The Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Designing waste and pollution out of fashion

Our Global Alliance is a network of global organisations committed to environmental action who share the ambition of The Prize to repair the planet, as well as academic and non-profit institutions and private sector alliances from around the world. Our Global Alliance and nominators are a key part of Earthshot, and as such, their news is great news for the environment and something we look forward to sharing on a regular basis.  

This week, our Official Nominator, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, introduce their work, what a circular economy for fashion is and the future of fashion . 

What does fashion mean to you? Is it a way to express yourself, a comfort, a support? Maybe it’s a little intimidating and you just look for clothes that fit? But whether you’re an advocate or an avoider, we should all care about fashion. Each item of clothing we invest in comes at a high cost. The number of times we wear our clothes before discarding them has fallen by 36%, and millions of tonnes of clothing now end up in landfill or incinerated each year.[1] Fashion is also a major contributor of plastic microfibres in our oceans, and greenhouse gas emissions from textile production are equivalent to all those from international flights and maritime shipping combined. To make our clothing, 93 billion cubic metres of fresh water are used every year, the equivalent of 37 million olympic-size swimming pools, and much of this water leaves the system as waste, contaminated with chemicals. We’re dealing with a huge and growing problem and it isn’t fashionable at all.

These trends are not only damaging the environment, they are limiting the opportunities for the fashion industry to succeed in the long-term. The industry already misses out on USD 560 billion from clothing being worn less and barely recycled. However, this picture of the fashion industry isn’t inevitable. By creating a circular economy for fashion – in which clothes are used more and for longer, and are made to be made again from safe and recycled or renewable materials – fashion can reinvent itself. It can become an industry that tackles global challenges, such as climate change, rather than contributing to them.

In practice, a circular economy for fashion means designing clothes to be both physically durable and desirable for longer, so that they can be worn more. Services such as clothing repair, and business models including rental, subscription, and resale prevent clothes from sitting, unworn, in wardrobes. Rather than throwing clothes away when we no longer want to wear them, they are worn and loved by someone else. Extending the life of an item of clothing by only an extra nine months has the potential to reduce its carbon, water, and waste footprint by around 20-30%.[2]

As well as creating ways to keep our clothes in use, each item of clothing needs to be designed so that it can be remade into new clothes when it’s no longer able to be worn. The way our clothes are currently designed makes this particularly challenging. Take jeans, for example. Jeans are often designed using a blend of materials, such as cotton, polyester and elastane, as well as metal rivets and zips, and effects like stonewashing are applied to give them a certain look or feel. This can make them very difficult, time consuming, and expensive to take apart and recycle. Most recyclers today only accept jeans that are made almost entirely out of cotton because it’s the only way their business can be profitable. As a result, jeans almost always become waste.

The way jeans are made in the first place is also problematic. To grow conventional cotton for jeans large amounts of water are used, as well as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, which can cause damage to ecosystems. To give jeans their iconic blue hues, they are submerged in vats of synthetic dyes and the jeans are then washed multiple times and treated with bleaches and acids to produce the desired colour. The wastewater from this process is difficult to treat so that it is safe to return to water sources.

However, when jeans are designed for a circular economy these impacts are eliminated and remaking old jeans into new jeans becomes easier. Jeans can be made with organic or regenerative cotton that is grown without chemical inputs, uses less water, and relies on practices that are good for the soil. If this cotton makes up 98% of the material, or more, the jeans can be easily recycled when they can no longer be worn. They can be dyed with natural materials, and patterns and other aesthetics can be applied with safe methods such as laser technologies. Rivets and other components can either be eliminated or designed so that they can be easily removed before the recycling process.

A number of pioneering fashion businesses have started to make jeans like these, fit for a circular economy. As part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign, more than 65 leading fashion brands, manufacturers, and fabric mills are committed to producing jeans that are durable, free from hazardous chemicals, and easy to recycle. Many brands have already launched jeans that have been made in this way. Back in October 2020, H&M launched a menswear denim collection that features three jean styles, two jackets, an overshirt, a tote bag, and a bucket hat made from a mix of organic cotton and up to 35% recycled cotton from post-consumer waste. In the same month, sister brand Weekday unveiled a unisex pair of regular fit jeans and a jacket made from 20% post-consumer waste and biodegradable thread.

In January 2021, unspun unveiled its made-to-order jeans created with 99% organic cotton denim and 1% Lycra, and washed using recycled water and certified safe chemicals. Unspun worked with a group of suppliers to develop the jeans, including denim mill Panther Denim and eco finishing partner Frontline Clothing Ltd, which are also part of the Jeans Redesign. The jeans are complete with non-electroplated raw zinc buttons by French trims manufacturer Dorlet that can be removed and reused, while threads by Resortecs, a brand of threads that dissolve at a high heat, makes recycling more feasible.

MUD Jeans has gone beyond the Jeans Redesign guidelines to ensure all of its jeans have more than one life. Alongside purchasing jeans in a conventional way, customers can choose to lease MUD Jeans for EUR 7.50 per month. After one year, they then have three options. They can swap their jeans for a new pair, and continue leasing for another year; they can keep the jeans and wear them as long as they like; or they can return the jeans to MUD and receive a voucher for a new purchase.

Examples like these highlight that a circular economy for fashion is achievable now and that clothes can be designed, made, and worn in a way that is better for the environment. It is a starting point and the industry now has the opportunity to experiment with making other clothing circular, as well as exploring new business models to share it with us. At a time when the need to respond to challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution, fashion can become an example of what good looks like far beyond the catwalk.

[1] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular Fashion – A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’S Future, (2017).

[2] WRAP, Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion, (2017).

Find out more about The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Royal Foundation