Moving towards the circular economy- the experts speak

Last Saturday I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with some of the movers and shakers of the sustainable fashion industry as part of this year’s Vivid Ideas Exchange. I heard from a truly marvellous group of creative women who are disrupting the fashion industry as we know it in search of a more thoughtful, sustainable and in particular, less wasteful industry. The theme of the presentation was on the importance of transitioning from a linear, take, make and discard model of production and consumption to a more positive, regenerative circular system. The circular economy, as the presenters argued, is a system where waste becomes obsolete, it is literally designed out of the system.

Studying environmental politics as part of my postgraduate studies means that I spend a significant amount of time listening to academics who are not particularly hopeful about the state of our planet. Therefore, it was quite refreshing listening to a group of entrepreneurs, designers and writers working in the sustainable fashion industry that had a more uplifting perspective. One of the industry powerhouses that was present at the event was Clare Press, sustainability editor at Vouge.


Clare spoke passionately about the need to change our current patterns of consumption.She argued that on average a person only wears a garment between 4 to 10 times before throwing it away. The majority of these clothes end up in landfill and due to the dyes and toxins used in the manufacturing of most garments it can take on average 200 hundred years for an article of clothing to biodegrade. Furthermore in 2015 less than 1% of clothes were recycled into new garments. Although many of us donate our clothes to charities and op-shops less than 15% of clothes given to op-shops are actually in good enough condition to sell. Consequently, the fashion industry is enormously wasteful.

Today’s system of production and consumption is prefaced on a model of deliberate obsolescence. We are not encouraged to ‘fix’ or treasure the things we own but enjoy them for a short period of time and then replace them.

The idea of the circular economy by contrast, is one in which there is no end of life to the clothes we wear. Clare argued that we should move from considering ourselves as consumers but rather as makers, sharers, borrowers and embrace an upcycle system. She certainly has a point, businesses like Uber and Airbnb enable people to share both their cars and homes with strangers, why then should sharing our clothes be any different? In the course of her speech Clare confessed that the stunning designer jacket she was wearing was not in fact hers but rather she had rented it through one such system. This struck me as rather brilliant idea. After all I can’t be the first to have ever bought a dress or outfit for a particular occasion only for it to end up in the abyss of my wardrobe, seldom ever to see the light of day again.

Also present was Tonia Bastyan, creator of Chalk Re-Design an organisation that educates and inspires the apparel industry to become conscious global leaders. Tonia left the fashion industry as we know it to create a kinder one after becoming disillusioned with the level of waste and lack of value and connection in today’s conventional fashion world.

Tonia argued that a designer in a major fashion house has no connection with their fabric or the people that make the raw materials that go into their designs. We need to restore a fibre to hanger mentality, simplify our supply chains and restore a sense of meaning and connection with both our clothes and consumers, she argued.  Tonia also reiterated the idea that we need to dramatically change our approach to waste and recycling, in a circular economy there should be no end of life by a process of constant rejuvenation.

In reference to this idea Tonia spoke of her own brand Conscious Swim, an ethical children’s swimwear brand that uses econyl, a recycled material made from fishing nets. In doing so Tonia said she hopes to inspire and educate children to think about waste.

Tonia also argued that whilst Individuals and consumers certainly have significant power to drive change, institutional and macro level commitment is also vital in securing a sustainable future. How fabulous would it be, she asked, if nippers decided to exclusively use recycled material in their swimwear?  Or school uniforms for that matter? This is certainly an excellent point. The problem with fast fashion and waste production is a systemic and institutional one and therefore requires an institutional response. “creating a community of change makers is crucial” were the words reiterated by Ellen MacArthur, an advocate for the circular economy.

The presenters argued that shifting mindsets is a priority and that we must nurture the belief that there are other ways to do things, we must disrupt the damaging system of linear economics and make way for a more positive, regenerative circular system.