Paths to Circularity

Fashion Has a Responsibility

As fashion’s impact on the planet only grows and grows, industry leaders are looking for systemic changes that will overhaul the biggest culprits. While the need for sustainable guidelines has shaped the conversation around denim and fashion, the statistics are still overwhelming. According to the World Economic Forum, 25 per cent of the world’s carbon budget will be taken up by the fashion industry alone by2050 if no changes are made.

The Need for Circularity 

Two statistics paint the picture: 85 per cent of all textiles go to the dump each year, and people only kept their clothing for half as long between 2014 and 2000, despite buying 60 per cent more. This means that tackling the circularity of clothing items will be an effective way of narrowing in on the sustainability issues surrounding fashion.

In actuality, some of the attempts to deal with the excess have resulted in a waste crisis, like the one in the Atacama Desert. The Atacama Desert is located in Chile, where 60,000 tonnes of used clothing is imported every year. Only 15 per cent of this is sold second-hand and the remaining 85 per cent ends up in land fills, predominantly the Atacama Desert. Most of the clothing is polyester, which can take 200 years to disintegrate. The only solution to date is to burn the clothing. The yearly fires and the dumpster in the Atacama Desert is making the town nearby, Alto Hospicio, uninhabitable. A particularly troubling and relevant detail about the crisis in the Atacama Desert is that a lot of clothing is new or still wearable, some even with tags.

Some brands make an excess deliberately because it is cheaper to produce in bulk and

dump the clothing in places like the Atacama Desert. Furthermore, take-back programs may not be properly designed to then deal with the clothing they are taking back.

Circularity Guidelines 

The fashion’s environmental footprint is still a growing problem, but knowing what the breakdown is has helped those in the fashion industry start to tackle the problem from the source. The importance of circularity has risen as companies evaluate what the lifecycle of their products looks like. Circularity means looking at the material of an item, its lifespan, and maybe most importantly how to deal with and delay the end of life for each item.

 For better or for worse, there aren’t universally standardised ways of addressing circularity yet, but the question of where the loose ends exist is well formulated. The critical focus areas to narrow in on for businesses are outlined by the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation:

  1. A new business model that increases clothing use, not quantity. This would mean decreasing the turnover and extending the life span of clothing as well as addressing consumer habits. Examples of business model adjustments to impact clothing use are clothing rental programmes or efforts to boost clothing care.
  2. Safe and renewable inputs that would help with how the clothing impacts the planet while getting made, being worn, and after it’s discarded.
  3. Solutions so used clothes are turned into new. This is a space where a lot of companies get creative, by either upcycling, downcycling, open-loop recycling, or closed-loop recycling.This can also be done with clothing manufacturing byproducts, such as turning cut off fabrics into patched clothing or, as Denim Privé does, turning water waste sludge into bricks.

What Does a Circular System Look Like?

The Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation provides certain characteristics of a circular system that companies can track.

  1. Produces and provides access to high-quality, affordable, individualised clothing. Clothes are designed to be durable, and for different functionalities (so you would need less and it would last longer).
  2. Captures the full value of clothing during and after use (worn more often), then recycled to capture more value (keep the product at its highest value for as long as possible but then reformulate). Ensure this is in line with available recycling processes so that it doesn’t result in a situation like the waste crisis in the Atacama Desert.
  3. Runs on renewable energy and uses renewable resources where needed.
  4. True cost is reflected in the price of products (including negative environmental and societal impacts).
  5. Regenerates the natural system and does not pollute the environment. This can look like regenerative agriculture for natural fibres like cotton or sustainably managed forest for wood-based fibres. Giving back when using renewable resources is a way this is also addressed, such as by planting trees.
  6. New textile economy is distributive by design. This means growth and change, and opportunity should be part of the company culture from the inside out. 

Circularity in Action 

There are many creative ways that companies are launching their circularity initiatives from the three points of entry.


Rental clothing and resale clothing models have become a way to keep a wardrobe fresh while still reducing the amount of new clothing produced and used. Levi and Ganni teamed upon an exclusive upcycled capsule collected, “Love Letter,” exclusively for rental. The collection is made up of three pieces that can be restyled in many different ways: a button-down shirt, 501 jeans, and a shirt dress made out of upcycled vintage Levi’s and repurposed denim. That means this rental concept isn’t just attempting to prolong the lifetime and use of denim, but is also recycling by reusing previously existing denim.  


Denim does really well in the resale market because they are so durable and versatile. They also take so much CO2 to make that resellers and consumers win big if they shop denim resale. Two of the most successful resellers are The RealReal and ThredUp. The concept behind both of these concepts creates a space for a circular economy, as Julie Wainwright, CEO of The RealReal says, “We changed what consignment looks like. We are the circular economy.” ThredUp reported that resale grew 21times faster than retail over the past five years. Both ThredUp and TheRealReal are go-to spots for resale denim consumers. For example, “a pair ofRag & Bone black skinny jeans that originally sold at traditional retail for $253 goes for $41 on ThredUp” (Sourcing Journal).


Recycling is a loaded topic on its own, mostly because there are so many different ways to doit. Recycling can take place in the materials a business uses, with what gets done with the waste of production, packaging concerns, what happens at the end of life of a piece of clothing. Denim Privé has a PCW recycling plant that shreds pre and post-consumer waste and re-spins the soft fibres into yarn. This yarn is then fabricated into denim and finally into a new pair of jeans.Unincorporated fabric is either processed by the PCW plant or sent to anEPA-approved third-party contractor.

Improving Care 

Efforts to boost clothing care is another shift in the dialogue between company and consumer that helps the consumer understand how clothing should be treated. Clothing is not meant to be thrown away but is meant to last. The mindset shift is then from “this is just for this season” to “this is going to be my go-to winter coat every year.” This effort is tracked from blogs instructing users how to wash their jeans to companies like Patagonia that provide a wide amount of services to maintain their clothing (such as repair, restyle, washing, and storing). This keeps clothing at its highest value for as long as possible.Denim Privé partnered up with an Amsterdam-based craftsman to develop a denim repair kit and workshop.


Investing in technology is another way to reduce waste, such as the shipping and consumer phenomenon of buying a lot of different colours and styles only to return most of it. In 2020, Levi launched the Denim Reimagine Project that uses technology to create a digital roadmap of the garment’s life from beginning to current stage. The collection has a scannable QR code that detailed the supply chain, washing tips, recycling information, and story. Another example is Denim Privé’s technology in the Unthinkable Jacket as it takes the air and cleans it.There is also an accompanying app that shows the wearer how much the jacket has cleaned the environment. This is only the beginning of technology and what it can do for the environment and fashion.

Store Policies 

The way a store operates, from the front-facing store to the online website, could have a large impact on sustainability. In fact, some stores are responding to the consumer habit of buying a lot and then returning, producing massive amounts of overstocking by shortening return windows. This is a recent shift but will invite shoppers to try to discern more about each piece of clothing before purchasing. 

Where the Road Leads for Circularity

While there are endless options and innovations behind how to create a circular fashion industry, it’s important to start somewhere. Even if a brand or company cannot do it all, the name of the game is to start closing the gap somewhere. Learn from others and start incorporating in either the easiest or the most problematic part of the supply chain. Hopefully the road that the fashion and denim industry is on leads back to the beginning.

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