Which type of careless customer only keeps clothes for a few weeks before chucking them out when they’re barely worn? 

You’ve guessed it: babies.

Even though the negative impacts of the fashion industry are becoming increasingly well understood, babies, toddlers and children of all ages just won’t budge. They buy new stuff, wear it just a few times and then decide they’ve had enough. A whole new wardrobe is required.

You’ve probably guessed by now that this isn’t really a fair interpretation. But the underlying principle still rings true. As children grow, their needs and sizes change frequently. It’s estimated that the average baby grows eight sizes in the first two years of its life. The result is a continual need for new clothes, at expense and inconvenience to parents, driving a constant demand for resources and energy to make garments, and the inevitable need to dispose of clothes that are no longer worn.

But would you say that the users of those clothes, or even the parents that buy them are themselves inherently wasteful? Of course not. It’s all down to the system that underpins the way that we design, make, buy, use and dispose of clothes. It’s the same linear, take-make-dispose system that most industries work on, from food to phones to homes.

Fortunately, when it comes to kids’ clothes there are informal channels that help some clothes get another use. Your child might be able to inherit some hand-me-downs from an older sibling, cousin or friend. Marketplaces like eBay, Facebook and Gumtree give people a place to sell items they have outgrown or no longer need, and for others to pick up clothes with use left in them, for a better price.

This is good. It’s a hack on the linear system, but take-make-dispose still rules. When buying second hand today, choice is limited, and quality and hygiene are a lottery. There’s no real motivation for manufacturers to design and make more durable clothes to pass through the hands of multiple different users. That means garments might get used for slightly longer before heading to the bin. At that point, there’s little infrastructure in place to properly collect and reprocess these textiles, which may contain toxic dyes or additives that hinder high-quality recycling.

There’s a company in Denmark that are looking at baby clothes in a completely different way. Vigga produces high quality garments using organic materials. They look good, are well-designed and made to last, but this pushes the price up. So instead of just selling these items – which would reduce the number of people able to use them – the startup offers them on a subscription model. For a monthly fee, Vigga sends customers the right clothes in the right sizes for their baby. When they grow, they get the new collection in the post, and the outgrown clothes are washed in a professional laundry, ready to be sent for use by another child.

Founder Vigga Svensson says that getting clothes in this way saves time and money for parents, whilst delivering a better quality product. But unlike businesses that sell clothes in the traditional way, designing clothes that last actually helps Vigga too: high quality garments can be circulated more times, between more customers, improving earnings for the business. There’s now an incentive to create something that never ends up as waste.

Why stop at baby clothes? Why can’t more customers satisfy their fashion and clothing needs in this way?

According to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the problem of clothes that are barely worn is something many of us can relate to. Worldwide, the average number of times a garment is worn before it’s chucked out has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago. This is a big waste of money: customers are missing out on USD 460 billion of value each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear, and some garments are estimated to be discarded after just seven to ten wears.

Consequently, the report A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future states that “for garments where practical needs change over time, for example, children’s clothes or those for one-off occasions, rental services would increase utilisation by keeping garments in frequent use rather than in people’s closets”. Along with better resale models, these sorts of activities could help break free from the increasingly disposable nature of clothes.

Click to read the full report and find out how the fashion industry could move to a more circular model

Ensuring clothes are worn for longer is one way the fashion industry can move from a linear model to one based on the principles of a circular economy, but the Ellen MacArthur Foundation highlights three further areas of focus in the New Textiles Economy report.

The ingredients that go into our clothes also needs to be addressed. When plastic-based textiles such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic are washed, they release tiny microfibres which end up in the ocean. It’s estimated that half a million tonnes of microfibres leak into the ocean every year, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles. They’re so tiny and distributed that they are likely impossible to clean up, and could even enter the food chain and end up on our plates. On top of that, making textiles and clothing uses polluting toxins and substances of concern, which need to be phased out if materials are going to be reused continuously in a circular economy. The report’s authors say that the industry needs to work together to coordinate innovation and create safe materials cycles, and start using new materials and production processes that end microfibre release.

There’s no getting away from it, the fashion industry uses a huge amount of resources, and that’s not going to change overnight. Just look at greenhouse gas emissions: In 2015, CO2 emissions from textiles production was more than those from all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The second recommendation states that while moving to a new textiles economy will reduce the need for virgin inputs, when extra raw materials are required, they should come from renewable resources. This means applying regenerative agriculture practices and using renewable energy.

Finally, less than 1% of clothing is properly recycled, resulting in more than USD 100 billion worth of materials being lost from the system every year. So there’s a huge opportunity for the industry to collaborate and radically improve on this figure, by aligning on materials choices, collection schemes, recycling technologies and demand for recycled materials.

So whether it’s barely worn baby clothes, items with tags in the back of the closet, or poorly made garments that aren’t made to last, there are parts of today’s dysfunctional fashion system that we can all relate to. From materials and manufacturing to retail and disposal, it’s a complex problem that will require new, ambitious collaboration from the entire industry to solve. A New Textiles Economy offers a new vision for a system that works. If the fashion world can start heading in the right direction, it can help create a model fit for the 21st century.

Find out more about the report A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future

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The Author

Joe Iles

Joe Iles

I'm Editor in Chief of Circulate and Digital Architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

When I'm not discussing the circular economy, I also love talking about digital media and online trends, memes, music, bad films and good beer.

You can find me on twitter @joeiles or email joe[at]circulatenews.org

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