Throwaway Culture to Circular Economies: Sustainability, Fashion and the Future
Written by Mollie Knight
Within the sustainability sphere, the phrase ‘circular economy’ is becoming a bit of a buzzword. Here at One Wear Freedom (OWF), the UK’s first 100% sustainable clothing rental service, we’re all about circular! As it is so fundamental to our ethos, I want to talk about what a circular economy actually refers to and how we have implemented this, what benefits the model has for the environment and how you can do your bit at home.
As the name suggests, circular economies are models of production that emphasise the continuous and circular flow of materials. This could involve sharing, lending, repairing, reusing, recycling and renting (but more on that later!). There are three key concepts that underpin a circular economy. Firstly, the aim is to eliminate waste and pollution, rather than simply recycling the waste products, the circular nature of the model ensures waste is not created in the first place! Secondly, the model emphasises circulating products and materials, trying to make sure the individual elements last for as long as possible, so that when the product itself eventually breaks down, the components are used to make something new. Finally, a key element that a circular economy hinges on is the emphasis on regenerating nature. The whole concept of the circular economy is inspired by the natural world, where there is no waste and everything is food for something else. So, at every stage of a circular economy we should be considering in which ways we can give back the earth.
One such industry that is beginning to implement circular models is the clothing and textile industry. This could have massive benefits from a sustainability point of view; the fashion industry is one of the major contributors to climate breakdown. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, each year millions of tonnes of clothes are produced, worn, and thrown away. Also, every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill! This is not even considering the amount of water that goes into producing clothing or how microplastics are flooding the oceans due to the fibres used in clothing manufacture. Circular models can help eliminate these practices that have become part and parcel of the industry by ensuring companies are designing clothes that are used more, made to be repurposed and made from recycled elements. This specific form has also been termed ‘circular fashion’, which was coined by Anna Brismar in 2014 and is defined as:
“clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulated responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use.” (Anna Brismar, Green Strategy, 2017).
Put simply, clothing should be designed, made and worn ethically and intentionally.
This is exactly what we are doing over at OWF - every single process of the #freedomjourney is ethical and intentional. But before we get into that, we need to talk about the rental revolution. As mentioned earlier, renting is one ‘economy’ that continuously circulates materials. Therefore, it inherently reduces waste and prolongs use! In terms of fashion, renting clothes is the best alternative there is to fast-fashion, as it reduces the actual consumption of clothing, which, as shown, has devastating consequences for the environment. By renting your clothes, you don’t have to sacrifice your stylistic curiosity for your environmental conscience. When you go to rent a piece form OWF you can check for yourself the environmental cost you are avoiding, with the handy verified impact by Compare Ethics. For example, by renting the Sunshine + Rose Linen Jacket (which you can rent for only £34.99 for up to 16 days btw), you save 28.1km of driving emissions, 380g of waste from landfill and 5750.2 glasses of drinking water. That’s why we think renting is the future!
Though renting itself contributes to a circular economy, OWF has broken down each stage to ensure all three concepts of the circular economy are being met. If the garment being rented from OWF is brand new, it has been designed with a long-life in mind and is produced by traditional artisans from around the world using handmade and ethical practices. Other pieces may be pre-loved donations or vintage, so already part of this circular process. Then the rental process begins – the garment is sent to you, you strut your stuff and then you send it back. It is at this point where the item is cleaned sustainably and we make any necessary repairs, ensuring the garment has as long a life as possible. At the end of this cycle, if the garment is worn out, we recycle the fabrics or it gets up-cycled into a new design, thus starting the #freedomjourney all over again! We also have plans to expand our collection by collaborating with sustainable brands and collecting deadstock, stopping it from ending up in landfill. If that wasn’t enough, the security tags that come on the garments can be planted to turn into wildflowers to help save our lovely pollinators! Seriously, we have thought of everything!
So, as demonstrated so far, circular economies can have concrete and tangible benefits for the environment by reducing waste and prolonging product-life. But arguably the third element, the aim to regenerate nature, is what makes a circular economy so vital in the current climate crisis. In the urban landscape, we can be very detached from nature, even the nature we do have around us and have contact with is mostly human-made. By thinking and using things in a circular way, it helps make every stage of consumption intentional and bring nature back to the forefront, with the aim for society to start mirroring nature itself. I say back, because this is not a new idea. In the past we were much more in tune with the earth and connected to nature, for example, by growing our own food or making our own clothes. As things have become industrialised and products produced on a massive scale, we have lost this connection. That’s why circular economies are not just an economic model, but promote a long-term attitude change.
This is an attitude that was and still is fundamental to many indigenous belief systems. Colonisation and globalisation have erased many aspects of cultures across the world, which includes a denigration of this approach to nature, labelling indigenous practices as ‘backwards’ or ‘under-developed’. As Nelson Meha, Business Development Associate at Scion, said during an environmental summit in New Zealand, “the term circular economy may not come naturally to te ao Māori, but in terms of what that means and in practice – we do it”. So by promoting circular economies and the attitude that comes with it, we are actually borrowing from indigenous attitudes too. On that note, thinking about nature and considering the environment in every consumption choice not only creates a greater connection to nature, but also can promote unity and empathy across the planet, helping consider how low-income households or countries in the global south are far more likely to see and experience the devastating effects of climate breakdown. At OWF we promote this return to thinking about nature and cross-planet human connections through our plant a tree scheme, where one tree is planted with every purchase. Also when you go to check-out, for a few quid more you can offset the carbon of your purchase, which supports building Renewable Energy Wind Turbines to areas in Indonesia which displaces fossil fuel-based energy, diversifies the country’s energy balance, and alleviates poverty in the local community by providing equal-pay construction and operations jobs.
So, by this point you are (hopefully) convinced that circular economies are the future. Not only can they have real-world impacts on the environment, they also promote a much-needed attitude change toward how we can treat nature better and give back. But there are things you could be doing at home to create a circular life for some of the products you have purchased that aren’t already part of this model. We’ve all heard of reduce, re-use, recycle – but let’s get more creative with it! What could you make out of this thing you were about to throw away? There are loads of creatives out there on social media doing ingenious things to their waste – including using drink can tops to make a dress (@annamolinstinct on TikTok), weaving plastic bags into yarn to knit and crochet with (@diysustainability on TikTok) or creating giant sequins out of old fizzy drink cans (@jackieschmidttt on TikTok). If these projects are a bit outside of your skillset, simply learning to mend that pair of jeans with the hole in the crotch (I know they’re lurking in there at the back of your wardrobe) gives them so much more life! You could also start collecting and washing your plastic waste to turn eco-bricks , helping take the plastic out of the classic industrial and frankly environmentally toxic lifecycle it currently has. Or alternatively, you could donate some of your old clothes that you don’t wear anymore to OWF. By doing so you could get some groovy rewards, including up to 1000 Freedom Points and 20% off for 6 months! You also get to rent the item you donated for free forever, so you’ll never have donators-regret. There’s lots of creative things you could do and we would love to see what you come up with, so tag our socials with your creations!
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular economy introduction - overview. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Available at: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Fashion - overview. Fashion and a circular economy | Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Available at: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/fashion/overview
Scion, 2019. Indigenous World Views and the Circular Economy. Scion. Available at: https://www.scionresearch.com/about-us/about-scion/corporate-publications/scion-connections/past-issues-list/scion-connections-issue-32,-june-2019/indigenous-worldviews-and-the-circular-economy