‘buy less, use more’ and promote either purchasing investment pieces or recycling and recirculating of clothes.

The recycling of clothes is currently trending in the UK, with the thrifting culture of America and Europe influencing consumer choice, particularly of younger generations. Furthermore, many online platforms now provide easy and user-friendly second-hand buying and selling of clothes. For instance, ‘Depop’, a buying and selling platform, which was founded in 2011, now operates world-wide as a global marketplace for used clothes and accessories.

What are the systems that can be improved?

There are several key systems within textiles production and delivery that can be improved including:

  • Material production – the choice of materials and manufacturing methods in production, as well as an improvement of working conditions.
  • Transportation of goods – the fast-fashion model is focused on rapid movement of product, which is unsustainable and contributes to the industry’s large carbon footprint. Schemes such as next day delivery, whilst being useful are exceedingly harmful to the environment.
  • Purchasing model – alternative purchasing options can be more sustainable and reduce clothes waste. One option is lease-based or subscription systems, whereby clothes are rented for a prescribed length of time before being returned and replaced with other clothing. Alternatively, another option is clothes exchanges where used items are exchanged for other second-hand items.

Key Cornish case studies:

There has been a progressive movement towards sustainable and circular fashion in Cornwall over the last few years, with a focus placed on the use of locally sourced and produced fabrics and ethical, transparent supply chains. As such, there are several key apparel businesses that adopt circular fashion practices and actively promote sustainability.

Here are a few examples:

Phaedra clothing – ‘simple handmade clothing for everyday wear’. Phaedra uses all-natural fabrics, that are handmade into garments, dyed using natural ingredients and packaged using recyclable materials. The founder states that she works to be ‘as ethical and environmentally conscious as possible’ in her process.

Finisterre – a clothing brand that has placed sustainability at the centre of the business and was founded on three commitments: People, Environment and Product. The company targets zero waste and focuses on minimising impacts on the environment by using natural products that are responsibly sourced, biodegradable packaging and by supporting charitable projects. The business is also committed to creating a circular economy around their products, by offering mending services, using recycled materials, and launching a re-love platform.

Silly old sea dog – a handmade vintage-inspired clothing shop. All clothes are manufactured in their factory in Scotland, where workers are fairly treated and protected by EU laws. The business is even creating handmade face masks during Covid-19.

Action and supporting tools

Circular fashion is the only sustainable future for the fashion industry and as consumers adopt a more considered approach to buying clothes, businesses must provide evidence of fully ethical and traceable supply chains, using natural and organic biodegradable materials that have long lifespans and can be later mended or recycled.


To help businesses become more circular, both in their operations as well as across their product and service offering, we have created a circular assessment tool to determine the areas in which your business excel in circularity and where improvements can be made. This tool is available to businesses across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly: https://circle-lab.com/assessment/

Useful websites for further information on circular fashion:



  1. Cobbing M, Vicaire Y. Timeout for fast fashion. Greenpeace: Hamburg, Germany. 2016.
  2. MacArthur FE. A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion’s future. Recuperado de: https://www. ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/A-New-Textiles-Economy_Full-Report. pdf. Fecha de acceso. 2017;5.


  1. WRAP U. Valuing our clothes: the cost of UK fashion.