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  • Romain Poulles

Fashion at the risk of the circular economy

Often abstract, the circular economy may seem, in everyone's mind, like a set of general concepts: lengthening of material flows, eco-design, value loops... All these notions may indeed seem very far from everyday reality and our consumption habits. This is not the case, of course. And the principles of the circular economy are anything but abstract. On the contrary, they are rooted in the world we live in. Just look at the world of fashion!

Fashion, an environmental ogre

At first glance, fashion is the main element against which the circular economy is set up: programmed obsolescence. Fashion is by definition what goes out of fashion and when I buy a smart suit in 2021, I know it won't be so smart in two years and almost obsolete in five!

But above all, the textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. The current system of production, distribution and use is almost entirely linear with negative impacts - environmental and social - at every stage of the value chain.

Between 7,000 and 11,000 litres of water are needed to make a pair of jeans and the water impact of all clothing consumed in the EU amounts to 46,400 million m3.

On the other hand, the textile sector is highly dependent on fossil fuels, since synthetic fibres (polyester, polyamide, etc.) are derived from oil. Polyester currently accounts for 60% of the fibres currently used and its use is expected to double by 2030. The textile industry also generates various types of pollution during the production of fibres (use of pesticides and fertilisers for cotton, which represents 26% of the fibres used), during production (dyeing water loaded with toxic products) and during use (plastic microfibres).

And that's not all! The production and transport of textiles generates 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, more than all international flights and shipping combined.

Finally, the value chain for producing a garment is long because each stage can take place in a different country: a pair of jeans can travel up to 1.5 times around the world, from the cotton field to the shop! As for the use phase, it seems that it has the greatest carbon impact (washing and drying in a machine) while production is responsible for about a quarter of CO2 emissions.

In short, the picture of the clothing industry, aggravated in recent years by fast fashion, is not very encouraging. But the idea is not to blame the culprits and force everyone to walk around naked! On the contrary, the circular economy is there to propose solutions. They do exist.

No recycling solutions

Contrary to popular belief, recycling textiles remains complex. Indeed, a garment is a hybrid product, constructed from different materials (natural, artificial, synthetic), metal accessories, and undergoes treatments (dyeing, finishing). This complexity does not facilitate recycling either during production or at the end of its life: as proof, today 80% of textiles used in the European Union are not recycled. And, even if in so-called "open" recycling (which uses the materials to create another object), clothing, especially polyester, is easier to transform, a strong investment is needed to develop recycling technologies so that recycled materials become as profitable as virgin materials. Existing solutions therefore do not compensate for the environmental damage caused by the textile industry.


If the concept of recycling does not work, then it is upstream that we must turn: from the production stage of clothing, manufacturers can promote circular design models and the sourcing of more sustainable materials.

For example, the choice of fabrics is crucial: as cotton is the second most used material after polyester, it is better to use organic cotton and natural fibres that are less loaded with chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

The cutting stage of the clothes can also be greatly improved. Currently, it generates between 20 and 30% of waste. It is therefore up to designers to rethink the production process in order to optimise the use of fabrics. The ultimate goal is to create zero waste patterns!

Downstream, to extend the life of clothes. When talking about fashion, we also have to take into account the fact that consumers quickly tire of their clothes. For example, the average lifespan of a garment worn in a European Union country is 3.3 years. This means that dozens of unworn clothes in very good condition lie dormant in our wardrobes! To encourage their reuse, new clothing sharing and rental services have already emerged.

A virtuous chain

To encourage these changes, all the actors in the production-distribution-consumption chain have a role to play. This collaboration is one of the keys to successfully transforming the textile industry towards a new model.

The transition to circular fashion will not happen without the brands. For them, taking on the subject of environmental impact is now a key issue. So much the better, as they have the capacity to commit to limiting the environmental impact of their activities and have real power of prescription with consumers: thanks to the image they convey, recycled and second-hand clothing can become trendy! Some brands are also starting to offer repair services to encourage customers to keep their clothes longer.

This approach is also supported by increased regulation in Europe to further regulate the sector and encourage textile companies to develop eco-design, collection and recycling channels for their products.

Models for renting clothes are becoming more and more common, as are sharing platforms. Their aim (other than financial) is to increase the intensity of use of each item of clothing and to guarantee its return to the industrial chain in preparation for recycling.

Finally, nothing is possible with . action of consumers at the end of the value chain. It is up to them to adopt the new economic models of renting and sharing, and a more responsible consumption of clothing. They can thus turn to more ethical brands to make their purchases and demand more transparency regarding the design of the pieces.

In short, solutions exist to enable the fashion industry to meet the environmental challenge without denying what makes it special and what we like: its creativ ity!

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