The circular economy as a successful business model in fashion

A circular economy, or an economy that focuses on the re-use of products and raw materials, and in which waste is minimised, sounds great. But is it also attainable in the fashion industry? Can it be used as a successful business model? Rien Otto, the founder of the Dutch Awearness textiles company is very clear about it: "If you can't make your business circular, you don't have a future. In ten years' time, the consumer will want 100% circular."

If it were only fake news
The figures for the fashion industry are alarming. Environmental organisations have calculated that it takes about 8,000 litres of water to make one pair of jeans. In 2015, the fashion industry consumed a total of 80 trillion cubic metres of fresh water, which is equivalent to 32 million Olympic swimming pools. Besides that, cotton production is responsible for a quarter of the worldwide use of pesticides.

And the environmental impact list doesn't stop there. The damage is made worse by the fashion trend exemplified by the Primarks, Zaras and H&Ms of this world, where a new collection hangs in the shops every six weeks.  A large share of this remains unsold and then goes over the counter at 'dumping prices'. The Dutch fashion industry is left with 21.5 million unsold garments every year, and consumers throw away almost 200,000 tonnes of old clothes a year. That amounts to about 11 kg per person. If this throw-away economy in the clothing industry continues, demand will rise by 63% up to 2030. So it's high time to change.

So excited about waste
This is why, in 2016, Nike acknowledged that the company would have to do more than commit themselves to reducing waste and emissions. They went in search of new ways of creating products from waste materials. Hannah Jones, Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer and Vice President, Innovation Accelerator declared: “The company has set a vision for a low-carbon, closed-loop future as part of the company’s growth strategy. We’ve set a moonshot challenge to double our business with half the impact.” For example, in line with this strategy, Nike started to produce 'Nike Grind'. This material is made from old shoes from the 'Reuse-A-Shoe' programme, plastic bottles and waste materials from the Nike factories. After processing, Nike Grind is then sold to others for use in lining running tracks, gym floors, playgrounds, and more. Jones admitted, “I never knew how excited I could get about waste.”

Drive. Recycle. Wear.
Timberland has been concerned about its environmental footprint for some time. As far back as 2008, the brand launched a shoe sole made of rubber from scrapped truck and car tyres. But when demand for these shoes increased, they were left with the problem of where to find suitable tyres. In other words: “Is it possible to introduce a car tyre that is designed and manufactured with a designated second life as an outsole in Timberland shoes or boots in mind?” If this seems a strange question, bear in mind that you can cut off the legs of any pair of jeans to make shorts. But not every model is really suitable. And so, in collaboration with a tyre manufacturer, the Timberland Tire was born. "Tires purposefully designed to be recycled into footwear outsoles after their journey on the road is complete." But they didn't stop at searching for a sustainable production process for the sole; they also looked at the fabric that the shoe is made from. This resulted in a partnership with Thread, which turns plastic bottles from Haiti into a responsible fabric. Manufacturing the boots and backpacks using the Thread fabric has so far contributed to more than 765 thousand bottles recycled and 115 million litres of water saved.

Anti-fast-fashion concept: MUD Jeans
These examples from Nike and Timberland show how you can upcycle waste and put it to great use in your own production process or for a new product. However, it is not officially circular. In the ultimate circular economy, the end-product can be reprocessed into the next product. We can see a good example of this in the Dutch company MUD Jeans. This brand focuses on closed-loop recycling in which everything they sell ultimately returns to them. And therefore the recycling process is already taken into account when the jeans are designed.  For example, MUD Jeans do not have leather labels but printed labels. When a pair of jeans is processed into new ones, only the zips and rivets have to be removed. The fabric is shredded in a factory in Valencia, and processed into new thread. What makes recycling clothing difficult is that many fashion products are made out of mixed materials such as cotton, elastane and polyester. For this reason, MUD Jeans are largely made out of cotton and denim.

In 2013, Bert van Son, CEO of MUD Jeans, launched the totally circular concept 'Lease a jeans'. Consumers make an initial down-payment and then lease their jeans for a fixed monthly amount (€7.50). After a year, they can continue to wear the jeans and extend the leasing contract by a further four months, or change the jeans for a new model, or terminate the contract. The 'Lease a jeans' model has resulted in a MUD Jeans community. Ninety per cent of leasers remain loyal to the label. After all, they purchase out of conviction. And purchasers of MUD Jeans also immediately become ambassadors for the brand.

This is what you need when starting a circular initiative: consumers who embrace your concept and tell others about the good idea behind the product. People like to tell stories like that on their timelines.


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