If you're wondering what the circular economy is and why it is important, then this guest blog by Neil Kitching will give you all you need to know!
Neil Kitching is a blogger and author of Carbon Choices on the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises. Neil works as an energy and water specialist for an economic development agency and here he ponders over fast-fashion and the circular economy.
What is the Circular Economy?
The Circular Economy is the polar opposite of the consumer society that we live in where products are made from virgin raw materials, bought, used for a short period of time then thrown out - often to landfill. This is unlike the natural world, where all resources are endlessly recycled.
The Circular Economy is championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Ellen MacArthur gained the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe in a yacht in 2005. On that voyage she realised that the world is finite and learnt to minimise her use of resources. Her three circular economy principles are:
- Design out waste
- Keep products and services in use
- Regenerate natural systems
In a nutshell, it means that all resources should be used for as long as possible. Extend the life of products and then reuse, remanufacture or at worst recycle at the end of their useful life.
What is the problem with Textiles?
Textiles and clothing are the fourth highest carbon emitting category of consumption in the EU after housing, transport and food. 97% of clothes are made from virgin fibres – mainly synthetic (plastic) fibre or cotton. However, all clothing has additional and complex environmental impacts whether made from natural materials such as wool, cotton and leather or synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon.
Then 70% of clothes are discarded to landfill, and many that are recycled are only made into low value products such as cloths – it is difficult to recycle clothes that often contain mixed materials. For example, spandex, sold as Lycra, is a synthetic material with elastic properties that is blended into other fabrics. Existing technology cannot separate it for reuse or recycling.
Surely Natural Materials are better?
Maybe, but it may surprise you to learn that from a carbon perspective, clothes made from synthetic fibres such as polyester are likely to have a lower footprint than from cotton or wool.
Polyester is made from oil, specifically from ethylene, which clearly has a considerable carbon footprint. In addition there is the recently acknowledged issue of plastic microfibers that are released in their thousands every time you wash your clothes. Many of these are released into our drainage system. Our sewage treatment plants are not designed to remove them and so many particles enter our rivers and seas.
Cotton is a 100% natural material but is an intensive crop to grow. It requires a lot of fertilisers and pesticides. Fertilisers are energy intensive to manufacture and emit nitrous oxide to the atmosphere when over applied - a greenhouse gas 280 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Moreover, cotton requires a lot of water, and as it is normally grown in hot countries most of this is irrigation water. In many cases water is over extracted from rivers to be diverted for agricultural purposes leaving a water shortage downstream with adverse impact on wildlife and fishing. Even worse, the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea have been diverted to grow cotton. The 'sea' has dried up resulting in a regional environmental catastrophe.
Wool is also a 100% natural material. The problem is that wool is produced from sheep, which as ruminants burp out methane as part of their normal digestive process. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas which is why eating beef, mutton and dairy products is so carbon intensive. In some cases wool is a by-product of mutton production but in reality many sheep are kept primarily to produce wool. So, wool has some advantages, but is not truly environmentally friendly.
Fast fashion is a business model that has been widely adopted that focuses on the design, manufacture and marketing of clothing and accessories that are cheap to produce and are soon replaced by the 'latest models'. Marketing messages reinforce the message and encourage the consumer to buy new products to keep up with the latest fashion.
It is a recent phenomenon that only began in the late 20th century in Western countries but is now spreading round the world. It also relies on cheap labour and low environmental standards often in the Far East.
Wear your Clothes for Longer
The obvious solution is to wear your clothes for longer! But remember there is a huge marketing, advertising and consumer peer pressure acting in the opposite direction. The media, magazines, maybe your friends, often comment adversely about any person (usually women) who is seen in public wearing the same clothes twice. Please stand up to this pressure and call out such behaviour.
The circular economy starts with good design. Manufacturers who pick their raw materials carefully, using recycled material if possible. Designers who complete an environmental and carbon footprint of their material and production processes. Clothes designed to a high quality standard that will last far longer. You may need to pay a little more, but it will be much better value in the long run. Manufacturers and retailers can offer long product guarantees and offer repair services to extend the product lifetime with the added benefit of maintaining an ongoing relationship with their customers.
End of Life
Of course all clothes have a finite useful life for an individual. That might mean they are worn out in which case recycling may be the only option. But often they are still in good condition - children may have grown out of their clothes or adults may have wanted clothes for a special occasion. This is where organisations like Green Heart Collective can reuse and extend the life of products. This has a dual benefit - it avoids the carbon and pollution from the manufacture of new clothes and it avoids old clothing being dumped in landfill.
Textiles are a surprising large proportion of our carbon footprint (10%) and are associated with additional adverse environmental impacts on soil and water. We can halve this impact by wearing our clothes for twice as long! If you are buying new, pay more for better quality clothes that will last longer. Even better, buy second hand clothing as this has a negligible environmental impact.
If you have enjoyed this blog, you might enjoy Neil's book, Carbon Choices on the common sense solutions to our climate and nature crises. Available direct from Neil or on Amazon http://www.carbonchoices.uk/index.php/buy. Neil is donating one third of profits to rewilding projects.