Written by Zenda Nel
Sustainability Fashion Writer

One of the enduring pleasures of life is to spend a morning going from store to store and boutique to boutique in search of something new to wear and experience the wonder of some brand new clothing item that you haven’t come across before. In recent times, this little pleasure has become complicated.

You can’t simply admire yourself in the mirror and buy the piece. It has a history that you buy into when you spend your money on it. If it’s not a sustainable product that you can see yourself wearing for many years, you are contributing to the fashion industry’s waste problem.

You will be adding another piece of clothing to another landfill.

Sewing

Unconscionable waste

There exist places in this world where you can literally drown in mountains of discarded clothes. These textile mountains add up to 92 million tonnes per year, built by a rubbish truck full of clothes arriving at some landfill somewhere every second. 

In Australia, people buy roughly 27kg of new textiles a year and discard around 23kg of that, which end up in a landfill. The prevailing attitude is that you can donate what you don’t wear. The consoling thought is that someone else will get to wear the item. Unfortunately that is not so. The truth is, up to 60,000 tonnes of clothes charities receive also end up in landfills. 

This is just the end waste. Before clothing items reach consumers, cutting floors across the world are piled with off-cuts. In addition to cutting waste, there is stock that gets discarded due to last-minute design changes and stock that gets spoiled in transport, not to mention excess stock due to gross overproduction.

But the fashion industry is not the only culprit. While the industry creates short fashion cycles, it’s consumers who are only too happy to follow fashion trends and throw out clothes that are no longer in fashion. The lifespan of clothes has become very short, partly because they simply don’t last very long and partly because fast fashion tempts consumers with low prices to move from one fashion cycle to the next. 

How we got here is everybody’s fault. On the one hand, there’s gross overproduction, lack of coordinated planning caused by unbridled competition, and on the other hand, consumers have come to undervalue clothing, regarding items they buy to wear as disposable items. 

Amidst the many reactions from concerned consumers and ethically responsible brands like Stella McCartney, a new buzzword is making the rounds: circular fashion. Let’s explore this concept and some Australian brands running with it.

Dumping

What is circular fashion?

Anna Brismar, sustainability expert and founder of the consultancy firm, Green Strategy, defined circular fashion in 2017 as “clothes, shoes or accessories that are designed, sourced, produced and provided with the intention to be used and circulate responsibly and effectively in society for as long as possible in their most valuable form, and hereafter return safely to the biosphere when no longer of human use”.

In terms of circular fashion, the clothing item stays in circulation as long as possible. For that to happen, the concept must form part of the entire lifecycle of a garment from the design stage through to the selling point and beyond first ownership.

Circular fashion is the opposite of linear fashion. In linear fashion, a clothing item moves from the design stage to the search for a suitable textile, production, transport, at the end of which it will be sold to the consumer by retail stores. The consumer wears it for a while and, after a relatively short time, gets rid of it. In most cases, the piece of clothing, which could still be worn for many years with proper care, lands in a landfill where it’s incinerated or left to decompose for 200 years.

Circular fashion aims to create a different trajectory that doesn’t end in a landfill, but keeps clothes in circulation as long as possible. 

To this end, those committed to circular fashion inject their efforts with a certain mindset:

  • Designers: Is this style timeless? Is it practical? Do people need it?
  • Textile manufacturers: How are our processes affecting workers, the environment, and the longevity of the textiles we’re creating? Were the raw materials we’re using sustainably produced?  Are our textiles biodegradable?
  • Clothing factories: Are we making clothes that will last? How easy will it be to disassemble these garments afterwards so they can be reused? Are we paying our workers a living wage? Are we mindful of cutting wastage? 
  • Transport: Which mode of transportation will leave the smallest carbon footprint?
  • Retailers: Are these clothes sustainable? Can they be redesigned? 

In a circular model, products are designed, manufactured and sold with the next use in mind.

Example of circular fashion

With a Good on You rating of ‘’great’’, Melbourne-based Australian fashion label A.BCH is an example of what circular fashion is all about. The brand makes clothes from renewable, organic, and recycled materials and prioritizes the elimination of material and energy waste through all phases: pre-user, user, and post-user. A.BCH uses local manufactures to limit its carbon footprint and limits the number of chemicals, water and wastewater used in production.

The brand’s mission is “to transform the way people buy, wear, and discard clothing.” The brand is transparent about its entire supply chain, as they put it, from fibre to finish. They help their customers to extend the life of their clothes with a Care, Repair, Wear program. Customers can have their clothes repaired for free for the lifetime of the garment. When a piece of clothing has finally reached the end of its life, customers can send it back to A.BCH for effective recycling. 

Upcycling as part of circular fashion

Upcycling is not the same as recycling. With recycling, a clothing item is broken down into something different through a mechanical or chemical process. Recycling is not necessarily sustainable since it uses many resources and can damage the environment, depending on how it’s done.

On the other hand, upcycling takes damaged clothes and transforms them into something new. Upcycling is labour-intensive, but it’s not damaging to the environment. Big brands have joined the recycle trend.  For instance, Eileen Fisher creates the ReSewn collection with returned garments, and Patagonia transforms the damaged items it receives from customers into the Recrafted collection. 

Wardrobe

Australian brands that have joined the circular fashion trend

Alice Veivers

Alice Veivers is a one-woman brand born out of a love for fabric and sewing. Her preference is vintage fabrics, and fortunately for her, she has access to her grandmother’s stash (which unfortunately is shrinking). 

Her brand is Alice Nightingale, which sports a cult following of almost 15,000 on Instagram. In addition to vintage fabrics, she uses excess and deadstock fabrics for her garments. Being the only seamstress in her team, she makes one-offs or small batch designs.

Veivers focuses on quality and detail for the Alice Nightingale garments that she wants her customers to wear for many years. The brand is based in Brisbane.

Spunky Bruiser

Spunky Bruiser is a small team of sewers who operate from a studio in Sydney. They create unique one-off pieces from sustainable, upcycled materials sourced only in Australia. Every piece is handmade and made to order, which limits waste. The company says it considers its environmental impacts at every stage of production.

Folktribe

Folktribe is owned by two sisters, Emma and Kellie Sommerville. Their clothes, made from hemp, are fully compostable, with no embellishments or traditional plastic or metal zips that can’t decompose. One of the reasons the sisters chose hemp is the strength of the fibre. Hemp fibres are much stronger than cotton fibres, which gives clothing made from hemp strength and longevity.

The sustainable Australian brand uses rainwater and solar power throughout its production process, and focuses on made-to-order styles to limit waste and avoid overproduction.

Sewloist

Naomi Huntsman is the creator and sewer behind the creatively named Sewloist. With more than 15 years of experience in the clothing and textile industries, Huntsman knows all about the fashion industry’s shortcomings. 

She designs, cuts and sews all her pieces in a studio run on wind-powered electricity. She uses mostly vintage fabrics, remnants or designer deadstock for her clothing, so they tend to be one-of-a-kind pieces.

Final thoughts

Circular fashion, recycling, and upcycling will keep more clothes in circulation longer, but we also need a fundamental mind shift. Consumers need to value their clothes again. We need to put quality above quantity and learn to appreciate the resources, time and effort that went into the making of what we choose to wear, and not buy just anything we see on a whim.