What is the lifecycle of the clothing you’re wearing right now? For most of us, it starts with our purchase, then ends with a motivated deep closet clean-out.
But did you know your clothing can be recycled once it leaves your wardrobe? Not only can it be recycled, but it should be! Although it doesn’t have the familiar recycling symbols that we recognize on plastic, paper, and glass, it’s extremely important that our textiles get the same treatment. Every second, a garbage truck of clothing is taken to a landfill or incinerator!
A lot of our clothing waste can be attributed to the industries and trends that promote “fast fashion.” Fast fashion creates truck loads of waste and pollution, accelerating the effects of climate change. In fact, fast fashion industries emit an astounding 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases each year.
So, now: what’s the lifecycle of the clothing you’re wearing right now? Still unsure? Let’s look at the issue a little more closely to help you find that answer, and let’s explore circular fashion as a solution that can help reverse climate change and redefine the fashion system as we know it.
Together, we can green the red carpet.
What Is Circular Fashion?
Circular fashion is a regenerative process that keeps material fibers in the loop and reduces waste while reversing climate change. Instead of the typical cycle of purchase, wear, dispose, circular fashion designs out waste and relies on the reuse and upcycling of old clothes to make new ones.
This regenerative process expands on “reduce, reuse, recycle” to create a closed-loop for textiles. So instead of cradle-to-grave sustainability, the regenerative nature of circular fashion means your clothing goes from cradle to cradle. It essentially takes end-of-life and turns it into the beginning.
Innovators like Shamini Dhana, CEO and Founder of Dhana Inc., continue to creatively implement circular fashion into our fashion industry. Dhana created the world’s first Circular Memory Jacket, which combines your favorite clothes with fair trade and zero waste materials to create a circular garment with true durability and a sentimental value that will ensure it withstands all closet-clean outs to come.
This kind of closed-loop clothing production is changing the industry in the most welcome ways. We have an emotional connection to our favorite t-shirt that we wore in our most cherished moments; we hide our decades-old clothing at the back of the closet for the day it resurfaces on a magazine cover; and when we are ready to let go of the once-was piece of clothing we had to have, we all too often send it to a landfill.
Circular fashion means that when we part ways with our clothes, we put them back into the production cycle to be remade into something new. Not only does redefine the game for an industry that some estimate is responsible for 4% of the world’s waste, but it’ll also likely make letting go a little easier for us who only feel more attached to clothing with each new hole it earns.
A Brief History of The Fashion Industry
The invention of the sewing machine during the Industrial Revolution catapulted the fashion industry into what we know today. Previously, shoppers would either source their own materials and hand-sew garments or go to a seamstress when they needed a new item.
Inventory like we see now simply hadn’t been possible before, and consequently, overall demand for new clothing was fairly low.
When the sewing machine burst on the scene, demand skyrocketed. Determined to keep up with demand at any and all costs, textile factories and sweatshops began to appear. Chasing this steep rise in production and sales opportunities at all costs, factory workers were subjected to harsh conditions and lack of safety procedures.
Then, at the end of 1989, the New York Times put a name to the practice, noting the emphasis on “fast fashion” by the newly opened Zara, who had new styles every two weeks due to a shortened production time. Other fashion brands followed suit and soon Forever 21, H&M, J Crew, and The Gap followed suit, producing thousands of styles and creating “micro-seasons” that made it nearly impossible to stay “in season.”
Throughout the world, fast fashion invaded: cheap clothes that allowed consumers to keep up with the ever-changing trends the fashion industry created.
The Realities of Fast Fashion
While low-cost fashionable clothing might seem like a great thing, it can’t be (and isn’t) cheap for all stakeholders involved. We are talking about a couple groups specifically: there are those who pay the price during production i.e., the low wages and poor conditions for factory workers, many of whom are child laborers, and there are also those paying the price at disposal…and those would be anyone who lives on earth.
The average American throws away 68 pounds of textiles per year, and that doesn’t even consider the amount of waste coming out of the factories that produce these clothes.
Fast fashion relies on high supply and low cost, leading companies to cut corners in quality— if a shirt is only supposed to be in style for a few months, what’s the use of making it last any longer?
When clothes end up in landfills, the chemicals they are treated with make their way into our soil, food, and water. Much of it breaks down into microplastics that affect humans from health to economy. Fast fashion companies notoriously abuse their workers and our planet with little corporate accountability.
Sustainability in Fashion
Once you’ve weeded out those garments that just aren’t holding up, you’re often left uncertain with what to do with old clothes. And after likely overestimating your ambition to embrace the new, organized you, motivation to conduct in depth research and quality assurance checks can be in low supply.
Fortunately, the movement around sustainable clothing is making these answers more plentiful and complete. Despite being relatively new, the sustainable fashion movement focuses on tackling the issue of fashion waste at every step from ethical sourcing of materials, proper conditions for factory workers, and low environmental impact. Thrift stores have grown in popularity as Gen Z and Millenials are finding value in either donating clothing for resale or shopping secondhand.
Consumers are the driving force behind the sustainable and circular fashion economy and retailers are rising to the challenge by creating textile recycling programs, utilizing deadstock fabric, and creating zero waste alternatives to fast fashion. Conscious consumers, unite!
The Budding Circular Economy of Fashion
In circular fashion, nothing is wasted. Yep- nothing.
