‘Circular’ fashion: greenwashing myth, or attainable goal?

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Paul Painter/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Paul Painter/Alamy

Circularity – a concept drawing on principles such as “designing out” waste and ensuring clothing can be remade again and again – is the buzzword at London fashion week.

At Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, the designers Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi spliced together clashing rolls of floral fabric “that had been hanging around in the studio, left over from different seasons” and designed one entirely new look.

The dress, with pink blossom above the waist, multicoloured wildflowers below and two further floral prints on the back – accessorised, for London fashion week, with a space-age black visor edged with a neoprene frill – allowed the duo scope to be creative and offer customers a new look, while reducing their environmental footprint.

But a new documentary warns that circularity may not be an effective strategy for sustainability – as it has been billed in some quarters – when applied to mass-produced clothes, which account for the vast majority of the fashion industry.

“The clothes you see at London fashion week have a good chance of having a decent life,” said Veronica Bates Kassatly, an independent analyst of sustainability claims, at a screening of Fashionscapes: A Circular Economy.

High-cost clothes were more likely to be worn multiple times “and the prices mean that it makes economic sense for shoppers to repair rather than replace,” said Bates Kassatly. She noted that she was recently quoted £45 by a cobbler to fix a pair of worn-out shoes, a price at which many consumers would choose to buy a new pair instead.

The short film shows bales of discarded fashion items arriving by tanker at Kantamanto market in Ghana. While some of the clothing is mended or upcycled, much of it is of too poor quality to reuse, or has been thoughtlessly constructed with embellishments and extra fastenings that render the garments useless.

Clothes sent to Kantamanto are often recorded as having been “recycled”, but 40% leave the market again as landfill. “This is circularity as greenwashing,” says Andrew Morgan, the director of Fashionscapes.

Livia Firth, the sustainability activist hosting the film, said that circularity had “become a marketing tool which allows big brands to put a recycling bin in their store while continuing to use supply chains that wreak havoc on the natural world”.

The environmental writer and expert Lucy Siegle said: “Circularity is an exciting opportunity, where it is genuine – but it has been hijacked.”

Consumers were being misled, she added. “There is this idea that plastic is infinitely recyclable, and that’s just not the case.”

Alberto Candiani, the owner of Candiani Denim, a small Milan-based brand that produces the world’s first biodegradable jeans, believes that while the catwalk fashion for upcycling may not be an effective sustainability model at lower price points, high fashion has an important leadership role to play in pioneering better fabric production.

Approximately 65% of clothes on sale today are made from polyester, the base material of which is either gas or oil. Candiani has created a biodegradable plant-based denim, which is compostable “and even beneficial for the soil – fertiliser for cotton”.

Candiani believes that the fashion industry should capitalise upon high-spending fashion consumers’ interest in sustainability to fund research into future regenerative fabrics.

The premium American denim brand Frame, which has boutiques in Chelsea, London, as well as New York, LA and Aspen, has partnered with Candiani on a new upmarket range of sustainable jeans.

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