Can Circular Fashion Reduce Industry Waste?

If your closet looks like this, you're not alone: The size of the average American wardrobe is five time larger than it was in 1980. . (Photo: Vyacheslav Svetlichnyy/Shutterstock)

Even if you eschew "fashion," you still wear clothes. And right now, the clothing industry is a mess. What we wear is cheaper than it's ever been, and those low prices lead to tons of waste — literally. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a garbage-truck's worth of textiles is wasted every second.

While it's great to donate or recycle your clothes when you're done with them, only about 15 percent of our clothes get made into "shoddy," which is cheap fabric made from ripped up garments, or reused in another way. Less than 5 percent of what's donated makes its way to thrift store shelves. Less than 1 percent of clothing is recycled into new clothing. All the rest is landfilled.

Making clothes takes a tremendous amount of energy. Polyester production has doubled in the last 15 years, but polyester is made from oil and gas, which are environmentally costly to extract from the earth, and polyester won't biodegrade. About 30 percent of all clothes are made from cotton, a water-intensive crop that often uses pesticides and insecticides. Dyeing cotton takes more water and chemicals, and then the material is flown around the world to be sewed (sometimes in sweatshop-like conditions) before it's shipped again (burning more fossil fuels) to us in the U.S.

'Our textile system is broken'

A graphic of the Global material flows for clothing in 2015.
Using figures from 2015, this graphic illustrates the flow of material from production to waste. (Photo: Courtesy Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

Fashion production needs a makeover, and as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has so boldly stated: "Our textile system is broken." The foundation's mission is to "accelerate the transition to a circular economy," and they recently launched the Circular Fibres Initiative targeting the fashion industry. Stella McCartney, H&M;, Lenzing, NIKE Inc., and more than 30 other organizations have signed on to support the effort.

These organizations — including the Danish Fashion Institute, Fashion for Good, Cradle to Cradle and Mistra Future Fashion — are dedicated to converting fashion from its current production methods — "take, make, dispose" as the video below describes it — to a compete reimagining of how clothes are made and used.

In this vision for a new textiles economy, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, "clothes would be designed to last longer, be worn more, and be easily rented, resold or recycled, and no toxic substances or pollutants would be released during their production and use."

The goal is a no-waste clothing and textiles system. It's possible, but it will require plenty of effort: "New business models, technological innovation, radical collaboration, and most importantly, rapid acceleration are critical steps the report identifies to catalyze this critical transformation,” said Jason Kibbey, the CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Graphic of Ambitions for a new textiles economy.
This graphic illustrates the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's ambitions for a new textiles economy. (Photo: Courtesy Ellen MacArthur Foundation)