Our economy is built on a linear economic model – one fuelled by the consumption of goods made, used and discarded, only to be replaced by newer, better goods. No industry is based more on this fast-consumptive model than fashion, with its ever-changing styles and new trends. The linear production model that it is based on requires constant consumption.
However, dwindling resources, and rising material and production costs have led to the development of new regenerative manufacturing models, where products and components can be reused instead of discarded. The circular economy, as it is called, is an alternative to the linear system, and is one where resources are kept in a production loop for as long as possible, extracting maximum value from materials, then recovering and regenerating them, with waste forming the raw materials for new products.
The Earth’s resources are limited, and there is a growing understanding that we need to move beyond the “take, make and dispose” model that much business is built on and move towards one where materials are treated as a non-renewable resource, instead of discarded.
A circular paradigm
Circular economy models are based on several major schools of thought, probably the best known of which is cradle-to-cradle design, popularised by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Other overlapping fields of thought include biomimicry, where products and systems are modelled on solutions from the natural world; and natural capitalism, where the cost of production on the environment is accounted for in the cost of producing goods.
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The cradle-to-cradle philosophy considers all material as nutrients and focuses on design for effectiveness and impact through efficiency. Moving beyond the linear industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. It aims to redefine products and services by designing waste out of the system, as well as minimising impact. It is based on the basic principles of: eliminating waste through design; eradicating pollution; reusing materials; regenerating natural systems; transitioning to renewable energy; and building economic, natural and social capital.
It is important because it creates opportunities for growth, tackles issues of dwindling resources and delivers a competitive economic model, while addressing the environmental impact of production and consumption. As McDonough puts it: "Here's where redesign begins in earnest, where we stop trying to be less bad and we start figuring out how to be good."
Another prominent proponent of a circular economy is Ellen MacArthur, best known for single-handedly circumnavigating the globe in record time in 2005. She has emerged as a global thought leader through the founding of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. The foundation works with business, government and academia to build a framework for a restorative and regenerative economy by design, inspiring innovation and creating conditions for it to reach scale.
Made to be made again
Trash-2-Cash is an important educational-based research project in the EU, with the very specific aim of creating new regenerated fibres from wasted materials by pioneering methods of material development. The project uses zero-value waste to create high-quality fabrications. T2C proposes a model where textile waste is chemically recycled for the production of new materials that are infinitely recyclable. The consortium of cross-disciplinary designers, researchers, scientists and suppliers from across Europe has a three-and-a-half-year timeline to produce concrete solutions.
The concept of recycling fibres has been around a long time, but much current textile recycling is more appropriately considered downcycling, with materials produced far inferior in terms of quality and use, and most often being used for things like building insulation or car-seat stuffing. Trash-2-Cash proposes the development of new material outcomes of the same quality as virgin textiles, not inferior ones.
Transitioning to a circular economy would take a systemic shift in how we do business. It represents an enormous opportunity to rethink and redesign the way we make things, by designing products that are “made to be made again”. And it is a testament to the power of the apparel industry, which has the ability to change how we produce, how we do business and how we consume.