Consumerism & circular economy in the fashion industry

If the consumer attitude towards clothes purchasing changes sufficiently, it could encourage a huge shift in the fashion industry, says Molly Foster, Waste and Resource Consultant, Wardell Armstrong.

The vast majority of consumer fashion is stuck in a linear model with most used clothes perceived as having no value and being disposed of at an ever-increasing frequency. If the consumer attitude towards clothes purchasing changes sufficiently, it could encourage a huge shift in the fashion industry which would flow back through the supply chain and drive a step change towards putting the circular economy at the heart of the fashion industry’s approach.

Consumers using their purchasing power to demand progressive change and circular models that look to increase quality, reusability, recyclability, and recycled content, can drive greater awareness, understanding and transparency.

Building trust and collaboration throughout the supply chain will be necessary to meet the tough challenges presented by this complex sector and progress towards a more socio-economic and environmentally conscious fashion industry.

Globally, around 150 billion garments are produced each year, and the average cost continues to fall. This also drives a reduction in the quality and the value attributed to that item, resulting in consumers wearing items less often before deciding to dispose of it. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production doubled, and between 2012 and 2016 the number of times a garment was worn decreased around 40%.

According to Oxfam, there are approximately 11 million items of clothing sent to landfill per week in the UK, and only 12% of material used for garments is from recycled sources, largely due to the complex combination of material, fibres, threads, fixtures, and accessories. This trend is exacerbated by the limited number and accessibility of outlets for textile recycling for consumers, resulting in a challenging circuit to break.

Fast fashion

In recent times modern culture has driven continued increases in oversupply and planned obsolescence. Fast fashion is a linear business model that focuses on a rapid supply chain, working to design, produce and distribute new items of clothing at an accelerated rate.

This model works due to the low cost of labour, ever changing fashion trends and most importantly the increase in consumer demand / purchasing power. There is the long standing and underlying thread that people are judged by the brands / styles they wear, and much cash is therefore invested in selling the latest, constantly changing styles.

However, more recently, there is a growing move towards wanting to consume more responsibly, which will hopefully ultimately become ‘cooler’ than wearing the latest fast fashion trends, as seen in shops such as PrettyLittleThing or BooHoo.

There are companies taking significant steps towards a more circular business model, and this is being supported by Defra’s Waste Prevention Programme. For example, Arket advertises ‘think long-term when buying’, ‘reusing garments only makes sense if they retain a certain quality over time’, and ‘borrow from others to reduce waste’.

There are companies taking significant steps towards a more circular business model, and this is being supported by Defra’s Waste Prevention Programme

Lucy and Yak is another example of a company that works towards sustainability, by using fabric off cuts to produce accessories, and the app ‘Depop’ to sell any items of clothing with slight faults to reduce waste.

Furthermore, the Jeans Redesign demonstrates that garments can be created through a more circular approach. Commonly applied solutions include the use of recycled fabrics and substitution of rivets with bar tracks, reinforced stitching, or embroidery techniques to make recycling easier.

Clothing rental companies, such as MUD jeans, have recently come into the scene too. To maintain this momentum and ensure that it becomes the norm, rather than the exception, there needs to be greater transparency of supply chains, clearer labelling of material composition, and increased awareness of the environmental impacts of our throwaway culture.

Avery Dennison’s Digital Care Label is an example of how clearer labelling can build a bridge to a more circular economy, by using a QR code for the consumer to understand the material composition and sustainability of their item. It requires brands to be transparent with their consumers and allows resellers to identify the material later in the garment life cycle.


Charity shops play a key role, and about 32% of textiles are being reused this way in the UK. Netflix series ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ spiked a surge in people clearing out clothes that no longer ‘spark joy’. The charity shops will have benefited; however, people often replace these purged items with new ones once the trend passes, feeding the consumer demand issue that sparked my article in the first place.

It shouldn’t go without saying though, that there has been a recent increase in demand for used clothing as consumers become more aware of environmental issues associated with the fast fashion industry.

Driven by this consumer conscience, there is a growing market for environmentally conscious clothing. Some brands, such as the Girlfriend Collective are proud to promote that their clothing is made from recycled material which has originated from plastic bottles, when in fact it would be more efficient to recycle these bottles into other plastic bottles.

…There is a growing market for environmentally conscious clothing

These changes are often not being considered holistically and can result in detrimental impacts or minimal overall environmental benefit. Greenwashing presents a real threat to the fashion industry turning itself around, and so clarity, transparency and collaboration needs to be prioritised.

If we can encourage companies to produce better quality clothes that last longer, and on balance, cost less to the consumer, there is also the ability to address the negative socio-economic impact on workers.

I think there needs to be a mechanism by which consumers can clearly see the value embedded within an item and make more informed choices. Balance that with more effective use of charity shops and expanding clothes rental services, and we might be getting closer to a circular economy.

Send this to a friend