Circularity: Sustainable Fashion’s Holy Grail or Greenwashing?

Business of Fashion

Hundreds of fashion and apparel brands, from Adidas to Zara, have pledged themselves to the cause of circular fashion over the past year, making “circularity” something like the holy grail of sustainable fashion.

But are they actually making the industry less wasteful?

The circular economy, a term that refers to a value “circle” where products and materials are recovered, regenerated and reused—an alternative to traditional linearity (make, use, dispose)—has become a rallying cry for the fashion industry. Some 87 percent of the 53 million tons of clothing produced globally each year is either incinerated or dumped into landfills, according to a 2017 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In the year since the Copenhagen Fashion Summit entreated the world’s fashion companies to commit to ushering in a circular fashion system by 2020, 93 of them have thrown in their support. Combined, they account for 12 percent of the global apparel market, according to the Global Fashion Agenda, a non-profit pushing for more.

But agreeing to a goal is the easy part. Some of the circular economy’s proponents say the fashion industry hasn’t demonstrated how it will meet ambitious targets that require technological leaps that are years or even decades away. Neither has it addressed systemic changes some say will be necessary, like reducing consumption. For many brands, circularity begins and ends with marketing campaigns, or capsule collections featuring recycled material, an approach some activists liken to greenwashing.

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