Fashion Sustainability: Achieving Circularity in Clothing Consumption

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Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian economist, and sociologist, first coined the term conspicuous consumption” back in 1899. He used the term to describe the nouveau riche, a class of people eager to display their wealth and social power that emerged during the nineteenth century. The nouveau riche spent lavishly on visible goods such as jewelry and clothing to show their prosperity and to differentiate themselves from the masses. It was not until the end of the Second World War, however, that the era of hyper-consumption had got into full swing, leading to the current, highly unsustainable situation.

The Linear Economy

The resulting linear economic model (Take, Make, Dispose”) that drives the fashion industry has reached its limit. Unsustainable levels at which we consume and throw away fashion items cause major environmental problems such as resource depletion and waste. Every year in the European Union alone, more than four million tones of textiles are incinerated or sent to landfills. The key problem with burying clothing in landfills is the slow rate at which it breaks down: for instance, a polyester garment can take between 20-200 years to decompose. Moreover, these decomposing garments release harmful toxins and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Fast consumption and irresponsible landfilling are the major reasons why the fashion industry is one of the most polluting. The challenge is turning unwanted and underused clothing from burden into opportunity.

The staggering amount of waste generated by the disposable fashion model has become a major problem over the years. Newer business models utilize systems thinking and aim to move away from a linear system and towards a closed loop scenario. In such solutions, the need for raw materials is minimized, and the emphasis shifts from production to reducing, reusing and recycling.

Extending the use-phase of garments, and diverting them from landfills as a result, is the single most effective strategy in reducing the overall environmental impact of the clothing industry. As an example, extending the average lifetime of an item of clothing by one-third can reduce its environmental footprint by more than 20%. Adopting circular business models is the key to diverting garments away from landfill, and thus decarbonizing the fashion industry by means of extended the product life. One way of achieving this is resale of used clothing. In a large-scale initiative of this kind, millions of garments that once would have been thrown into trash are now delivered to developing nations, where they are resold and given a second life. Unfortunately, the extremely poor quality and unmanageable quantity of the clothing thus shipped often render this solution unworkable.

Beyond Purchasing

Another approach to promoting circularity is moving away from the traditional ownership-based model and product selling and focusing instead on access-based consumption services such as clothing rental, swapping, or libraries. This approach is known as Collaborative Consumption (CC), also referred to as Access-Based Consumption (ABC); it facilitates the use of products collaboratively among many users without the need to buy them. This approach is by no means unique to the fashion industry. Across sectors, on-demand services are already replacing the traditional ownership model. Some popular examples of CC application are Netflix, Airbnb, Spotify and Zopa. In the fashion industry, examples of successful collaborative consumption initiatives include clothes rental (HurrRent the Runway), clothes swapping (NuWardrobe), clothing libraries (Lena-library), and resale (DepopVestiaire Collective).   

Ownership over Consumption

An increasing number of people from different backgrounds and age groups are adopting the “usage mind-set” whereby they pay for deriving benefit from a product without the need to own it outright. CC enables temporary use of multiple products owned by a company (for example, car rental, launderettes), or peer-to-peer sharing or renting of privately owned products. CC services can also be designed specifically to extend the life of products (repair services offered by Denim Therapy, for example). The obvious environmental advantage of this system is that individual ownership of products, which typically limits their use, is replaced with a shared service that maximizes the products’ utility. 

There are two distinct ways to participate in collaborative consumption. One can play the role of peer provider” by providing assets to rent, share, or borrow. Alternatively, one can play the role of peer user” who consumes the available products and services. Some participants may choose to do both, while others may feel more comfortable at one end of the spectrum. Different types of CC solutions are likewise subject to individual preferences. Some may prefer swapping clothes, whereby the ownership is simply transferred by the act of exchanging items. Others may prefer renting, where the quality and hygiene of products is guaranteed by rental companies.

Collaborative and Access Based Consumption

Consumers play a key role in the Collaborative Consumption/Access-Based Consumption models, since without their acceptance these models cannot succeed. Collaborative consumers can be motivated by different factors; some are forward thinking and socially minded optimists, while others are driven by practical considerations to find a new and better way of doing things. The practical considerations may be saving money or time, accessing better quality services, environmental considerations, or forming close relationships with people rather than brands.

On the other hand, shared consumption challenges our established notions of ownership as it relates to clothing. Clothing is an extremely intimate and emotional item that directly touches the body and can express individuality or belonging, which makes it harder to move towards shared clothing consumption. Key barriers to the adoption of shared consumption from the consumer point of view are the questions around product longevity, care and hygiene.

Much of the debate surrounding access-based consumption (ABC) centers around the type of garments which can be traded, for example everyday clothes vs occasion-wear. The pricing points are another consideration for the ABC business model; specifically, consumers are more likely to engage in ABC for items they cannot afford to buy outright.

Service-system thinking is claimed to benefit the environment by reducing the need for tangible goods, which makes it a sound proposition for the fashion industry. However, there is an ongoing debate on whether various CC models indeed provide the purported environmental benefits we so desperately need. Critics raise concerns about the carbon footprint of products transit, and the consequences of easy access – namely, whether CC encourages excessive consumption and self-indulgence.

Collaborative brands likewise face scrutiny. A study published by the Finnish scientific journal Environmental Research Letters assessed the environmental impact of five different ways of clothing ownership and disposal including renting, resale, share and recycling (Levänen et al, 2021). The study found that share systems, such as rental, has the highest global warming potential (GWP) and highlight that innovation comes with a high rebound risk. Moreover, The study found that many rental brands misused the term circular economy” – the system where clothes are passed from person to person before being recycled – as a form of greenwashing.

What’s next?

The promise of a circular economy is a complete re-imagining of a world, where creativity and destruction no longer go hand in hand. However, such alternative fashion consumption patterns cannot be successful without customer and industry acceptance reaching critical mass. Issues such as hygiene, lack of true ownership, trust, and spatial disparities can all form potential barriers to consumer implementation. There is several fundamental questions to consider. What role does CC have in our clothing consumption? Should we think of CC as the way of replacing traditional consumption, or merely complementary – something we do occasionally, when the need arises? This paper is an invitation to collaboratively re-imagine the way we consume fashion.  After all, clothing is a common element in everyone’s lives.

Further Reading

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPPI and/or its partners.

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