This article is co-authored with Pia-Maria Laux. A brief bio of the authors is at the end of the article.
Let us look at some facts:
- By 2050 we will need 70% more food, but today we waste 30%.
- The amount of electronic junk has risen by 8% in two years, but only 20% is being recycled.
- If we continue to operate as now then by 2100, the global population will be producing 3x as much waste as today. 11 million tonnes per day.
- 92 million tonnes of textile waste is estimated to be generated by today’s fashion industry on an annual base.
- 80% to 90% of the EU furniture waste in MSW is incinerated or sent to landfills, with ~10% recycled. EU28 consumption of €68 billion, and consumption of ~10.5 million tonnes of furniture per annum.
Each of the above statistics should alarm us. If we continue in this current way, we need to triple our resources until 2050, which is not sustainable by any means and in some sectors, not even feasible.
Our current economic system
The industrial revolution enabled mass production and mass consumption. Thanks to economies of scale, many goods became affordable to average people and the formation of the middle class build the backbone of striving economies. Years of gradual technological improvements powered by growing demand kept on fueling this system. The system has also served well — people are moving out of poverty like never in the history of humankind. Today, about 10% of the world population lives in extreme poverty, while in 1990 the corresponding figure was about 37%. Two centuries ago almost everyone in the world lived in extreme poverty.
However, the major disadvantage of this economic system is that it follows the linear “take, make and dispose” approach. In order for economies and societies to strive we need to create and consume at an increasing pace. This has put a lot of strain on our planet and an increase in demand for raw materials. Humans today extract and use around 50% more natural resources than only 30 years ago, at about 60 billion tonnes of raw materials a year. This is equivalent to the weight of around 41,000 Empire State Buildings. Given current trends of growth, our extraction of natural resources could increase to 100 billion tonnes by 2030. So this system is in need of change to sustain rapid growth in the global middle class without being overwhelmed by negative environmental and social impacts.
We cannot expect from people to stop consuming, esp. billions of people who, for generations, have been living in poverty, and for the first time are experiencing some wealth and prosperity.
On the other hand, we cannot expect people to stop consuming, esp. billions of people who, for generations, have been living in poverty, and for the first time are experiencing some wealth and prosperity. How can we ask someone, who grew up in poverty and recently acquired wealth, to stop using amenities like washing machine, or a dishwasher, because water is precious? It is expected that over time with an increase in education level and experiencing wealth for a longer period, people will start being more aware and consume less, like in many western societies. But that will take a couple of generations and unfortunately, we do not have that time. To fix such a system in the short term, we have to build an alternative economic model.
Circular Economic Model
The model of a circular economy presents an alternative to this linear system of accelerating waste production. It aims to conserve natural resources by substituting products with services and designing things to be used again and again before the materials are recovered. Finally, materials are recovered and recycled back into new resources, reflecting the cycling of elements in natural systems, in which the “waste from one process is the food for another” . Designing out waste seems to be the only way for mankind to maintain living standards in the long run.
The advantages of such an approach are substantial. For example, research has shown that a circular economy in Europe can create a net benefit of EUR 1.8 trillion by 2030 while addressing mounting resource-related challenges, creating jobs, spurring innovation, and generating substantial environmental benefits. The circular economy can change almost all consumer sectors, like electronics, fashion, furniture.
In this article, we explore further the circular economy for the clothing industry.
Circular Economy for the Fashion Industry
A circular economy is based on three principles:
Waste and pollution are designed out. Today’s products become the resources of tomorrow and the negative impacts on natural systems are eliminated. This can be achieved by selecting natural resources wisely and choosing, wherever possible, technologies and processes that use renewable or better-performing resources.
Products and materials are kept in use. This includes activities that increase product and reuse. Examples include designing for durability, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling.
Natural systems are regenerated. Regeneration is the process of regenerating and should be more than simply recycling or upcycling resources. For this, materials need to be chosen wisely so as to regenerate them sustainably. In addition, one needs to think about how these economies are contributing to ecological and social regeneration at the local, regional and global scale .
A case study
Sharealook is a startup based out of Zurich. It is perusing the vision of a connected circular fashion world.
They start with what we as consumers have, a closet full of clothing of which we do not or rarely wear at least 40% . As a user, you can create your individual profile and upload pictures of items or complete outfits that you would like to rent out to another user. The platform then matches you with other users in the surrounding who are looking for renting a similar outfit and have the same body features and style preferences. The match then can see how the outfit looks on her avatar and rent your outfit if she likes it.
