CASE STUDY BRITISH FASHION COUNCIL
Accelerating the transition to circular fashion
3Keel leads research for the Institute of Positive Fashion’s flagship initiative, providing a blueprint for a circular fashion ecosystem in the UK.
he fashion sector is facing a conundrum. Modelling by McKinsey & Company (2020) indicates that if the global fashion industry is to align itself with a 1.5˚C pathway by 2030, absolute greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to around half those of the present day. Yet in recent decades, the amount of clothes produced has done nothing but grow; clothes are used less and less, and the impact on the environment is increasing.
It is becoming clear, however, that the principles embedded within circular economies can deliver the emission reductions needed in the fashion industry, while also providing numerous economic and social benefits. Realising this, the British Fashion Council’s Institute of Positive Fashion commissioned 3Keel to lead foundational research for their flagship initiative, the Circular Fashion Ecosystem (CFE) Project. The findings, which were published during London Fashion Week in September of 2021, have provided the industry with a clear vision of what a circular fashion ecosystem in the UK could look like, and how to get there.
The research, conducted in collaboration with QSA Partners, Flourish CSR, the Adam Smith School of the University of Glasgow and Icaro Consulting, indicated that the UK is well positioned to implement a circular fashion economy. Not only is the UK a world leader in collecting used clothing, most of which is exported abroad, but there is also an appetite for change. Among the more than 30 stakeholder representatives consulted for the project, reducing production and consumption of new clothing was listed as a top priority. There was also a consensus that brands and retailers should embrace circular and sharing business models and empower consumers to make environmentally responsible choices. In addition, stakeholders agreed that the UK government should lead on creating policy, developing incentives, and investing in enabling infrastructure and technology.
To showcase how this is feasible, the report provided a blueprint built on three target outcomes: a reduced volume of new physical clothing passing through the system; maximised clothing use; and optimised sorting and materials recovery. This is a future where digital prototyping is used to design both virtual and physical garments with circular design principles in mind; where pre-owned clothing, virtual clothing, rental clothing, and clothing subscription is mainstream and available through both online and physical retail; and where improved sorting enables textile-to-textile recycling. This circular fashion ecosystem represents significant changes to material flows, industry operations and consumer practices across the UK fashion value chain and ecosystem (see below).
Nonetheless, there are still significant challenges to achieving this vision. If the industry is to create a fashion ecosystem based on circular economy principles, it will require all actors in the fashion value chain to work together. Our research indicated that there are at least 10 action areas where stakeholders can collaboratively apply pressure. These areas, which are interconnected, have many synergies. For example, developing a digital tracking system for clothing could be done to ensure that sorters and reprocessors have the information they need to determine how best to recycle an item. Meanwhile, digital tracking could also provide more information to consumers on the environmental and social footprint of a garment and how to best look after the item. In the diagram below, which describes this complexity in the form of 30 recommendations for leading and enabling stakeholders to kick-start efforts across the action areas, these connections are represented by threads that link the recommendations to secondary, synergy action areas.
Although a circular fashion ecosystem may seem daunting, there is ample reason to believe it is possible. There is a clear environmental case for reducing the flow of new material, and although emerging technologies need further investment and planning, they will continue to show potential for scaling closed-loop systems. There is also a clear economic case for reversing the trend of declining use. Shifting to circular and sharing business models presents an opportunity for brands and retailers to do this, and if designed right, delink revenue from production and resource use. The markets for clothing resale and rental are growing rapidly, and our consumer research showed that among UK citizens who buy at least two items a month, nearly two-thirds already buy used items, and almost two in five use clothing rental services.
If the UK fashion industry takes advantage of these trends and works together on these key action areas, it can not just accelerate the transition to a circular economy; it can also achieve greater resilience and prosperity in the long term.