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A circular future: an eco-friendly fashion industry?

A circular economy is the championed direction for the fashion world

Photo Credit: University of York 

Many of us don't even realise the impact that our fashion choices are having on the global environment. 

The desire to keep up with the latest trends has given birth to the fast-fashion industry, where clothes are quickly manufactured from synthetic fibers and are designed for short-term usage. Not only does this process absorb vast enormities of finite resources, but it is also having catastrophic implications in terms of both substantial pollution and further social inequalities.

In fact, it is predicted that by 2050 the fashion industry will be solely responsible for consuming a quarter of the global annual carbon budget (Ellen McArthur Foundation). The majority of us wear synthetic fabrics every day – 60 per cent of all clothing is made of these fabrics, which include materials like polyester and nylon.

Many of these clothes are poorly made and, as a result, it is predicted that more than half of fast-fashion is thrown out in under a year, with one truck of textiles being sent to landfill every second. This is a monumental amount when you consider that there are 86 400 seconds in a day.

But the story of fast-fashion does not end there. Synthetic fibers are those that are derivatives of plastic, and unless you were living under a rock during 2018, then you’ll know that plastic is very bad for aquatic environments. At current rates, the Ellen McArthur Foundation has estimated that between 2015 and 2050, 22 million tonnes of microfibers will be thrown into our oceans.

Every time you put your synthetic fibered clothes into the washing machine, hundreds of thousands of miniscule microfibers are released  into the waterways before eventually escaping to the ocean. Once there, these very fie synthetic threads can be engulfed by marine organisms – particularly by bivalves like oysters and mussels, which are filter feeders.

A recent study from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science revealed that mussels ingest one in ten microfibers within their environment, later incorporating them into their tissues. Seafood is one of the most lucrative commodities traded on the global food market, so it is not a far stretch to suggest that this could have potential harmful consequences for human health through bioaccumulation. Studies have found plastic within humans, but it’s not certain what the impacts are for our bodies.

So, what can be done to mitigate against this horrendous situation?

A circular economy is the championed direction for the fashion world, but what exactly does it entail? The Ellen McArthur Foundation describes it as “gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural and social capital.” 

It is based on three principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; and regenerate natural systems.

Essentially, materials will go through a seemingly never-ending cycle whereby they are consistently re-fashioned into another product of use after their first life. It would result in better economic, environmental and social outcomes that are currently being missed by the present linear textiles system.

In fact, a study in the nature of seven European countries, noted that a move to a circular economy would reduce each country’s greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 70 per cent and expand its workforce by about four per cent, producing the ultimate low-carbon economy.

Undoubtedly, to improve the fashion industry’s impact on our seas, a shift towards biodegradable product composition must be made. Although natural fibers are more expensive, it is imperative that we change the public’s psyche to enable an acceptance of clothing longevity to become the norm.

Currently, the fashion industry has been found to be adding more to global climate change than the aeronautical and shipping industries combined. However, change is already taking place with high- street stores like M&S and H&M already having a textile recycling scheme in operation, and Primark launching a clothing ‘take-back’ scheme later this year. This reprocessing of materials not only creates jobs, but also is energy saving, while simultaneously reducing resource consumption and waste.

Transforming an industry currently worth $2.4 trillion is no easy task, but for our global community that is continually striving for sustainable development, it seems to be a job worth taking.

Embedding sustainable materials in our lives going forward is crucial – the University of York’s One Planet Week, held in Week Six of Spring Term, is centred on this theme. Head to to checkout the programme of events being held.

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