Circular By Design

The Challenge

Today, the fashion and textiles industry largely follows a linear ‘take-make-use-waste’ model; one in which we take raw finite materials, to make vast volumes of products, which we then use for a while, before inevitably discarding them as waste, with no further regard for their ecological or social impact.

Since the advent of mass production with the industrial revolution, the production and consumption of cheap, poorly-made products has quickly become the social standard, and their ‘planned obsolescence’ shortly after, the norm. Not only have recent industrial and technological developments made mass consumption possible, but they’ve also made it infinitely more desirable – by enlarge, ‘newness’ and disposability are in, quality and durability out.

Today, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are ecological limits to this kind of linear growth.Over the past 100 years, the textile industry has become the joint third highest emitter of greenhouse gases globally1. It is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions (more than all international flights and shipping combined) and about 20% of global clean water pollution.2 

Upstream, textile production is water, land, energy and chemical intensive and reliant on finite resources. Today, over 100 million new items of clothing are produced per annum, and 97% of this uses virgin feedstock. The use phase is equally as problematic. Clothing utilisation – the number of times an item is worn before it is thrown away – is in rapid decline. Since 1996, the average  EU consumer has been buying 40% more clothes, but wearing them 30% less3. And, according to latest estimates, 35% of primary microplastics entering the ocean are released through the washing of textiles. Post-use, 75-85% of all textiles will go directly to incineration or landfill. Globally, a mere 1% of clothing is recycled back into new clothing again.

Ireland’s textiles industry is no different; characterised by high rates of consumption, declining utilisation, and high volumes of waste. Ireland is a net importer of clothing and textiles with 292,000 tonnes of new textiles, clothing and footwear imported per annum. Here at home, we generate about 35kg of textile ‘waste’ per year per person – which is almost 35% higher than the EU average of 26kg per person. Approximately 65% (110,000 tonnes) of post-consumer textile waste is not reused or recycled but rather directly collected as household, commercial or industrial waste and goes to waste to energy plants or landfill.

1 McKinsey & Company, 2020. Fashion on Climate: How the Fashion Industry Can Urgently Act to Reduce its Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Available here
2 Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017 A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, Available here
3 Ellen MacArthur Foundation,2021m Circular business models: redefining growth for a thriving fashion industry. Available here


The Solution

Enter the circular economy: a design-led framework that offers systematic, holistic solutions to tackle the key environmental and social challenges of our time. A circular economy operates in accordance with three core principles:

  • Design out waste and pollution
  • Keep products and materials in use for at long as possible, at their highest value
  • Regenerate natural systems

In a circular economy, these three principles are applied at every stage of the value chain: beginning with material cultivation & production, through product design, business & retail models, and finally to repair, reuse and recycling.

A circular system by nature facilitates the continuous flow of materials, both through technical cycles (reuse, repair, remanufacture and recycling) and biological cycles (returning the nutrients from biodegradable materials safely to the earth in regenerative processes). Where, in a linear economy, raw materials might stand a chance of being recycled or downcycled at the end of their life, a circular economy crucially seeks to prevent this waste from occurring altogether. At the design phase, this looks like designing products for long term use, and planning for multiple life cycles. Circular economy also offers radical new business models that focus on extending product life cycles through product-service systems, for example rental, re-sale, maintenance and repair and exchange, upcycling and high-value recycling.

While we see increasing risk associated with ‘linear’ business models, with the reliance on scarce and non-renewable resources and the failure to collaborate, innovate and adapt leading to price volatility, supply chain issues and legal repercussions due to changing legislation,  the big-picture benefits of the circular economy are growing exponentially. Reports show that a transition to circularity offers huge macro-economic, environmental, social, and business benefits including new job creation, enhanced economic growth & resilience, and increased customer loyalty & empowerment. For Ireland, the EPA estimates that even a 5% material improvement across the economy would represent an annual €2.32bn opportunity, and that valorising our local wastestream would offer further opportunities for local circular development. 

5 Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP 2.0), European Commission, 2020 and Financing the circular economy – Capturing the opportunity, Ellen MacArthur foundation, 2021


Circular Design Strategy

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