Fashion is “no exception” to the circular economy

Trudy Feenane

Linen clothes on gray hangers on the clothes rack. Slow Fashion. Conscious consumption. Crisis in the fashion industry, retail. Eco-friendly, Sustainable seasonal Sale concept. Zero waste.

It was on a cold, December afternoon in 2019, that Emily Kielthy found herself in Aldo on Mary Street, Dublin, enquiring about a €120 refund she was expecting to arrive into her bank account for a pair of black, suede boots she had returned a month prior. 

An apologetic Aldo supervisor approached Kielthy to inform her that, according to their records, the refund had been processed, and sent Kielthy to her local AIB branch to check the refund’s status.

Unfortunately, it was bad news at the bank; the refund had arrived in Kiely’s bank account a day after the return, and it had departed her account in a similarly swift fashion. Kielthy had spent the money on another material purchase, without evening noticing. 

Feeling equal measures of frustration and disbelief at her frivolous consumption, as Kielthy walked home, she made a decision that her consumption of, and relationship with, material goods would need to change. From the turn of the new year, Kielthy would not buy a single item of clothing for the duration of 2020. 

And that’s exactly what she did: 

 “[ I was] so frustrated at the time, but it was the kick I needed. It was a small thing that highlighted a w­ay I was probably feeling already, like I had too much clothes and stuff I didn’t need,” Kielthy says.

While the Dublin-based PR specialist describes herself as an environmentally conscious person – listing shampoo bars, mindful recycling and plant-based dietary changes as her sustainable modus operandi – her fast fashion habits were one she gave an easy pass to.

The reasons for this were rooted in a personal psychology that she believes is common practice for many people, and one that she had to confront in her own life:

“Fast fashion gave me that immediate serotonin and satisfaction that, while fleeting, was also thrilling,” she says, adding that her thoughtless consumption gave her emotional fulfilment which often came in the short-lived excitement of receiving an ASOS order, or regularly welcoming new Zara editions to her wardrobe. 

Kielthy isn’t the only one that has pledged to forgo fashion and all its frills for a set period. In fact, there is a growing interest in the challenge. In June, Remake Our World, a non-profit organisation promoting conscious and ethical fashion consumption, created a pledge for people to sign, which would commit them to buying no new clothes for 90 days. 

By the petition’s end, 1, 297 people had successfully completed it, with the benefits extending far beyond the individual; over 26,000 pounds of garment waste was prevented from reaching landfill, while over 18 million gallons of water was saved.

This pledge is conducive to the circular economy, which is a model of production and consumption that involves reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials in order to extend the life cycle of the product and avoid instant disposal.

But why are increasing numbers of people deciding to turn away from the trend-churning industry?

For Kielthy, it’s the recognition that individual change is important, and it can occur in various forms based on people’s circumstances and abilities:

“If we all gave up fast fashion for a few weeks, that would have a really positive impact. Another person [might continue] shopping fast fashion but adopt a vegan diet. Someone else [might continue] eating meat but give up single use plastic.

“Whatever little thing people can do is fine..We’d all be better off cutting out fast fashion 50 percent of the time than one person giving it up for a single year.” 

“Fashion is no exception”

While personal change is important, placing responsibility on the shoulders of individuals is only part of the solution, with a larger degree of accountability resting with large fashion conglomerates, something they haven’t been forthcoming in accepting.  

This is according to Orla Coutin, a researcher with Zero Waste Alliance Ireland (ZWAI), a non-profit organisation which aims to promote zero waste and a circular economy at national and EU level.

In order for the fashion industry to make constructive steps, a “paradigm shift” is required, according to Coutin, who adds that a circular economy and zero waste approach is achievable across the industry.

“We must look at our entire ‘take-make-waste’ system and transform it, and fashion is no exception to this. We need to look at how our precious resources are managed, the way we make and then use products, and what we do with the discarded materials afterwards,” Coutin says.

In terms of making this a reality, Coutin explains that “fashion brands need to firstly move away from synthetic fibres” such as polyester and nylon, which are hard to recycle because of their plastic-based derivatives, and often end up in landfills or incinerators. 

Alternatives include recycled cotton, organic hemp and linen, or innovative fabrics such as Tencel, which is made from wood pulp, and as such, its fibres are fully compostable and biodegradable. 

