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  /  Fashion   /  The Circular Economy — a fashion fad or fashion’s future?
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Photo Courtesy: JSolar Lighting in Azraq Camp, UNHCR Innovation

In times of climate change and finite resources, the fashion industry — amongst the top 5 polluting industries — is forced to rethink the way it operates. As raw oil is becoming rare, the toxins in cotton fields are negatively impacting food production, and plastics are polluting our oceans, pressure has increased to a point where world leaders and businesses must respond. Additionally, the 2013 Rana Plaza catastrophe and the resulting announcement of UN Sustainable Development Goals Guiding Principles are forcing fashion to reassemble its relationships with the Planet, people, and how to conduct business.

A prominent gathering around this shared concern is the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, an international conference where representatives of leading world fashion retailers, producers, journalists, and researchers exchange best practices in sustainability and ethical trading.


The 2017 summit included a significant amount of new participants from outside the industry, working closely on the Circular Economy — which was the summit’s main topic and is one of the European Commission’s priorities for 2030, expecting recycling rates to reach the level of 65%.

The Circular Economy is a new economic model suggesting a move from current linear “take-make-dispose” production to consumption model to a circular “reduce-reuse-recycle” product-lifecycle. In this model, products and services are radically rethought; use replaces consumption. Circularity seeks to minimize environmental and social impacts by being “restorative and regenerative by design” creating shared value for everyone in the process; for example, waste in one stage could mean ‘end of use’, however in another it can mean ‘raw material’; components assemble and disassemble, creating social, human and natural capital for all stakeholders involved.

Consulting Group in their PULSE report, there is a “€160 billion/year” opportunity for the industry to be unlocked. Thus, looking towards a future where 8.5 billion people will need clothes,“apparel consumption will rise from 62 million tons today to 102 millions in 2030,” the Circular Economy is seen as a way to help the industry to “mend” its own problem. And so it is not surprising that multiple brands such as adidas, ASOS, H&M, C&A, Hugo Boss, and Nike are joining the summit’s call to action verifying this concern and opportunity to bring closed loop production models into apparel manufacturing on a global scale.

For instance, UNHCR launched its innovation arm ‘UNHCR Innovation’ in 2012 to share creativity across the organisation based on an obligatory change of mindset.

Their job is to amplify innovations already happening in the field, connect innovators to resources, and explore the knowledge and expertise existing outside the organisation.(11) Four years later, IRC also established its own innovation agency ‘Airbel’, to design and test life-changing, scalable solutions for people affected by crisis. Then, projects can be scale up by governments, private sector and other NGOs.(12)

In big hubs, such as Berlin and London, startups are embracing innovation for refugees, as Migration Hub, ReDI School of Design, Berlin Peace Innovation Lab, Techrefugees, and Geecycle.

For example, H&M has collected 32,000 tons of garments from its clients since 2013 and C&A is introducing a ‘Cradle-To-Cradle’ certified t-shirt, which is the first mass produced garment gaining this certification, available at a highly affordable price of 9 euros.

This could be seen as a potential answer to one of the major environmental threats that garment production causes, as the scale of its waste reaches 4 million tons in the EU alone every year, which to date, items mostly end up burned or in landfills. Cracking the recycling problem and turning old clothes and textiles into new garments actively involves the consumer and educates them about their responsibility to become part of the solution. A successful circular model has been introduced recently by outdoor sustainability “champion” brand Patagonia and their “WornWear” project, inviting consumers to repair old clothes and resell them online. This model has gained enormous popularity with all reused garments being “sold out” on the site at the moment (June 2017). However, the Circular Economy risks to be a fashion fad, if not sustained over time.

Moreover, recent critics such as Garman Johnsen et al. engage with a critical view of the Circular Economy, considering it a model propelling consumption to even higher levels, by fostering a feel-good “green consumption” consumer conscience: if it is recycled, it must be good for the environment. Thus, whilst this change in behaviour could bring more prosperity and growth for businesses, at the same time it risks to bring more plastics into the natural ecosystem, polluting the planet even further.

The Circular Economy is only at the start. With the world’s second biggest nation responsible for global warming and the carbon footprint exiting the 2015 Paris climate commitment, this new regenerative model could be seen as a chance to turn bad aspects of consumerism into actual consumer “goods”, by reframing the way clothes are produced and used. If politics keep ignoring the huge threat facing humanity, it will be up to individuals and companies to unite and find new solutions to “Make the Planet Great Again”. In times of ignorance, innovation management must strive to act upon inertia and find new ways to make the Circular Economy fashion’s future, and not a fashion fad.

Luxury groups such as Kering are looking into alternatives for leather, fur and luxury metals by drawing on sustainable innovation. At the same time, new entrepreneurial start-up initiatives such as Miroslava Duma’s Fashion Tech Lab are emerging, investing in technologies such as bioengineered silk, leather, or lab-grown diamonds.

The real challenge for 2030 — and thus, an opportunity for innovation management — will be how all of these initiatives can successfully collaborate, in order to continue to reduce fashion’s footprint and make this new hyped model more than a trend which is out of fashion the next season.

With politics refraining from the pressure to reform supply chains, there is already a risk (at least in the United States) for less incentive to collaborate and minimize the impact. This forms an additional challenge for innovation management, to lead a successful transformation towards circular business models, focussing on collaboration and redesigning the relationship between business, culture, and the environment.


  1. (2016). Waste policy Review. Available at: (Accessed 16 May 2017).
  2. (2017). Circular Economy — UK, USA, Europe, Asia & South America — The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Available at: (Accessed 16 May 2017).
  3. Global Fashion Agenda & The Boston Consulting Group (2017). PULSE of the Fashion Industry. Hvidovre, Denmark: Global Fashion Agenda & The Boston Consulting Group.
  4. Fletcher, K. and Tham, M. (2015). Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion. 1st ed. London: Routledge. Available at: 4 May 2017).
  5. H&M Group. (date unknown) Recycle your clothes. Available at: (Accessed 16 May 2017).
  6. C&A Company. Cradle to Cradle Certified. Available at: (Accessed 16 May 2017)
  7. (2017). Worn Wear — Better Than New. Available at: (Accessed 16 May 2017).
  8. Garman Johnsen, C., Nelund, M., Olaison, L. and Meier Sørenson, B. (2017). Organizing for the post-growth economy | ephemera. Available at: (Accessed 3 Jun. 2017).
  9. Fernandez, C. (2017). What Trump’s Climate Reversal Means for the Fashion Industry. The Business of Fashion. Available at: (Accessed 3 Jun. 2017).
  11. Young R. and Hoang L. (2017)Miroslava Duma Launches Fashion Lab Tech With $50 Milion to Invest

Alexandra and Felicitas are MAIM 2018 students. Aleksandra is currently exploring power relations across fashion supply chains whilst Felicitas is researching on the role of collaboration, open innovation and open source technologies for a successful transition towards the Circular Economy. Please feel free to find out more about Alexandra and Felicitas here and here!