Rethinking The Approach to Circular Fashion Economy

Recycling is becoming trendy in the fashion industry as companies, consumers, and policymakers look to circular fashion to tackle the industry’s environmental impact and respond to new economic opportunities.  

The textile industry alone produces 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year and accounts for around 20 percent of global industrial water pollution.

And while most companies, brands and designers are increasingly focusing on circular fashion models, resale, rental and repair, to mitigate these impacts, people are often left out of the conversation. The industry has billions of customers and over 60 million employees worldwide in its value chain.

According to the people-centered approach to a circular fashion economy report by Business for Social Responsibility(BSR) and Laudes foundation, despite the major social implications of a shift to circular business models, social issues are largely absent from the circular fashion discourse and design compared to environmental impacts. While the environmental benefits of a shift to circular fashion are potentially enormous, this shift could deliver sub-optimal models and hinder the transition to a sustainable economy without meaningful consideration of the social impacts.

“By taking a people-centered approach, we can build a more resilient industry and respond to the calls from stakeholders—through safer inputs that increase the health and safety of workers and production communities, enabling creative and dignified employment, and building inclusive models adapted to the needs of a diverse consumer base.” BSR

The shift to circular fashion could promote improved working conditions for garment workers by giving greater value to the clothes produced, requiring more skilled labor for repair and repurpose and reducing the use of harmful inputs such as dyes and toxins.

However, this shift will require different skill sets, production methods, and potentially more time tailored to each article of clothing. The majority of garment workers lack access to upskilling opportunities and training, limiting their ability to respond to change and take advantage of new opportunities. At the same time, some opportunities arising from circular models, such as recycling, are often informal and of poor quality.

The International Labour Organization currently estimates that 80 percent of workers in the waste management and recycling industry are informally employed, facing hazardous working conditions, social stigma, and discrimination and lacking access to social benefits. Thus, it’s important that both business and policymakers seek to understand the job impacts of mainstreaming circular fashion and proactively plan to equip, support, and protect workers through the transition

Consumers on the other hand, are also starting to be more aware of the social impacts in the industry and are pushing for brands to consider social impacts of their business decisions: while Millennials are mainly concerned with environmental impacts, nine in 10 Generation Z consumers believe companies should address both environmental and social issues.

Read also: Is sustainability killing off fast fashion for good?

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