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  • Rachel Gallagher

What Is Circularity?

Imagine a world where our clothes are designed to be endlessly used, resources aren’t wasted, and sustainability is more than just a buzzword on corporate websites and titles for clickbait articles. Circularity is a way to redesign and redefine how we think about and act on clothing production and consumption, so that no one is left behind.

Of course, circularity includes more than just our clothes and extends to industries beyond fashion. But, with the fashion industry being one of the biggest producers on the planet with up to 100 billion garments produced every year, circularity is one of the ways we can tackle the issues of overproduction, overconsumption and unsustainable practices in textiles.

So, what is circularity? The idea of circularity encompasses the entire ‘value chain’ of creating, delivering and adding value to a product or service. Think of the value chain as a sequence of actions that connect with each other to create and deliver products, with all the people and institutions throughout this chain working together to ensure circularity. This includes everything from the raw materials of products, to brands, retailers, and waste management, as well as the people and institutions involved including governments, research institutions, civil society, and individuals.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Circularity is no small topic! So let’s break it down together:

The idea of circularity is far-reaching and requires cooperation and creativity from all levels of the value chain. This ‘circular model’ - also called a ‘circular economy’ - means that nobody is left behind when we transition to responsible ways to produce and consume, making sure that resource efficiency, human well-being and environmental impact are considered and accounted for along the way.

According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (a non-profit organisation that creates evidence-based original research on the benefits of a circular economy), there are three elements of the circular economy, which aim to: eliminate waste and pollution; circulate products and materials; and, regenerate nature.

Each of these three elements are based on circular design principles which ensure that products are continually used throughout their entire lifecycle through processes like maintenance, reuse, refurbishment, remanufacture, recycling, and composting.

Eliminate Waste and Pollution

Our current system to produce goods (and our clothes) is called a ‘take-make-waste’ linear system. This means that we take raw materials from the Earth, we create products from these materials, the products are used by us, then these products are eventually thrown away. A lot of this waste ends up in landfills or incinerators (for example, the Atacama desert). This take-make-waste system only moves in one direction (from raw materials, to product use, to waste) and isn’t good for the long term because our planet’s resources are finite and will eventually run out.

In a circular model, we shift our mindset from this one-way linear system to a circular model. This means that materials aren’t just discarded at the end of their ‘useful’ life. The materials in a circular model can re-enter the economy through maintenance, reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling.

This also means that this new way of making things has to be accounted for at the design stage of every product we make, also called ‘circular design’. Circular design makes sure that all products created can feed back into the circular economy in an infinite loop, making sure that products never reach landfill so we can eliminate waste and pollution.

Circulate Products and Materials

Keeping materials in use longer - either as a product, components, or raw materials - makes sure that the value of products and materials is retained. There are two ways that products can be kept in circulation, either through the technical cycle or the biological cycle.

The Butterfly Diagram by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, showing the flow of materials in a circular economy.

The technical cycle is suitable for materials that aren’t consumed during use, such as metals and plastics, and could re-enter the circular economy through maintenance, repair, and refurbishment. The biological cycle is for biodegradable materials - like plant or animal materials - that can be returned to the earth through composting. Some materials, like cotton clothes, can be circulated in both the technical and biological cycles, to firstly be maintained, reused, and repaired, and then eventually returned to their biological origins and be composted into soil to grow new resources.

It’s important to remember that in our current linear system, there are also products that fuse technical and biological materials, which are difficult to separate at their end-of-life, such as clothes that blend natural and plastic fibres together including things like polyester (plastic) and cotton (natural), acrylic and wool, bamboo and nylon, and so on.

Whichever cycle these products are retained through, creating products using circular design from the outset makes sure that these products can re-enter the circular economy at a later stage to be reincorporated into the system, rather than becoming waste.

This is why circular design and circularity are so closely linked and important to consider. To effectively circulate products and materials, designers need to understand how their products are created, used, and how these products can re-enter the circular economy to keep finite materials in infinite use and to safely return what we can to the earth.

Regenerate Nature

To regenerate nature in a circular model, we change the way we think about how we create and consume. This means that we move away from our current ‘take-make-waste’ system and towards a new way to include nature in our processes. When we regenerate nature, we build something called ‘natural capital’, which uses biological processes to rebuild soils, increase biodiversity, and return biological materials to earth, to return the nutrient value of what makes up our products back to the planet.

This happens at the places where we get raw materials from to create our products, such as farms. For our clothes, regenerating nature happens when natural fibres like cotton, bamboo, wool, and so on are returned to the earth through composting and biodegrading. By using farming practices that emulate nature, we can use biological materials from our products by returning them to the earth to regenerate soil health and rebuild natural systems, using the nutrients from natural fibres to benefit the land we grow our resources on.

Circularity means that we transform the ways we produce and consume products, including our clothes. When all of these elements are taken into consideration and put into action by businesses, governments, institutions, and individuals, we can find new ways to think about and act on how our clothes impact people and the planet.

Watch the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s video explainer on the circular economy:


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