When it comes to circular fashion, starting from the ground up may be the only way forward, as many production processes cannot be retro-fitted.
With circular fashion, the focus is on regenerating natural systems, and reusing and recycling items to ensure there’s no waste and pollution in production. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy for fashion would “create better products and services for customers, contribute to a resilient and thriving fashion industry, and regenerate the environment.” With COP26 currently taking place in Glasgow, the pressing problem of carbon emissions in the fashion industry is being spotlighted. Circularity addresses it by moving clothes out of landfills and into permanent rotation through consumers.
In November 2020, the Circular Fashion Report initiated by the Circular Fashion Summit estimated that the market size potential of circular fashion was $5 trillion. New business models will be necessary to expand the circular economy, and fashion companies have yet to re-imagine their production processes from cradle to cradle. Cradle-to-cradle refers to a production process where products are developed for closed-loop systems in which every output ingredient is safe and beneficial.
Fashion brand The Minimalist and footwear brand Hilos are two companies that have built their circular fashion models. Below, both brands showcase the ways that circular fashion can capitalize on the growing consumer awareness of cradle-to-cradle strategies and direct-to-consumer models that have a clear advantage in this space.
Case Study: How Minimalist built a luxury DTC line
Founder and creative director Tamara Davydova launched Minimalist as a DTC luxury fashion brand in March of this year. It focuses on delivering luxury items that are also designed to be fully biodegradable and 100% recyclable at the end of their life. For 20 years, Davydova worked in design alongside designers including Michael Kors and Monique Lhuillier. “I had a VP role at my last job, and I always traveled for textile shows. I started to notice that their sustainability forums became a little bit bigger each season at Paris Première Vision, and I knew this was the next step” she said.
For Davydova, Minimalist presented an opportunity to break the production model that she had seen when working at traditional fashion brands. She enrolled in FIT’s Sustainable Design Entrepreneurs program and Harvard Business School’s Sustainable Business Strategy program to develop her understanding of circularity and how it could alter the thinking behind business decisions in fashion. Her collection reflects this, with every component of the garment, from the fabric to the zippers, designed with its next life in mind. “With circularity, it’s already eliminating waste and pollution from the start by only using sustainable and certified materials,” she said. With higher-quality initial materials, circularity is more expensive, however the lifespan of the garments makes this a worthwhile investment for the consumer.
The brand’s DTC format allows all garments to be made after an order is placed, a key part of a fashion brand’s circular transformation. The products range from shirts and jackets to jumpsuits with drawstring waists and exposed zippers. Maintaining high-quality materials within the garments elongates their lifespan, making them more likely to be accepted for reuse or recycling programs.
Textile recycling is limited, said Davydova. You have to use pure fibers in the current market, as mixes are not accepted for fiber-to-fiber recycling. Mono fibers are those that are not combined with others that would give it different characteristics in the production stage. For mono fibers like cotton, innovations like Infinna™ that use the Infinited Fiber Company’s cellulose carbamate technology can reuse waste cotton to create new fibers. However, this cannot be done with mixed materials. The Minimalist collection uses only 100% sustainable viscose and Tencel from Lanzing and 100% organic cotton from Japan. Those fibers can be then recycled back into their original form, leaving no waste in the process.
Many companies like H&M that accept clothing recycling from their consumers are downcycling, where the recycled material is of lower quality through processing. The textiles are then used as fillers for furniture, while polyester garments are turned into carpets. Davydova said this is where the concept of circularity gets misunderstood, as fashion garments should be kept in circulation as fashion garments for as long as possible. “My goal is that my garments never end up in a landfill”.
The other valuable part of the Minimalist strategy is that it is marketed as a luxury brand first. It engages consumers with its fine finishes and developed aesthetic. “The bulk of my customers are 35- to 55-years old with income to spend, but the No. 1 reason they choose the brand is because of the product. They love it when they put it on and then I share with them the story of circularity that very few have any idea about. They become my ambassadors and share the story,” she said. With each consumer comes a field of influence, meaning that the idea of circularity can reach a wider audience through this connection to the garment.
The next step for the brand is scaling, by expanding to specialty boutiques, and growing the business by prioritizing its circular approach.
Case Study: How Hilos is delivering circularity through 3D design and content
Hilos has incorporated technology to create a fully circular piece of footwear. The Portland-based company has created a unique foundation that combines the traditional insole, midsole and outsole of a shoe into a single 3D printed mesh platform using BASF’s Ultrasint material. The mesh allows for a developed footbed that is equal to the performance of a sneaker. Each pair of Hilos uses 85% less water than traditional footwear takes to produce, saving 1,700 gallons of water per pair.
Using 3D printing means that there is no excess waste when the sole is produced. Founders Gaia Giladi, a designer, and Elias Stahl, a tech specialist, said that enabling footwear circularity means “building a shoe for disassembly.”
“For us, that’s the core of what recycling is — to be able to separate the component pieces into their original material forms, cleanly recycle them and be able to use them for another product,” said Stahl.
Neither of the founders had designed footwear before Hilos, meaning that they were able to approach the design process from a problem-solving perspective. Giladi had previously worked in fashion and saw that the levels of overproduction were unsustainable. “There are not enough people that are willing to shake things up and shift in the industry, even when it’s something that is inefficient,” she said.
The research the pair did before founding the company showed that using traditional manufacturing and supply chains didn’t work. The old model required the ordering of sizes and styles in advance of receiving orders, based on estimates, and necessitates 12- to 18-month development times that could lead to wasted product that goes unsold. “Even if the materials themselves were able to be recycled at the end of day, there would still be more going into the landfill and more resources going into production than needed,” said Stahl.
The founders have used the knowledge they’ve gained from building the business to spread circularity as a concept to their consumers. Using social media and videos, they show the disassembly process, providing transparency while keeping their users engaged with the product and growing a dedicated following in the process. Their posts describe their mesh structure and the 3D process behind the unified sole. Every order at Hilos comes with a return label that consumers can use to send back their shoes to the company for recycling while earning them 15% off their next purchase. The materials are then disassembled and Hilos recycles the components.
Hilos also recently announced a new collaborative business model to partner with other retail brands to help them deliver zero-waste, on-demand footwear lines. The first collaboration partner is Austin-based men’s footwear brand Helm. The Helm by Hilos collection launched on Oct. 21 and is part of Hilos’ future strategy toward collaborative business models. The model works because the design thinking starts before anything is produced, making every decision one that works towards the circular model.