Imagine if every piece of clothing you own could be recycled into fully new garments when they were worn out, or when you grew bored of them. This concept, called circularity, has become the buzzword du jour in fashion circles. But it’s usually an abbreviated definition of circularity that think tanks and policy papers endorse. A more comprehensive “circularity” would look at the amount of clothing produced and the full life-cycle costs of a garment, from eliminating the industry’s reliance on petroleum-based plastics and coal-powered plants to the toxic dyes, sweatshop assemblies, and massive shipping footprint required to make our clothing.
Instead, the circularity conversation in the fashion industry tends to focus primarily on reducing waste and, more specifically, recycling clothing. Take a look at the Global Fashion Agenda and their call to action for a circular fashion system: “By acting now,” says the agenda, “the fashion industry can lead the transition to a circular system that reuses and recirculates products and materials while offering new opportunities for innovative design, increased customer engagement, and for capturing economic value.”
The global fashion industry’s circularity focus is on reusing and recirculating clothing, not a retooling of the industry. And while recycling is important, it misses the mark when it comes to meaningfully reducing emissions. A study by Quantis found that even if the fashion industry reached the ambitious target of recycling 40% of fibers by 2030, it would reduce emissions by only 3% to 6%. At best, that’s a reduction rate of a paltry half of 1% per year. To seriously address climate change and the industry’s environmental impact more broadly, it must do better.
The narrower definition of circularity preferred by some parts of industry, one that focuses primarily on recycling clothes, won’t cut it. It’s insufficient. It fails to focus on the hyper production of clothing and the fossilized energy used to make or recycle the clothing (which is predominantly coal), and it fails to focus on the fossilized energy inside the clothing, which is predominantly plastic.
A genuinely circular agenda would focus on slowing down the cycle of fashion production and consumption and getting these fossil fuels out of every aspect of our clothing. That’s the only way we’ll be able to address fashion’s sizeable carbon footprint, which is 8.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions and about the same footprint as the European Union. And we need to act fast, because at current growth projections, the carbon impact of the apparel industry is expected to increase 49% by 2030 (a total footprint that would equal, in tonnage, America’s current annual greenhouse gas emissions).
Rather than primarily promoting the vision of infinitely recycled goods, a circular industry would first tackle the issue of cheap disposable clothing and its reliance on coal-fired power plants to create and dye the yarn and fabric in our clothes. This part of the apparel supply chain accounts for a full 76% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a garment. Our clothes are made by coal power in developing countries. If we want to get beyond coal, we’ve got to get beyond coal-powered clothes. With Americans purchasing more clothing than ever before, our coal-based carbon footprint is growing rapidly. The average American purchases a staggering 65 new garments a year, contributing to the 150 billion new pieces of clothing manufactured globally every year. Worse, Americans aren’t keeping their coal-made clothes: They’re throwing away 80 pounds of clothing per person per year, a 100% increase from 20 years ago.
This is where the industry’s current circularity response to this excessive consumption misses the mark. They give the impression, by focusing on reuse, that it’s all about reducing the aforementioned waste. But it’s not. It fails to challenge the disposable, coal-powered status quo, which is a huge waste of nonrenewable fossil fuels. And it ignores the massive environmental impact of that which is being recycled: microplastics.
The majority of clothing today is synthetic, made of petroleum-based plastic fibers such as polyester, nylon, and spandex. And some parts of the fashion industry, under the guise of circularity, are busy promoting fossil-fuel-based synthetics as a replacement for conventional cotton. This means that more fossil fuels will be needed to make the plastic clothing and it means that more pollution will be created when it’s recycled. When those recycled plastic clothes are washed, they shed small plastic fibers into our rivers and oceans because they’re too small to be caught by wastewater treatment plant filtration systems.
Microfibers, consequently, represent up to 85% of the plastic pollution found on shorelines around the world. And at current pace, by 2050 we’ll have more plastic than fish in the ocean. Fish eat these plastic bits and then we eat the fish. In fact, 73% of the deep-sea fish caught in the Northwest Atlantic had microplastics in their stomachs. And when the fish have microplastics in their stomachs, you’re ingesting them when you eat fish.
Ironically, the circularity approach by the industry–specifically, the focus on recycling more plastic clothes–is what will keep plastic circling in the ocean gyres. It’s antithetical to sustainable fashion.
If the apparel industry wants to be fashionably green, the answer won’t be solely in circular solutions that prioritize recycled plastics. Only when the industry fully assesses the full life-cycle costs of a garment can we have a serious conversation about sustainability. That means removing fossil fuels from the entire process, from the coal-fired powering up of the machinery in the developing world to the recycling of plastic inventory in the developed world. Only then can the industry truly claim circularity.
This story reflects the views of the authors, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.
Michael Shank is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and teaches sustainable development at NYU. Maxine Bédat cofounded the sustainable apparel company Zady and is a leader in sustainability within the industry.