Brands will also need to reconsider the concept of ‘fast’ fashion, which is punctuated by 52 trends a year, and instead “stick to a basic four-season strategy” Coutin says. 

Without this shift, fashion will continue to “feed a desire for consumers to constantly upgrade their wardrobes” Coutin says, which was the situation Liadan Hynes found herself in before pledging in February to go fashion-free for a year. 

Changes in consumption

A quick scan through Hynes’ three wardrobes reveals forty floral dresses, 27 pairs of jeans, and three pairs of her favourite, pink Adidas trainers. 

Admitting she owns much more clothes than the average person, the freelance journalist found herself toying with a similar mentality that Kielthy had in 2019. Hynes’ mindless spending was fuelled by a temporary source of pleasure in welcoming another needless floral dress to her ensemble, as a reward for her hard work.

“Once I took stock of the amount of clothes I owned, it seemed like madness that I would keep purchasing in any kind of regular way,” Hynes says, who is now in the process of documenting her fashion-free year in a monthly dispatch for the Sunday Independent Life Magazine, entitled ‘Living Lightly’.

While Hynes’ decision was influenced more by a financial element, the past 10 months have pushed her to take stock of the environmental cost of her mindless consumption, and consider more sustainable alternatives and attitudes: 

“[My relationship] has changed entirely with clothes. I have learned how important it is to shop from need, rather than want, when it comes to clothes. 

“It has also really changed how I feel about charity shops,.I’ve started getting far more of my daughter’s clothes there, her winter coat from GAP for €4 is my pride and joy,” Hynes says.  

The full circle 

A common thread in both Hynes’ and Kielthy’s experiences of pledging to avoid fashion for a year, is that it is a personal choice, and one that is not practicable for everyone. 

Instead, consumers can make smaller scale changes that still champion circularity – without going the full circle – such as swapping clothes, or purchasing second hand items, something that has “become more mainstream” in recent years, according to Grace Collier, owner of the online vintage clothing website Spice Vintage.

Based in a rural artists complex in the Midlands, Collier’s studio is wedged between a violin maker’s workshop to her left, and a boat-builder’s workspace to her right, an environment Collier jokingly refers to as a collection of misfits. 

Collier has been in the vintage and second hand business for five years. Initially based in a physical vintage store in Limerick, she was pushed to revaluate her brick-and-mortar business model in the wake of the pandemic, and so she made the transition to an online store with weekly stock drops and hasn’t looked back since. 

When asked what has changed about people’s attitudes towards second hand clothing since the Laois-native opened her store, she pins a lot on social media, and the opportunities it has opened to allow second hand clothing to break through the social taboos it faced for years. 

“Vintage has definitely become more mainstream. There’s a gap being bridged between the people who wear fast fashion and who wear vintage, and vintage has been given a place within the communities of people who shop from fast fashion brands.

Collier adds that in a complete 180-degree fashion, some of these social taboos are now directed at fast fashion brands and influencers who, despite having the means, are not putting their resources towards conscious practises.

“I think in Ireland it’s kind of becoming a social taboo to always buy fast fashion. I think people are just naturally becoming more conscious. That’s what’s great about being Irish, we care what other people think of us,” she laughs.

While this cultural trait might be accurate, it doesn’t ring true for the lack of concern Ireland places on our textile waste management strategy, something “we have been poor at keeping a record of”, Coutin says, adding that “it is unclear to the public exactly how much of our textile waste is actually recycled or reused, sent to landfill, incinerated, or shipped abroad”.

According to Oxfam, Irish people dump on average 225,000 tonnes of clothing each year, which is often dispersed between landfills, shipped to the global south, or acts as “recovered” fuel for incineration in cement kilns.

Across the European Union, roughly 70 percent of clothing ends up in Africa for resale, where they are then sold to textile merchants, who in turn ship them to countries such as Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya and about one third of these textiles get dumped in the host country, according to Oxfam.

 However, recent trends are beginning to signify that this culture of inaction is changing slowly. For example, the national Circular Economy Bill 2021 which is set to come into effect this year, will ban textiles from household general waste bins and pledges to enact better management of clothing banks.

The government is also aiming to be more transparent in terms of the data it provides of Ireland’s textile waste.

Positive moves, and ones Coutin alongside many other interested stakeholders will be keeping a watchful eye on: “Let’s see if they stay true to their word.”

Trudy Feenane

Image credit: iStock