Circular Economy in Fashion: An In-Depth Analysis

This article discusses the environmental impact of the fashion industry and the need for a transition to a circular economy model.

Circular Economy for the Fashion Industry

This article discusses the environmental impact of the fashion industry and the need for a transition to a circular economy model. 

It explores the EU's strategy for sustainable and circular textiles and introduces the concept of circular design on par with the importance of good design in waste reduction, materials reuse, and pollution elimination. 

Moreover, we focussed on emphasising that a circular economy approach can offer new growth opportunities and create a regenerative and resilient future for the fashion industry.

Introduction: How Does the Fashion Industry Work Today?

The fashion industry currently functions according to a type of production and consumption based on the linear economy model and the logic of 'TAKE-MAKE-WASTE', in which resources are used to make products that are worn very little and eventually become waste.

According to a study by McKinsey (1), "the number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014: almost 14 garments for every person on earth". 

But the number of times each garment is worn has decreased significantly.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2), "some garments are discarded after being worn only between seven and ten times".

Both developments are mainly due to the phenomenon of 'fast fashion', which is based on constantly changing trends, more collections offered per year and, often, lower prices.

The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles

In March 2022, the European Commission presented - under the European Green Deal (3) and as part of the proposal for the new industrial strategy - EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles (4) - an action plan for a new circular economy that includes concrete proposals for designing more sustainable products, reducing waste and empowering consumers.

The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles

The strategy for textile products foresees that: 

  • All textile products placed on the EU market are durable, repairable and recyclable, made as much as possible from recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances, and produced with respect for social and environmental rights.
  • Fast fashion is no longer fashionable and consumers are provided with long-lasting, high-quality and affordable textile products
  • Cost-effective re-use and repair services are widely available
  • The textile sector is competitive, resilient and innovative and producers take responsibility for their products throughout the value chain, achieving sufficient recycling capacity and minimising incineration and landfilling.

Circular Economy: A New Approach to Production and Consumption

Circular economy contrasts with the traditional linear economic model, which we talked about at the beginning of this article, based on the typical 'extract, produce, use and throw away' pattern.

The circular economy is a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, lending, reusing, repairing, reconditioning and recycling existing materials and products for as long as possible.

This extends the life cycle of products, helping to reduce waste to a minimum.

Once the product has completed its function, its materials are reintroduced, where possible, through recycling. 

Thus, they can be continuously reused within the production cycle, generating further value.

In a circular economy business model, products and materials are designed to increase use and reuse, creating an economy in which nothing is wasted and everything has value.

We can therefore summarise that a circular economy is a framework of system solutions based on three principles:

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution
  2. Circulate products and materials
  3. Regenerate nature

For design and creative professionals, these three principles serve as a goal:

  • They help us evaluate whether our creations support the transition to a circular economy or keep us within the frustrations and limitations of today's linear economy.

But let us look in detail at what circular design is and why it is crucial to have these three strategies in mind at the design stage.

Circular design: The Future of Fashion and design

Definition & areas: 

  • A pioneering design practice based on the principles of the circular economy.
  • A creative opportunity for designers, innovators and pioneers seeking to reshape the fashion industry. 

Moving from linear to circular design requires a shift in mindset: the circular economy requires brands to change not only materials and business models but also the flow of product creation.

The key task of the designer, creatively, becomes not to create something new from immaterial inspirations, but to make connections with its existing material environment. 

All in all:

  • The circular design offers a direction of travel towards a regenerative and resilient future.
  • A future where we design products, services and systems with the bigger picture in mind. A future where we focus on the needs of the user and at the same time consider the system in which we are creating.
  • A future where we unlock a new frontier of creativity to address global challenges at their root.

Circular design requires skills across all disciplines to become a reality.

Important choices are made in the design phase

These include:

  • Definition of business model
  • Choice of materials
  • Aesthetics and functionality of the elements
  • How the designs will interact with people and systems along their path, e.g. with logistics, collection and infrastructure systems.

In the case of physical products, the design phase also decides how to combine different materials and how easily they can be reused, repaired, refurbished or disassembled.

By keeping the three principles on which the circular economy is based in mind at the design stage, we can explore new strategies to achieve great results.

The creative possibilities are endless and new models can be developed in the future.

  1. Waste and pollution are the consequences of decisions made at the design stage. By considering waste and pollution as design flaws, we can change our perspective on what we are designing. Instead of solving the problem later, we can eliminate waste and pollution from the very beginning.
  2. Increasing the number of times products are used is the most direct way to reduce the environmental impact of the industry while creating better growth opportunities. There are many ways in which fashion products and materials can be kept in use and circulated through circular design. 
  3. Fashion production should be decoupled from the consumption of limited resources. In the first instance, this means using existing materials to produce new clothes and recycling materials to keep them in use. Regenerative production practices can contribute to soil health, address climate change by sequestering carbon, increase water quality and biodiversity, and improve ecosystem resilience.

To start approaching this new creative approach, we can challenge ourselves to answer important questions during the design process:

“How can we design in a way that meets 'user needs' and works in the long term?”
“How can we create products and services that fit into our (eco)systems and become 'food' instead of waste and pollution?”
“How can we use design as a force for positive change and address the great challenges of this century, such as climate change and biodiversity loss?”

The circular design is an iterative process, it is an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, and it is a journey.

We at DAMō want to support designers on this journey. We believe that there are many possibilities to design and work with nature, rather than against it.

Together with creatives, we want to use the transformative power of design as a force for good and be advocates for a real opportunity for change.

There is no single perfect solution, but wherever we are on this journey - whether beginner or advanced practitioners - we can continuously improve our practice.

We can learn from each other and draw inspiration from pioneers in other organisations and geographies. Together we can raise the bar in designing for a circular economy.


Published: 01/11/2023


BIO: DAMō is an online workspace for international designers and fashion brands that want to create sustainable fashion. DAMō was born from the union of the experiences of its founders, professionals in the fashion sector for over 10 years. Selene and Lorenzo embody the crucial connection between the worlds of design and production, embracing the philosophy of sharing knowledge and needs between these two universes to renew the fashion landscape.
"Knowing more about materials, regulations, and manufacturing processes is key to expanding our creativity and creating fashion responsibly."