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The Alliance

5 ways the fashion industry is becoming more circular

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The Alliance
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February 10, 2021
3 min
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From instant knitting machines to fungus-grown plants, the fashion industry is starting to address its heavy impact on the environment.

For a business often viewed as glamorous, the fashion industry puts a heavy burden on the environment. On the plastics front, around 60% of its raw materials is virgin plastic—used to make fabrics such as polyester, acrylic and nylon (only 3% comes from recycled sources).

In 2016, this meant 65 million tons of plastic were produced for fashion purposes—roughly 20% of all plastic production. Much of this ends up in the ocean: via laundry alone, half a million tons of plastic microfibres a year makes its way into the water system.

This intensive production process makes the fashion industry one of the biggest polluters on the planet. It’s responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions, more than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

The good news is that sustainability isn’t just in vogue in the industry—it looks like it may be a permanent item in fashion’s wardrobe. From eye-catching innovative showpiece products to deep reorganisation of supply chains, thousands of fashion companies are signing up the circular economy. It has a lot to gain: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates the industry could gain up to $560 billion by going fully sustainable.

Here are five ways sustainability is setting the fashion agenda:

1. Garment recycling machines

As part of its push to encourage customers to think about recycling, H&M—the world’s second largest fashion retailer—has installed a machine that knits new clothes from old on the spot in its flagship Stockholm store. Old garments are disassembled, spun into new yarn, and knitted into either a jumper, a scarf or a baby blanket—with new products to come. H&M are deploying the machine, devised by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, in a bid to draw attention to their wider sustainability ambitions (most of their stores already accept clothes for recycling). Educating consumers about breaking long-ingrained habits born out of fast-fashion culture is one of the most impactful changes the industry can make.

This machine knits new clothes from old jumpers. Photo by H&M Magazine

2. Longer-lasting clothes

Extending the life of clothing items is another crucial stage of the circular economy. Levi’s launched its in-house tailoring service at selected stores in 2015—repairing, customising and, at the end of its life in its initial form, repurposing denim. For those who don’t like to cultivate those kind of long-lasting sartorial relationships, they can sell their clothes on: Levi’s has recently launched its Secondhand e-commerce platform for trading vintage jeans and jackets. Elsewhere, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign project sets out guidelines for both more durable and recyclable denim—currently being used by over 60 brands, manufacturers and clothing mills to produce jeans that will be available by May 2021.

3. Less waste

The New York company Fabscrap is a leading example in the push to eliminate textile waste in fashion—which currently amounts to an estimated 92 million tons a year. It collects leftover fabric swatches and upholstery discards from the city’s fashion designers and interior brands, then either resells them or sends them on to a New Jersey recycling plant to be transformed into industrial-use materials. Last year, it was handling over 3,600kg of material a week from 450 brands, including J.Crew and Eileen Fisher. Eliminating this kind of by-product waste is crucial in fashion’s green transition. The circular economy is often viewed as eliminating jobs at the same time as waste, but in fact it should produce a net gain in employment, with the expansion of the waste sector compensating for raw-materials production. Across all industries, it is estimated that the circular economy could produce 700,000 new jobs in the EU by 2030.

4. Reusable materials

Recycling in the fashion industry can go beyond clothing items; it can mean the actual materials themselves. Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon currently account for a majority of the resources used in textiles production. But this toll can be reduced if they are made to be reused—as in Prada’s ReNylon project, which is recreating classic 80s and 90s items from the range in a nylon made primarily from ocean plastic that can be endlessly respun. All the company’s nylon products will use ReNylon by 2021. Meanwhile, Adidas is hoping to eliminate its use of virgin polyester by 2024, and its Futurecraft.Loop products, such as a running shoe and an anorak, are leading the way. They are made from a single, undyed plastic polymer, TPU, that is far easier to recycle multiple times.

5. Organic materials

Eventually, fashion may have to shift from resource-intensive materials and instead look for greener alternatives. The market for clothes produced from ethically sourced fabrics is currently worth $6.14 billion (it has shrunk slightly because of the pandemic), but is projected to rebound to $8.23 billion by 2023. Many start-ups are moving in promising new directions with organic-based materials, including the Netherlands’ Mycotex, which uses mycelium—the filaments fungi used to feed—to create biodegradable garments; Fairbrics from France, whose carbon-capture process is used to create synthetic fibres in a way comparable to photosynthesis; and the Post-Carbon Lab in London, turning fabrics into CO2-absorbing surfaces by coating them in micro-organisms. All could help speed the industry’s progress towards circularity, while literally making your fashion choices come alive