When the durable, ethically made t-shirt becomes unwearable, it is simply processed back into fibers and put back into a new product. One of the leading advocates for designing waste out of our economy is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Their mission to accelerate the transition to a completely circular economy includes the fashion industry and is reflected in their Make Fashion Circular initiative.
The foundation accomplishes this with three core pillars:
- Design out waste and pollution by using overstocked fashion or deadstock fabric.
- Keep products and materials in use by making repairable, reusable, and remanufactured clothing.
- Regenerate natural systems by actively improving the environment through sustainable material cultivation, like organically grown cotton.
But implementing the changes needed to see this transition to a green strategy doesn’t happen if companies in the fashion industry don’t execute on the plan. And Shamini Dhana is one designer reinventing the way people shop and wear clothing to make circular fashion the norm. Dhana only creates clothing that adheres to strict rules on climate impact and is changing the game by giving customers a unique insight into how their clothing is made.
Plus, did we mention the circular memory jacket? Oh, we did? Coolcoolcool.
Dhana Inc.: Offering a Connection Between People, Planet, and Clothing
First founded in 2008 as a youth sustainability brand Dhana has evolved into a fashion technology company that aims to unite humanity through fashion and reduce the impact of the fashion industry on climate change.
Dhana is committed to accountability and transparency in their supply chains and is both a Certified B Corp and Fair Trade Certified business. The company was designed to prioritize people, planet, and profit.
As one of the 90 signatories of the The Global Fashion Agenda and participants of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Dhana went beyond the requirements to take action on sustainability and circularity by creating the world’s first Circular Memory Jacket.
Oh, we already mentioned it? Okay! Just one more time.
This zero-waste jacket that incorporates the customer into each step of the process. As a fashion company without inventory (whaaat?), customers choose materials by selecting their favorite garments to be turned into a fresh new jacket. Customers can also speak with the workers making their clothing.
This composition brings together the functionality of your favorite jacket with the comfort of your favorite tee. This level of transparency is a new standard in the fashion and textile ecosystem.
Shamini Dhana, CEO and Founder of Dhana Inc.
Prior to founding Dhana, Shamini worked for 20 years in international strategy and global operations. She strives to connect people to the clothes they wear and has launched successful campaigns that educate students and children about their environmental impact in the fashion industry.
Shamini is active in the sustainable fashion industry and serves as a board member for Climate Ride, Ethical Fashion Forum, and even served as an associated producer of The Trust Cost film.
“We have a problem, this is a $3 trillion industry where almost 70% of it ends up in the landfill or is burned. That’s over 10% of all carbon emissions today on this earth. And if left unchecked, it’s going to go up to 50%.”
Taking Action on Sustainable Fashion
There are actions we can take as consumers to reduce demand on unsustainable practices and reduce our own individual impacts while helping to reverse climate change.
- Recycling: There are a lot of low-resistance opportunities to recycle your old clothes. You can use an online service like Helpsy, send them to ThredUp, or recycle them with a textile recycler. Companies like Marine Layer will take tshirts of any size or color and use the recycled materials to create new clothing.
- Reuse: Shop your closet! What haven’t you worn this year? Try mixing and matching what you already have to make your clothes feel new or do a clothing swap with friends.
- Support: Follow brands that follow sustainable fashion practices. Source quality, circular fashion items.
- Wash Less: A simple way to contribute to the circular fashion industry is to wash your clothing less! This helps garments last longer and keeps microfibers (which are plastic) from entering waterways frequently. It’s a great way to save energy at home and save our oceans. It’s an easy win-win.
- Spot & Avoid Greenwashing: In the fashion industry, so many manufacturers take advantage of our good intentions and use buzzwords to advertise new clothing lines that aren’t as sustainable as they may suggest. While companies like H&M have textile recycling programs, they also still use harmful practices to churn out more cheap styles. Learn what signals you can notice to identify truly socially responsible companies that have the health of the planet and people at their core.
Closing: What is the Future of Fashion?
The future of fashion is completely circular! Fashion can be a totally renewable industry with an entirely new textiles economy that supports workers and the planet while still providing the essential clothing we need each day.
Companies already have the tools to make fashion a more personal, unique, and sustainable process, and consumers are ready for the transition.
By implementing circular design strategies that produce high-quality clothes, promote recyclability, and engage conscious business practices, we will start to see greenhouse gas emissions from the fashion industry decrease.
Greening your closet doesn’t have to be a pricey experience for the everyday person. You can find a better-for-the-world option from sustainable shoes to your go-to adventure jacket. Rip in your favorite jacket? Learn to sew it back together or maybe it’s time you meet your local tailor!
A circular model isn’t limited to fashion, it’s also been applied to food through regenerative agriculture, to urban systems, and even to daily house products. As an individual, you can support these practices in so many ways (see above!), making a profound impact on the health of our climate.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Shamini on Facebook and LinkedIn
- Dhana on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
- Global Fashion Agenda
- Ellen McArthur Foundation
- Organic Trade Association
- Fair Trade International Group
- B Lab Community
Sustainable Workplaces Manager & Writer
Jackie is the Sustainable Workplaces Manager at Urban Green Lab, a sustainability education nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s passionate about connecting people with actionable ways to make a positive impact on the environment. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Jackie worked in the nonprofit world in Washington D.C. for Ashoka and the National Building Museum.
Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.