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How fashion professionals are re-educating for a circular economy

Eighty percent of a product’s environmental impact is decided on the design table but most apparel professionals weren't trained to design with the end-user or end-of-life of the garment in mind.


For most apparel brands and retailers, "where do we start?" is an important question on their way to circularity. In 2017, the Global Fashion Agenda provided important pointers as to where the industry should go with the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment. For some, setting these goals was just the step they needed to kick-start their transition. For many others, however, the question of how to go from here — our current linear system — to there — a circular, zero waste textiles system — is still largely unanswered.

While the infrastructure to support such a system still needs investment, considering the technologies, solution providers and innovations already available — from automated sorting technologies that enable textile-to-textile recycling such as the Fibersort to third-party providers such as The Renewal Workshop or ThredUP — there is a trove of opportunities for the industry to get started with.

But the textiles system, like all other human-made systems, is made of and heavily relies on people — people who have been trained differently, who find it difficult to navigate the sea of options available to them and who might lack the skills and knowledge they need to even act on these opportunities.

So how can we best equip them to transform the industry from the inside out?

(Re)education is one promising avenue — and there is a lot to learn.

To transition to circular design, apparel professionals need to expand their horizons and to understand the use and end-of-use phases of a garment’s lifecycle.

A new school of (circular) design

Most apparel professionals today were trained to design and produce garments with the aesthetics and end-price point rather than the end-user or end-of-life of the garment in mind. This means that what happens to a T-shirt past the point-of-sale is often out of sight and out of mind for the product team who are informing what next season’s collection will look like.

But 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is decided on the design table, so the sketches we make, whether on paper, Clo3D or Illustrator, provide an incredible opportunity for positive impact throughout the chain.

To transition to circular design, apparel professionals need to expand their horizons and to understand the use and end-of-use phases of a garment’s lifecycle. Firstly, let’s consider the use phase; in other design fields, it is not unusual to follow a user-centered philosophy, where the focus is on creating a product that answers the needs and wants of the end-user. However, the user is a nebulous actor in the mind of many apparel designers, whose wishes are often assumed or deliberately steered. Therefore a first and fundamental change is to refocus attention on the user and the function that the garment in question plays for them. This would require us to ask what is the most logical and sustainable design for this garment, considering the function that it will serve for the consumer. Answering this question draws attention to current design-function mismatches, such as the pervasive use of long-lasting synthetic fiber in the production of trend-focused fast fashion items. We need designers to design for appropriate lifecycles, by selecting materials and constructions that serve a product’s use and function.

Secondly, we must address what happens when the consumer says goodbye to a garment. For instance, what is it that makes a garment recyclable? That which is considered embellishment in the eyes of a designer (sequins or metallic studs) is contamination to a recycler, and many blended materials currently cannot be processed. As recycling technologies advance and develop, so too are their input requirements. The industry therefore should keep abreast of developments and adjust their circular design guidelines in "real-time." We need designers to embrace the complexities of the end-of-use supply chain processes (collecting, sorting, cleaning, repairing, reusing, recycling) with the same fervor with which they have embraced the early supply chain processes (spinning, dyeing, weaving, printing, manufacturing).

Access over ownership and other circular business models

The promise of a circular design is enabled by the corresponding business model. Garments, when designed for durability, can reach their full potential through a business model that promotes care and facilitates repair. Garments designed for recyclability will be practically recycled only if there is a process to collect them from the consumer and to effectively re-introduce them back into the system. A parallel effort therefore must be made to rethink both the design of the products and the design of the underlying business model.

A circular economy urges us to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, with recycling seen as a last-resort solution. Indeed, the recycling process is energy- and resource-intensive, and often results in downcycling, with items and materials losing value as they go through the process. The apparel industry must prioritize strategies that extend the active life of a garment, such as renting and resale. But this is an entirely new ball game for many companies and requires that they shift their mindsets, but also their business models, completely.

Traditionally, the business model is centered around ownership instead of access. The clothes that are designed and produced are therefore only produced with one, or at least the first, owner in mind. Renting or buying second-hand garments means that the garment will have multiple owners in its lifetime. This has two effects. Firstly, the costing structure of the garment will change significantly, so that multiple owners will bear the cost of the garment where previously only one owner would. Secondly, clothes will need to be redesigned to accomodate the multiple owners using the garment — that is, design clothes that are more durable. The circular economy requires that we radically shift our understanding of business as usual, and in turn consumption as usual.

This is an entirely new ball game for many companies and requires that they shift their mindsets, but also their business models, completely.

(Re)training current and upcoming fashion professionals

However, a narrow focus on retraining current industry professionals will not suffice. The fashion education sector is continually growing, with more young people pursuing a career in fashion design, management and branding. In the United Kingdom alone, more than 30 colleges and universities offer fashion degree courses, with thousands of fashion design graduates each year. But many universities struggle to adapt to the latest developments in sustainability and are still training their students for the industry of the past. This creates a "chicken and the egg" scenario: While industry is adopting new circular skillsets and mindsets, the graduates who are unleashed each year may be equipped with the opposite — a "linear" skillset and mindset.

Some universities and institutes are leading the way by embedding circularity into the curriculum. The Amsterdam Fashion Institute, for example, collaborated with Circle Economy and Fashion For Good to design the world’s first master’s degree focused on circular fashion entrepreneurship in 2018, while universities such as UAL have dedicated an entire research faculty to designing for circularity and TU Delft has developed MOOCS deep diving into the topic. But just as the uptake of circularity across the fashion industry remains the competitive advantage of the top performing giants, so too does the uptake of circularity across the fashion education remain a privilege for a few specialized and frontrunning institutions, mostly situated in the global north. What is imperative for the global acceleration of this topic is the collaborative development and dissemination across industry and academia, but also across geographies and markets.

In order to achieve meaningful and sustained systems-change, both education and industry need to be trained for circularity in parallel. Doing so will allow for a common set of principles and processes to be developed, as well as a unified language. It is with this in mind that Circle Economy has developed its dual approach and trained over 200 current and upcoming fashion professionals in 2019. Training in parallel presents an exciting opportunity for industry to stipulate and steer what knowledge, skills and attitudes they are looking for in new talent. In return, education can provide industry with fresh ideas and pioneering research on real-life industry challenges.

Resources to support these upcoming and current professionals in getting started do exist and are openly available. These often make for a great starting point and allow disparate groups of employees to learn more about the topic, but to effect real change, all the right stakeholders in an organization need to be aligned, which often requires sitting them at the same table. Most important, though, is that (re)education within universities and brands need to happen in sync with one another so as to accelerate the change our system so desperately needs.

So what (re)education options are available, and when should brands and students choose them?

  • Online resources are great to plant the seed and get an idea of what the circular economy is. Examples include the European Parliamentary Resource Service, the Global Fashion Agenda’s Design for Longevity platform and various circular design guides, including those of NIKE, IDEO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
  • Online education is effective in raising awareness across large employee groups and equipping them with a similar baseline of knowledge. Examples include TU Delft’s Introduction to the Circular Economy MOOC, Wageningen University’s Circular Fashion Design MOOC and the Sustainable Fashion Academy’s paid online course.
  • In-person or remote, real-time training programs are particularly effective to get different departments around the same (virtual) table, deep dive into key circularity themes, get buy-in from key decision-makers and drive strategy development. Examples include Circle Economy’s On Course training program, focused on apparel brands, or ACDN and Circle Economy’s Circular Brands program.
  • Developing customized programs with a trusted partner is also a viable alternative when there is large alignment across teams and you have the resources to do so. Examples include The North Face’s collaboration with The Renewal Workshop, or ASOS’ collaboration with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

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