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Sustainable Fashion Futures: Circular Fashion Value Chains

July 18, 2018

Authors: Kruschen Govender, Linus Naik and Dan Kristensen

Fashion is an extremely wasteful and ecologically damaging system of production and consumption. For example, clothing products are vastly underutilised – the average number of times a garment is used before it is discarded has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago (EMF, 2017). Hence, there is an urgent need to redesign our current “fast fashion” operating model.

“Circular fashion value chains” are starting to emerge as alternatives to the fast fashion value chains. However, “circular economy thinking” and practices are still limited to niche high-end brands like Patagonia, Better World Fashion and Sealand Gear. Keeping clothing textiles in circulation as long as possible is extremely challenging, hence it is vital for niche brands to test and iterate alternative business models.

Patagonia leads the sustainability discourse in the textiles and fashion industry, setting the benchmark for fundamentally incorporating circular economy strategies (e.g. producer responsible post-consumer recycling sand upcycling) into their business model. In 2017 Patagonia received the Accenture Strategy Award for Circular Economy Multinational at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. Patagonia is committed to providing its customers with sustainably manufactured high-quality products, furthermore taking responsibility for extending the lifecycle of its products and materials. Through its e-commerce “Worn Wear” platform, https://wornwear.patagonia.com, customers can purchase used (and repaired) Patagonia apparel and gear. Customer can trade used products for merchandise credits. Through its integrated Worn Wear ecosystem, they encourage responsible fashion consumption, by administering producer buy-back, repairing and reusing value chains (i.e. circular value chains). Also, creating new products from old products (i.e. upcycling) is a cornerstone of Patagonia’s recycling strategy.

Patagonia recycling productImage via https://wornwear.patagonia.com

Better World Fashion is a company established from the get go as an experiment to put circular economy principles into practice in the fashion industry. Better World Fashion makes beautiful leather jackets on par with just about any other offerings on the market, stylish and comfortable. The leather used to produce the jackets is sourced through a collaboration with a chain of non-profit second-hand clothing stores in Denmark. These shops receive huge amount of clothes, among these leather jackets.  The best option is to sell these jackets on to new happy users. However, some of the jackets just doesn’t sell. This is where Better World Fashion comes in. They buy these jackets that would otherwise be destined for destruction, they take them apart, cleans and processes the leather, and produce new jackets based on their designs, even incorporating unique features from the old jackets like pockets and zippers. In order to take the circularity of the jackets to the next level Better World Fashion allows its customers to lease the jackets, thus Better World Fashion retains access to the leather and has the option to continuously offer new value to its customers through new designs.

Image via https://www.betterworldfashion.com

From its inception, Sealand Gear has intuitively practiced circular economy principles. Sealand’s sustainable design and ethical manufacturing alchemy, creatively converts recovered materials (e.g. yacht sail) into bespoke high-quality fashion accessories (e.g. backpacks and duffel bags). Mainstreaming circular fashion business models, will hinge on the proliferation of pioneering and ecologically conscious brands like Patagonia, Better World Fashion and Sealand Gear.



Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) (2017), A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future, http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications.

Patagonia, Patagonia Post-consumer Global Recycling Strategy and Upcycling Policy, https://www.patagonia.com/static/on/demandware.static/-/Library-Sites-PatagoniaShared/default/dw2ca0a0c1/PDF-US/Patagonia-Global-Recycling-Strategy-and-Upcycling-Policy.pdf.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) (2016), Better World Fashion, Finding a Fast Fashion Model that Lasts, https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/a-model-for-fast-fashion-that-lasts.



Kruschen Govender is a circular economy strategist and systems-design thinker. He completed his PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Department of Civil Engineering (Environmental Engineering). He is also the co-founder of a sustainable innovation and design firm, “Thinked”, www.thinked.co.za. 

Linus Naik is a chemical process engineering consultant in the waste, energy, and sustainability sectors. He completed his PhD at the University of Cape Town, Department of Chemical Engineering. He is also the co-founder of a sustainable innovation and design firm, “Thinked”, www.thinked.co.za.

Dan Kristensen completed his PhD at Aarhus University, Department of Agroecology. He has since founded Omdan Advisory+Action to help public organizations and businesses to put circular economy thinking into practice, www.omdan.earth/about/.

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