How will circularity impact fashion design?

Today’s global fashion industry is mostly based on a linear production paradigm. We take natural materials from the planet, develop and manufacture items from them, use, wear, and enjoy them, and then discard them. Historically, the fashion industry has been unconcerned about what happens after a product leaves a store. The price at which a product is sold determines its value, not any other point in the product’s lifecycle.However, this linear model isn’t the only one we have.

The circular fashion economy is an alternative system that tries to ‘complete the loop’ on resource consumption by following three principles: reducing waste and pollution, extending the life of products, and restoring natural systems. It covers the entire product lifespan, from resource extraction through end-of-life. The circular economy analyses how materials might be cycled back into the fashion economy – for example, through re-use or recycling – rather than disposing of unwanted things through landfills or incineration.

The circular economy is crucial in convincing the fashion sector to address its damaging environmental effects. It prioritizes environmental and economic sustainability, addressing the former through circular concepts and the latter by detaching revenue from resource usage and migrating to alternative business models and revenue streams. The beginnings of an industry-wide change from linear to circular have been witnessed in the fashion industry. It is also helping brand names to develop high-grade industrial sewing machines for professional sewers.

Design – a fundamental focus for the circular fashion and where the circular economy truly begins – is a critical step in bringing this system to life. What materials are used in a product, how it’s built, how it’s manufactured, what colors or finishes are utilized, the product’s style, quality, and aesthetic – all of these and more are decided during the design and product development stage. The fashion industry’s brief shifts from “how can a designer develop a successful product?” to “how can a designer create a product that can readily flow through the circular economy?” with circular design. It contributes to the transformation of fashion design’s relationship with nature from one of extraction to one of restoration and consideration.

Since 2018, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion has been collaborating with UK retailer ASOS on this topic. Our multi-year relationship began with an experimental curriculum and pilot program and has resulted in the development of circular design principles that serve to address this question.

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