UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

Fast Fashion’s Climate Crisis: Transforming Industries with a Circular Economy

By Jerome Williams, UNA-NCA Research Assistant

The fashion industry’s shift from the traditional two seasons of production — for either spring/summer or fall/winter — to nearly 50–100 microseasons per year has significantly reduced the cost of clothing since the year 2000. Fast fashion allows clothes to be produced rapidly in order to satisfy the trends of consumers while increasing affordability. Between 2000 and 2015, apparel sales have increased at a rate of 60%, alongside a 40% decline in the frequency of wearing clothes consumers have already purchased. Effects of this trend are expected to triple resource consumption for manufacturing by 2050.

Fashion Cycle Comparison | Source: World Resources Institute

Cotton and polyester make up around 90% of all clothing and require a large amount of resources to produce. Pesticides used for cotton production lead to chemical runoff in surrounding water wells, rivers, and lakes from water running off the crops towards streams and waterways . Cotton cultivation alone accounts for 16.5% of all pesticide consumption, leading to water pollution and eventual degradation in biodiversity in marine life.

Clothing is also responsible for 3–6.7% of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions; the average consumer throws 80% of their clothing in the trash without ever wearing 55% of what they own. When clothes are washed, garments made of synthetic materials shed hundreds of tonnes microfiber and plastic. This is in part because unbeknownst to many consumers, plastics are frequently integrated into clothing in order to enhance the durability and aesthetic of the garment, causing an unintended impact on the environment. Synthetic clothes can shed 700,000 fibres in a single load of laundry. In 2016, 65 million tonnes of plastic were produced for textile fibres. Around 20%-35% of all microplastics found in marine ecosystems are from synthetic clothing.

Rate of Clothing Sales 2000–2015 | Source: MacArthur Foundation

Defining a Circular Economy

Rapid increases in waste from textile manufacturing led to a newfound interest in the concept of circular economies. Originally introduced by Kenneth Boulding in 1966, the circular economy paradigm is based on the idea of placing value on all resources involved in making products and keeping the sources in circulation indefinitely. A circular economy focuses on 3 core activities: reuse at the product level, reuse at the component level, and reuse at the material level. A key factor in embracing this paradigm is an innovative design process. The circular design process consists of four human-centered stages. The first stage’s purpose, “Understand”, is to get to know the user and the system of the item. The next stage, “Define”, articulates the challenge the designer is attempting to accomplish. “Make” is the following stage where the designer creates a prototype of the product or idea. Lastly, the “Release” stage launches the item to the public. This design process is intended to be a continual process of refining and testing to make ideas more compatible with consumers and economic systems. Former professional sailor Ellen MacArthur launched The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010 to bring awareness to the benefits of a circular economy and encourage society’s transition to this system; the foundation’s mission is to work with a network of businesses, institutions, and governments to teach them how to implement the circular framework into innovation and policy.

The processes in this definition are not viewed as “instriscally green” to improve the environment. To rectify this, The MacArthur Foundation has included 3 main principles that directly incorporate the mitigation of environmental damage: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. Figure 3 illustrates this concept specifically tailored to the fashion industry.

New Circular Economy Model for Fashion Industry | Source: MacArthur Foundation

Companies such as Patagonia and Adidas have been more attentive to the effects of the 1.3 trillion (USD) fashion industry on the environment. Patagonia began its commitment to reduce waste in manufacturing when the brand produced a polyester jacket made from recycled plastic bottles in 1993. Since then, the brand has eliminated the need of 20,000 barrels of oil used as raw material for production by using recycled plastic in lieu of petroleum to create synthetic fabric. Adidas featured a hoodie in 2019 that was created out of regenerated cotton, designed by the textile innovation company Evrnu. Stacy Flynn, the CEO of Evrnu, launched her company after realizing how “impactful and damaging” the industry is to the environment. Evrnu is an example of how clothing production can, per the MacArthur Foundation’s principles, “keep products and materials in use.”

New Economic Opportunities for Women

Transitioning to a circular economy not only mitigates the harmful effects of industries on the environment, but also opens new economic opportunities across industrial sectors. According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the global economy could create nearly 3 million jobs and increase capital gains by 2 trillion (USD) by 2050 if circular economy practices are effectively implemented.

These jobs will also benefit women, especially in the least developed areas of the world. In Zimbabwe and Indonesia, initiatives for sustainable consumption improved community waste management, sanitation, and income for households when projects engaged women at the local level. Rede Asta, a business in Brazil, invests in female entrepreneurship that transforms discarded material into marketable gifts and new products. This business addresses the challenge of the circular economy by conducting targeted training sessions for female artisans on how to create new products out of waste and provides work spaces to engage in a market estimated to be worth BRL 5.8 billion (USD 1.1 billion).

In 2015, the EU Commission reported that gender equality is “often absent in the existing conceptualizations of the circular economy.” New circular economy jobs will create millions of jobs centered around the fashion industry with new roles that women can assume. According to the World Bank, around 80% of textile workers in the world are female. A shift in production schemes will yield new opportunities in innovative design, production, and recycling. However, womens’ underrepresentation in STEM concerns policy makers — the necessary technical skills in remanufacturing may not be inclusively taught to women. Women who work in textile production now are often young, poor, and uneducated. These women often live in male-dominated hierarchical societies where they have little autonomy or inclusion in education. Innovative sustainable solutions will require the knowledge and work of women in order to successfully transition to a circular economy. Surveys even indicate that women are more sustainable consumers than men and are more environmentally conscious. Inclusion of innovative solutions from women, such as Ellen MacArthur, will be necessary in the transition to this new paradigm.

The MacArthurFoundation’s ‘Make Fashion Circular’ initiative has influenced governments, NGOs, fashion brands, and innovators to change the linear industry system into a circular model. Women’s representation in the fashion industry reached 60% in 2019 and is expected to rise in coming years. Women have been proven to have better management approaches than men and are more inclined to implement sustainable practices. The inclusion of women in the circular economy will not only transform the fashion industry — it will transform the world.

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