The Fashion Industry Takes Steps Toward Circularity
Written by Mahon Walsh, B.S. ’22 CRB Student Advisory Board member
Fashion’s negative impacts are well known. The apparel industry emits about 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon per year, or 10% of the global carbon footprint. In addition, the sector uses 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, and sheds 500,000 tons of microplastics into watersheds. Much of this degradation can be attributed to the increasing disposability of fashion. Clothing utilization rates, the number of times a garment is worn before it is disposed, have decreased by 36% since 2002. In the United States this waste is especially acute, with utilization rates are a quarter of the global average. During this time, global clothing sales have doubled to over 100 billion units annually. The fashion industry has played a major role in this shift, emphasizing seasonal trends over durability. However, some industry leaders are moving towards more circular business models. With over $500 billion of value lost annually due to unnecessary clothing disposal, there are many ways to promote both profitability and sustainability.
The most effective circularity programs begin with design. Leading brands have extended clothing lifetimes by offering simple styles, emphasizing material durability, and even building customer bonds with custom adjustments. Patagonia has encouraged clothing repair, along with a strong warranty program. These initiatives both improve sustainability and encourage brand loyalty. In addition, designing and maintaining durable clothing allows for secondary benefits in the resale market.
As any thrifter knows, clothing resale is not a new concept. Still, it is just beginning to gain the attention of apparel brands, both for its financial and environmental benefits. Online marketplaces like ThredUp, TheRealReal, Depop, Poshmark and more have grown rapidly, with up to 39% compound annual growth rates. In this system, clothing owners sell directly to other consumers, receiving a portion of the sale. Conventional retail philosophy could view secondhand clothing as a threat to new sales. However, upscale brands like Stella McCartney, Burberry, and Nanushka have encouraged resale of their items, offering brand credit for every item posted. They see resale as an opportunity to emphasize the quality of their products and reach customers at lower price points while reducing their environmental impact. The sustainability benefits of this approach are significant. For each item bought secondhand, about 7.9 kg of carbon, 122.5 MJ of energy, and 292.9 cubic meters of water are saved. Extrapolating to all of ThredUp sales, over 80,000 metric tons of carbon are avoided. This approach to clothing reuse is more easily implemented than internal resale programs, outsourcing cleaning and logistical challenges.
Some brands are going further, implementing their own internal buyback programs. In these programs, clothing owners sell their clothes back to the brand that manufactured them, receiving credits or coupons towards future purchases. The brand then resells or recycles the products, gaining a new revenue stream without much cost. Eileen Fisher Renew was a pioneer of this approach, having resold over 1.4 million articles of clothing since 2010. Recently, high profile brands like Levi’s have implemented similar programs. Levi’s Secondhand program serves dual purposes, adding new revenue while marketing the durability of their products. Recently, Patagonia made waves by selling their Worn Wear secondhand goods directly alongside their new goods online. For companies producing truly durable and timeless goods, resale programs allow the same product to be sold an indefinite amount of times.
Still, these programs are not without concerns. By offering store credit for every trade-in, brands still encourage new clothing consumption. Outdoor brand Arc’Teryx attempts to combat this issue in their program, encouraging customers to use store credit on other used goods. In addition, many critics argue that increased interest in used clothing is gentrifying thrift. In the past, high-quality reused goods were made accessible to underprivileged communities at thrift stores like the Salvation Army. The stigma associated with worn goods kept them affordable. Now, the best quality goods at these stores are often purchased and resold at a higher price by more wealthy thrifters. To implement truly sustainable systems, companies should remember underprivileged consumers and show restraint in pricing used goods.
Finally, rental systems offer a promising solution to the inevitably dynamic nature of fashion. Customers will still grow tired of certain styles or outgrow old clothes. In these cases, rentals can offer the change intrinsic to fashion without the waste of disposal. Short-term rentals have already gained prominence in the United States. For example, Rent The Runway offers short-term rentals for weddings, proms, galas, theme parties and more. Soon, however, rentals may expand beyond these one-off events. Corporate clothing is one of the most wasted segments of the industry, with over 90% sent to landfills or incineration. This clothing, like construction workwear, hospital PPE and more, can be supplied through long-term rentals. In this model, the supplier could also offer laundry, recycling and other logistics, reducing waste.
Another promising rental option is a subscription model. In this case, customers pay a monthly fee to retain a fixed number of rented clothes, exchanging them for new styles anytime. This allows customers to follow trends and experiment without cluttering their closet and wasting functional clothes. This model has become highly successful in China, with YCloset experiencing rapid growth. Rent The Runway is deploying this model in the United States, offering accessibility to upscale clothing without the permanence of ownership.
Similarly to resale platforms, subscription services also have downsides. With the constant exchange of garments, shipping emissions could outweigh the savings from reuse. Careful life cycle analysis should be conducted to minimize emissions. Some subscription platforms have even turned away from the model. The subscription service For Days (which offered simple garments that could be returned and upcycled) found that this model encouraged frequent returns and decreased clothing lifespan. They have since moved to a more traditional model, selling garments while encouraging returns.
A combination of these models will be necessary to reduce the environmental strain of textile manufacturing. While a rental subscription model may fit a user hoping to stay trendy (and sustainable) on a budget, it may not fit a user looking to find the perfect jacket for the next ten years. Where a resale model could excel selling vintage Gucci, it would likely struggle selling socks. In any case, a focus on reuse will need to be paired with improved design, manufacturing, and recycling. Still, recent efforts to lengthen the use of apparel are a step in a more sustainable direction.
About the Author
Mahon Walsh – UGBA ‘22, CRB Student Advisory Board Member
Mahon Walsh, a CRB Student Advisory Board member, is a Junior at UC Berkeley majoring in Environmental Engineering Science. He has experience in sustainability and energy consulting, and hopes to implement a variety of sustainable supply chains in the future.
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