Fashion's Circular Future

By Kevin Boon


REAL attended the Vogue Business webinar Fashion’s Circular Future: From Concept to Reality which was part of the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda week 2021 on 27 January. The panelists were

Marie-Claire Daveu – Chief Sustainability Officer, Kering

Ken Webster – Director, International Society for Circular Economy and founder of Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Rubana Huq – President, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association

The challenge

A circular system is one which eliminates waste and retains resources for subsequent use. In fashion this means reusing and recycling more materials, using different materials, tackling hidden problems such as chemical pollution and driving systemic changes such as relocating some manufacturing to where clothes are used and discarded. Consumer behaviour changes will also be required.

At Kering, circularity and sustainability have been a key focus for several years. However, circularity is only one of the solutions. There is also a need to think about the impact materials have and the social impacts in manufacturing.

The fashion industry is currently fully embedded in a linear system. Ken argues for the need to look at the system conditions promoting this. This includes artificially cheap fossil fuels and cheap labour which facilitates cheap clothing costs. The efforts towards circularity are being undermined by a distorted market.

Rubana argues that circularity cannot just be a concept. It has to be a process which will involve every stakeholder. But there is no alternative to circularity; we are currently consuming the resources of the earth 1.7 times higher than its capacity. Somehow we need to ensure that sustainability and circularity do not detract from sustainable livelihoods. In Bangladesh alone there are around 4.1 million garment workers. We therefore have to move to value-added chains and value-added products so that workers still have jobs despite producing less. There are measures that can be taken at the manufacture end. Around 400,000 tonnes of post-production textile waste is generated annually but there is no focus on recycling this waste.

Looking forward

Marie-Claire believes the future of fashion should be regenerative by design such that raw materials can be used again and again in a circular system. In 2019, Kering began measuring the circularity of their materials drawing on the methodology developed by the Ellen McArthur Foundation. Currently 39% of the materials used by the Kering group which have the potential to be used in a circular process are already being used that way.

To achieve a circular economy, there is a need to be design-led, to have radical thinking about what things are made of and to make sure there is sufficient value to compete with the raw materials in its original output. Also important is a change in mindset and collaboration between different sectors of the fashion industry.

Rubana noted that there are inherent contradictions. For example, the young generation is all about looking after the earth and responsible consumption but financial institutions do not incentivise the necessary circular models. Western consumer values are very different to those in the east. There is a need to come together and raise global awareness about how the more disadvantaged economies depend so much on consumption in the west. Sourcing practices and circular practices need to align. Policy advocacy has to continue with relevant stakeholders such as Global Fashion Agenda.

Circularity will not solve over-consumption. According to Ken, the key is in the business model. The “clothing as a service” model where control of the asset is retained can provide revenue by selling less. Things can change – people don’t buy films to watch anymore.

Priorities for 2021

Looking to the year ahead, Marie-Claire suggests there needs to be a move away from reliance on new natural resources and support for the circular economy. Sustainable supply chains, both in terms of environmental and social issues, are also important. This includes a move to sustainable agriculture. Rubana noted how COVID has generally increased people’s empathy and asked for this consideration to recognise the issues affecting garment workers in Asia. She urges people to #GoHumanGoGreen. Ken called for a readjustment of the tax base; it currently focuses on people more than fossil fuels or waste.