The fashion industry has started to take circular economy seriously. This is the conclusion from leading expert on circular economy, Ellen MacArthur.

This week is all about fashion. The 6th of September is the first day of the New York Fashion Week and this also marks the kick-off of the so-called “Fashion Month”, where the entire fashion industry shows off the spring 2019 collections first in New York, then London, followed by Milan, ending in the world capital of fashion – Paris.

It is no doubt an exciting time for leading designer brands, fashionistas, influencers, etc., but for our planet – not so much.

The fashion industry continues to leave one of the biggest negative environmental footprints. Today, the apparel and footwear industries account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, or nearly as much as that of the whole European Union, according to the recent industry report, “Measuring Fashion: Insights from the Environmental Impact of the Global Apparel and Footwear Industries study”. The report was made by ClimateWorks Foundation, a non-governmental organization which mobilizes philanthropy to solve the climate crisis, together with the environmental sustainability consultancy firm, Quantis. According to the report, the climate impact of the apparel industry alone is forecast to nearly match today’s total annual US greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, emitting 4.9 gigatons of CO2.

”There is a huge momentum. In the last six months we’ve seen considerable momentum around the textile industry. We are not there yet of course, but there is momentum there,” – Ellen MacArthur

But the not so flattering record of one of the biggest environmental polluters may be about to change. Something is up in the industry. The Sustainian spoke to Ellen MacArthur, one of the world’s leading experts on the circular economy. See textbox. According to her, the fashion industry is awakening in terms of a greater commitment to sustainability and circular economy principles.

”There is a huge momentum. In the last six months we’ve seen considerable momentum around the textile industry. We are not there yet of course, but there is momentum there,” Ellen MacArthur told The Sustainian.

Ellen MacArthur is known as “Miss Circular Economy” and became world famous when she broke the world record for sailing round the world in a single-boat in 2005. In 2010, she founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – an organization dedicated to accelerating the adoption of a circular economy.

Fashion needs to step up

Just glancing at the facts above it is immensely clear that the fashion industry very much needs this momentum. Yes, sustainability has somehow become an integrated part of many of the fashion brands’ business strategies the last couple of years. And yes, various well-known brands have introduced eco-friendly clothing lines and manufacturing processes to limit their negative environmental footprint – H&M with their conscious collection, Zara’s JoinLife Initiative, and Mango’s Committed collection, just to name a few.

But alongside this, there have been many stories of the same companies burning their unsold clothes, lack of specific targets to reduce emissions in their supply chain, and increases in electrical and energy consumption.

When looking solely at the bare facts, it is clear, that for the vast majority of the industry, sustainability is still more about branding and “green-washing” than about limiting the negative effects of their production cycle. The level of the industries’ current carbon emissions and the 2030 forecast of a ‘business as usual scenario’ from the “Measuring Fashion” report, are clear testaments to this. Many resource and waste statistics clearly show that wastefulness is still dominating the fashion industry production: clothes release half a million tons of microfibres into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles; every second the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned; less than one percent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing – just to name a few.

In face of accelerating climate change, growing resource depletion, and new consumer expectations, the fashion industry is increasingly under pressure to limit its environmental footprint and thus to back-up its sustainability stories with real sustainability progress.

The 2017 report “A textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, called for radical transformation of the entire industry – a transformation that has to happen now: “The time has come to transition to a textile system that delivers better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes,” the report stated.

Three steps forward

A little more than one year has passed since the Foundation released the report. And today, Ellen MacArthur is positive that we have reached a watershed moment – the industry is recognizing the need for change.

She points out three important steps – necessary to accelerate the transformation to a new circular fashion economy further:

“We have three steps we need to embrace to create a circular fashion industry – to make fashion circular effective. One, is the business models. Another, is the design element from the material perspective; that they are safe materials and that they are renewable. And the third element, is to make sure that clothing at the end of its life can be recycled; that it can be turned into new clothing. So those are the three elements”.

Furthermore, she emphasizes partnerships and collaboration as important drivers for an accelerated transformation to a circular fashion industry:

”I think what’s needed more than anything else – in order to make those three happen – is collaboration. We need industry collaboration with huge organizations, and small, coming together to decide on what that looks like from a materials’ perspective, and then make it happen,” Ellen MacArthur says.