This way Sharealook will increase the usage of garments and the lifespan. This is aspirational, as studies have shown that an increase of the active use of clothing by only 9 months can reduce the carbon, water, and waste footprint by 20 to 30% each .
Besides, as a side effect, users will start purchasing higher quality garments that are meant to last. The garment becomes an item of value that should last as long as possible instead of being a single-use product. The platform also creates the ecosystem for laundry, delivery or insurance. The smart, learning system offers the most convenient solution according to one’s profile and situational needs. In the long run, such a platform offers endless opportunities for remanufacturing and recycling opportunities. Imagine instead of buying a pullover that was produced under questionable circumstances for 20€, you buy a sustainable pullover from a local Designer for 200€. You wear it once or twice and then you start renting it out to the community for 20€ per 4 days. If you do this 10 times, you financed your high-quality pullover and improved your environmental footprint. But it does not end here. When the pullover ends its first life, the platform will connect to a designer whom you can sell your pullover to serve as a raw material base for a new upcycled product.
How AI can help the Circular economy?
“New sources of data, new technologies, and new analytical approaches, if applied responsively, can enable more agile, efficient and evidence-based decision-making and can better measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a way that is both inclusive and fair” .
AI can provide analytical approaches that can enhance and enable circular economy innovation across industries in three main ways :
1. Design circular products, components, and materials. ‘AI can enhance and accelerate the development of new products, components, and materials fit for a circular economy through iterative machine-learning-assisted design processes that allow for rapid prototyping and testing’ . For example, in the clothing sector, AI can be used to create user-centered clothes design. The goal is to optimize the clothes around how users can, want, or need to use them, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the new designs.
2. Operate circular business models. ‘By combining real-time and historical data from products and users, AI can help increase product circulation and asset utilization through pricing and demand prediction, predictive maintenance, and smart inventory management’ . For example, with AI the right customer segment — like women who do outdoor sports — can be identified and highly tailored sportswear, custom made, can be delivered to suit their needs.
3. Optimize circular infrastructure. AI can help improve the processes to sort and disassemble products, remanufactured components, and recycle materials. For example, AI can help to identify the knowledge and skills in sourcing the right material and the right suppliers of ecological products. Ultimately, AI could be applied to the complex task of redesigning whole networks and systems, such as rewiring supply chains reverse logistics infrastructure, in any sector.
Future of the Circular Economy: A Collaborative Model
‘Consumers are far more sensitive to environmental, social, and ethical concerns than those of previous decades. A third of Millennials strongly agree that they are more likely to buy from companies that are mindful of their social responsibilities, while just a quarter of those older than 51 say so. With education, information, and incentives, consumers can gradually change their habits. The key is to set up an ecosystem that encourages all parts of the industry to collaborate on the major issues. But today’s scattered, fragmented array of initiatives, memberships, certifications and so on can be confusing to brands, suppliers, innovators, and donors. Consolidation is inevitable to focus time, energy and money’ .
Circular economy companies like Sharealook have to utilize the power of the community to build a sustainable and circular economy platform by enabling the collaboration of multiple stakeholders along the value chain. The ambitions go beyond the peer-to-peer transaction, which simply represents the starting point of the brand’s initiatives. Besides end consumers, the circular economy platform has to involve various stakeholders to join and offer their individual skills and services. In the long run, manufacturers will have to be invited to join the platform in order to re-acquire the products/raw materials from the users to recycle them. Moving away from the old linear model also means moving away from a competitive and exclusive mindset to the certainty that in a circular and interconnected economy there is not only space but even the need for everyone’s contribution.
Moving away from the old linear model also means moving away from a competitive and exclusive mindset to the certainty that in a circular and interconnected economy there is not only space but even the need for everyone’s contribution.
To truly implement the circular economy, one has to create a full circle where people from all parts of the economy can collaborate. Such a collaborative model will have decentralized networks and marketplaces to unlock the value of underused assets, as well as the consumption, like renting, lending and swapping.
About the Authors:
Rudradeb Mitra is an AI expert, speaker, author, and mentor. His current interest is creating collaborative AI learning environments and building products with Social Value.
Pia-Maria Laux is an entrepreneur, fashion industry expert, and circular economy enthusiast. She focuses on technology-driven solutions for a fairer and more sustainable fashion economy.