As humans, we learn as we go. Applying that knowledge is what allows us to move forward. Now that we've learned the consequences of our consumer behavior in fashion, it is time to act.
For generations, we seem to have taken short-term solutions solely focused on our immediate needs, making little effort to look at the long-term consequences that our actions might bring. Whether we are driven by wealth, comfort, or satisfaction, all of these concepts are related to the idea of sustainability.
We live in an era where our children and planet need us to step up, make more conscious choices as consumers, and rethink our behavior based on the current climate challenges and future consequences of not taking action. Thinking about cutting the part of plastic use we can see is a significant first step. Now, it's time to look deeper.
Linear Model versus Circular Mentality
What's the deal between these two concepts, and why are they so important anyways?
Well, as consumers, we establish a relationship with every product that has three phases:
In the linear economy, these phases look like a straight line. This model taught us that everything we buy would eventually go into the trash, and somehow, we didn't see anything wrong with this. And how could we? Once that waste gets out of sight, it gets out of mind.
We normalized this behavior and developed a "linear mentality." This model didn't teach us how to pay attention to the actual value of what we were buying, the true cost behind it, which is much more than just a price tag.
The linear model didn't teach us to reuse or repurpose. It has a short-term objective of satisfying an immediate need regardless of the potential consequences.
Every product we buy has a production process that involves extracting natural resources, energy use, and labor from people. The price tag reflects the monetary cost, but it leaves out the environmental footprint that was created. The fee for that footprint is being paid by us differently, and we took much time to realize how expensive it is.
A circular mentality, on the other hand, provides a more sustainable model of production, consumption, and waste management. It's a way of thinking where the systems are designed to be continuously renewed, reused, and recycled, so ideally, they never become polluting waste.
The Fashion Industry and the Linear Model
Traditionally, the fashion industry has used a linear model to conduct its business. To grow each year, brands need to produce and sell more items. The linear model assumes infinite resources (which we don't have) to create endless growth (which is impossible).
Our planet is just one, our resources are finite, and we are not the last generation that will need them.
In the fast-fashion industry, this linear model has accelerated so much during the last decades that now, we are buying more clothes than ever, using them less than ever, and polluting our planet at unprecedented speed.
Business growth cannot be infinite because resources are not.
Imagine using 700 gallons of water (enough to drink for over two and a half years of life) to create a product that we only use seven times and then throw away. If this comes as a shocking example, it is super common, and the product I'm talking about is a simple cotton t-shirt.
Why are we only using a t-shirt seven times before getting rid of it?
This number replicates for any clothing category, by the way, and the answer is simple: our value perception of clothes has gone as low as the cheapest garment.
We must be aware of the natural resources we are wasting and the poor treatment garment workers receive by being exposed to hazardous working conditions and low payments so the businesses can keep expenses down to sell us products at low prices.
In 2017, the United Nations acknowledged that changing consumption practices to address persistent consumerism problems is fundamental to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Circular Economy and Circular Fashion
Our generation already understood the negative impact of our current linear mindset, so it's time to get circular. Fast.
The circular economy is an economic model aiming to transform the ecosystem into a resource by dramatically reducing the consumption and control of scarce resources like water, reducing pollution and waste.
The concept of circular economy seeks to minimize the extraction and use of natural resources and reduce waste. This serves to create long-term environmental and economic value.
A circular fashion concept we could use as an example is a clothing brand that:
- Designs high-quality (long-lasting), versatile garments: so consumers can use them in different ways and seasons.
- Uses deadstock fabrics: saving them from landfill.
- Produces in small batches: avoiding overproducing and then selling the remaining items at desperate low prices.
- Has ethical practices: paying workers fair salaries and providing safe workplaces.
- Allows consumers to send back their unwanted clothes at the end of their life: so the company and its circular partners can keep them out of landfill in that infinite loop of reusing.
That was just one example of many. So please don't take it as the golden rule.
How can we adopt a Circular Mindset?
A circular economy mindset for the consumer starts with making conscious (not impulsive) purchase decisions and ends with considering our choices during the discarding phase. The goal is to avoid landfill.
Fast-Fashion brands have insisted on creating a linear business model because they need to sell more and more volume every year. Hence the creation of different collections on a weekly and now even daily basis, with the introduction of Ultra-Fast Fashion players.
Being bombarded with different collections constantly makes consumers feel that they need to keep consuming to be stylish. In reality, style is more about creativity, and trends are cyclical.
Over the last 15 years, we have duplicated the number of garments on our closets, and we have reduced the average times we wear them, creating a vast environmental problem where we are generating one garbage full of textile waste per second.
That waste is kept in polluting landfills, where they either decompose for decades or are incinerated, helping with global warming and climate change. The consequences of this can be seen more and more frequently in sudden natural disasters.
What can we do?
We don't control the fast-fashion business models, but we do control our money and have tremendous power in our decision-making process of buying clothes. So my proposal to you is to start developing a circular mentality together.
We can begin by creating a Circular Closet:
- First thing first: use the clothes you already own as much as possible, get creative and style them differently!
- Normalize outfit repeating. This is a great contribution to help stop social shaming. Join the trend #proudoutfitrepeater in social media and become a voice in your circle.
- Start repairing your clothes. From small holes to significant repairs, mending is a great way to extend the life of your favorite garments in your closet.
- Resell or donate those garments in your closet that you know you're not using anymore. Hopefully, they will be loved in a new home, and it will prevent that consumer from buying something new.
- Secondhand first. Try to check secondhand options when you want to shop for something. You'll be amazed at what you can find. One garment can have many owners throughout its lifetime!
- Stop buying single-use garments. If you have a special occasion requiring an outfit you probably won't use more than once, think about renting.
- Support brands making sustainable efforts. Look for new sustainable alternatives when you don't find what you are looking for in the secondhand fashion market.
- Never, ever throw away your clothes in the trash. Look for recycling services or take-back programs to keep the garments in a productive loop.
When it comes to a sustainable mindset, there is no such thing as perfection, so be mindful and take one step at a time, or you will be at the risk of feeling the anxiety of it being too much and just quitting.
Your small actions contribute to millions of others made by people like you, which will create the change we need.
In the end, there is one major lesson that our efforts to become more responsible consumers can take from the linear fashion industry: There is a significant benefit to be had by establishing a circular mentality, and we need to teach our kids.
It's never too late to change the world around you. We've done it before, and we can do it again. Circular fashion is not a trend but a mindset that will help the next generations embrace the new way of thinking needed to keep our planet healthy and make it resilient for the future.
Let's do this together, one decision at a time.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.