What is a "circular fashion consumer"? Make it last's sustainability expert Anna Brismar explains.



Every other week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability. Have a question you want answered? Send it here. And read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it with the help of Anna, here.

This week’s question:

Circular fashion is quite a new concept in the context of sustainable fashion. How would you describe a “circular fashion consumer”?

Anna Brismar: To give you a brief background, the concept ‘circular fashion’ was first used publicly in June 2014 by two persons independently of each other. One of these persons was Felix Ockborn, at the time environmental sustainability coordinator for H&M in Stockholm. Felix used the term ‘circular fashion’ in its Swedish form, in his presentation Cirkulärt mode i globala värdekedjor at a seminar during Almedalsveckan on July 2. Just a week earlier, on June 24, I first used the term ‘circular fashion’ at a project meeting when planning for the new fashion event CIRCULAR FASHION – SHOW & TALK 2014. Apparently, the time was right for the ideas of sustainable fashion and circular economy to merge. Although Felix Ockborn was probably first to coin and use the concept (perhaps already in May 2014?), no public material has been presented by H&M that specifically defines the concept ‘circular fashion’. (In the wake of such a definition, I have written a number of articles to explore the concept and circular approaches for the fashion industry.) 

So, what does circular fashion actually mean? If fashion refers to a piece of garment, an accessory, or a pair of shoes, ‘circular fashion’ can be defined as any fashion item that is:

  • Designed so that its sub-components can be disassembled or separated to facilitate repair, remake, reuse and eventually material recycling at its end of use;
  • Designed with high quality materials and in timeless style to maximize its durability, longevity and attractiveness to many users (if passed on to new users);
  • Designed on demand (custom-made) in order to be more optimally designed for its specific user in terms of fabric/material, style and fit, thus increasing its perceived value;
  • Produced with non-toxic, high quality and preferably biodegradable materials, so that its material(s) may be safely biodegraded and composted at the end of use; or produced with non-toxic synthetic materials that may be effectively recycled (such as recyclable polyester);
  • Produced in such a way that all waste generation is minimized during production, and all potential spill material and rest products can be reclaimed and reused as raw material for other processes, thus minimizing the extraction of new virgin material;
  • Produced, transported and marketed using renewable energy, such as wind or solar power, wherever possible, and using water and other raw materials effectively and safely throughout production and distribution;
  • Can be used by multiple users throughout its life time through swapping, borrowing, rental, redesign, or second hand services, thus extending its user life; and
  • Can be reclaimed and safely and effectively recycled, whereby its components are utilized as raw material for manufacturing of new products, or are biodegraded and turned into biological nutrients for microorganisms in the soil.

But what does a circular fashion consumer stand for? Based on the above principles, a circular fashion consumer is any person who aspires to:

  • Buy items that he/she really appreciates and intends to keep and use actively for a long time, possibly a lifetime;
  • Buy items of high quality with regards to both the materials involved (for example the fabric) and the overall product, so as to have it look good, work well and last for a long time;
  • Buy items that are non-toxic and/or organic, that is products that contain no harmful substances and have been produced without any toxic substances or materials involved. The customer here often seeks products that have been certified according to an eco-label, such as GOTS, EU Ecolabel or the Nordic Ecolabel (Svanen);
  • Buy items that are made with organic or recycled materials, preferably environmentally certified. The customer prefers natural materials (such as wool, linen, silk, and viscose) before synthetic (such as polyester, acrylic and nylon), and also recycled material before virgin. Ethical and fair trade products are also generally sought;
  • Buy items that can be easily repaired or redesigned in order to make maximum use of the product and the materials involved;
  • Buy items that can be easily and safely disassembled in order to facilitate effective reuse and recycling of its sub-components and materials at their end of use (T-shirts with plastic prints are thus not a good option!);
  • Prioritize looking for second hand or vintage pieces or finding fashion pieces through renting, borrowing or swapping as opposed to buying newly produced;
  • Take good care of his/her wardrobe through careful washing practices (low temperatures, gentle eco-detergents, no tumble drying, and/or hand wash) and, when possible, avoiding washing all together by airing clothes outdoor or similar;
  • Hand in items that are no longer needed or appreciated to secondhand shops or charity organizations, or pass them on to friends or relatives, in order to give them new life; and
  • Take worn-out or unmendable products to a recycling station so that they can be recycled and reused as raw material or components in new products.

To summarize, a ‘circular fashion consumer’ is a person who appreciates the true value of a garment, a pair of shoes, or accessory, including all work that lies behind and all precious natural resources that have been used throughout its supply chain. He/she aims to hold on to its belongings for as long as possible, and to use them a maximum number of times during their lifetime. In all, he/she wishes to contribute to a fashion industry that is ‘circular as opposed to linear’, in which nothing goes to waste and everything is utilized, reutilized, repurposed and recycled in the most effective and sustainable manner possible.

Pictured: Emma Elwin talking about her view on sustainable fashion at Filippa K – a brand that works towards “circular fashion”. 

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