by Ana Garcia
Fashion serves as a means of functionality and self-expression. However, it comes with an often unacknowledged cost to our planet and to the workers making our clothes. This heavy toll is underscored by the exponential surge in fashion consumption today, where a disconcerting trend emerges: Between 2000 and 2015, clothing production doubled while utilization (the average number of times a garment is worn) decreased by almost 40%. The throw-away attitude towards fashion is as much the product of consumers' materialism and detachment from production processes as it is of the increasingly cheap materials and poor construction of garments employed by brands to cut production costs.
Fortunately, the tides may be turning, as growing awareness among consumers and upcoming regulation (e.g., the EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles) might bring about much-needed change in the industry. Novel ways of doing business are emerging that offer promise to disrupt the status quo. They have the potential to move us away from a linear "take-make-dispose" model and towards a circular, regenerative economy. Broadly, these circular and sustainable apparel business models fall into three categories:
More use per user: Moving away from fast fashion, with its cheap, low-quality materials and poor garment construction, to slow fashion, distinguished by durability, high-quality materials, craftsmanship, and a "story behind each product", is an essential step towards maximizing garment utilization. This sustainable apparel business model centers on enabling a user to wear a product more times and for longer. More use per user can be achieved by extending the durability of a product and tapping into a user's emotional attachment or sentimentality towards a product. This can be done by designing products with attributes such as uniqueness, customization, high-quality craftmanship, etc. Durability can also be extended by offering repair services and educating consumers on proper garment care. Patagonia exemplifies a brand committed to quality and longevity, striving to create products that are "useful, versatile, long-lasting, repairable and recyclable".
More users per product: This model focuses on platforms and/or services that facilitate movement of products from user-to-user, such as rental and resale, or that keep garments in circulation for longer. Resale business models have been increasing in popularity in recent years, with apps such as Depop and Vinted attracting a younger demographic. These apps make it easier than ever to buy and sell second-hand clothing and accessories online. Through resale, items are given new life when they are no longer wanted by their previous owners. Rental business models are particularly attractive for special occasion wear, which otherwise would sit untouched in the back of the closet after a use or two.
Beyond physical products: Digital products are emerging to replace physical products. While not intended for everyday consumers, brands and influencers can easily adopt and promote digital fashion to reduce waste in the social media advertisement space. For example, DressX is a multi-brand retailer that sells digital clothing, which they superimpose on a picture of the user. The Fabricant, a digital-only fashion house, collaborates with brands to digitize their marketing campaigns and collections, creating compelling narratives and product visualizations that both appeal to customers and allow the company to gain insights into demand and interest without the creation of a physical product. This approach to fashion reduces over-stocking and production of unpopular items, as well as eliminates the creation of product samples and shooting them for sale.
Sustainable apparel business models are rapidly cropping up in the fashion space with successful pioneers leading the way: Since 2019, seven rental and resale platforms – Depop, Rent the Runway, The Real Real, Vinted, Poshmark, Vestiare Collective, and thredUP – have reached valuations above USD 1 billion. Circular business models can be combined to bring new, diversified revenue streams to companies in addition to mitigating environmental impacts. Moreover, these models have the potential to enhance customer satisfaction and retention. Brands can foster customer loyalty and encourage repeat business by providing customization options as well as tailoring and repair services. Let's dive into some of the circular strategies companies can implement to add value to their business along with examples of brands paving the way for innovation:
Resale: Includes both online and offline peer-to-peer sale of second-hand items, third-party marketplaces, and brand re-commerce and take-back programs. While many big fashion retailers have implemented take-back programs in recent years, it is important to be wary of companies that incentivize further consumption through these initiatives by offering discount vouchers, e.g., to consumers that drop off clothing. Popular online resale platforms include Depop, Poshmark, Vinted, Vestiare Collective, Etsy, Ebay, thredUp, and The Real Real.
Rental: Includes peer-to-peer rentals by private owners as well as large-scale rental and subscription models by multi-brand platforms or individual brands. Rent the Runway is a great example of a circular business model based on clothing rental. This innovative platform facilitates both one-time rentals and provides a membership option for access to multiple rentals per month. It is important to highlight that the circular models "more-use-per-user" and "more-users-per-product" go hand in hand. In other words, rental only really works when products are designed with durability in mind. If a dress breaks at the seams or a shirt pills after a few uses, the item is no longer kept in circulation and will go to waste.
Repair: A faulty or broken product or component is restored to a usable state. Garment repairs can be done at home or by a local tailor, while shoes can be taken to a local cobbler to be cleaned, resoled, etc. From October of 2023, France will be offering discounts per repair in a bonus scheme intended to discourage wastefulness and tackle fast fashion. Patagonia is ahead of the game, offering repair services to its customers in the U.S., and even covering the cost of repair in most cases. They also have videos on their website for simple, at-home repairs.
Remaking: A product is created from existing products or components. Remaking can include recycling (including downcycling and upcycling), disassembling, re-dyeing, and repurposing. Many fashion designers are reimagining and reinventing old textiles and garments to give them a new life. Puerto Rican designer Maru Aldea, creator of Hola Aida and Aida Renew, regularly upcycles vintage textiles and collaborates with other designers to produce small collections of one-of-a-kind pieces using upcycled materials. For Days is a clothing brand that produces 100% recyclable garments, which can be returned to them through their take-back program to be recycled into new fabrics. They also take back clothing that is not For Days, which is downcycled into insulation, rugs, and cleaning materials due to their unknown material blends. Pingree is a Detroit-based brand that upcycles automotive leather sourced directly from the Detroit auto industry into bags, footwear, wallets, and other accessories.
In recent years, the market for these four circular business models has experienced a significant boom, soaring to a remarkable 73 billion USD valuation as of 2019. Leading the way is the resale segment, contributing the largest proportion of revenue at 63%, followed by rental at 20% (Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2021). These alternative business models have the potential to grow from 3.5% in 2019 to 23% of the global fashion market by 2030, representing a USD 700 billion opportunity with huge environmental benefits. If the 23% market share is reached by 2030, CO2 emissions from the fashion industry could be reduced by up to 16% (Ellen McArthur Foundation, 2021). By increasing the utilization rates of products, the devastating environmental effects of virgin resource extraction, processing, and disposal can be mitigated.
With the potential to capture a substantial share of the market, adopting and continuing to expand these circular models of doing business is not only the financially smart choice for brands but also a necessary move to decouple revenue from raw material extraction and intensive production and consumption. Fresh Coast Climate Solutions has the expertise to support you through your circularity journey, providing guidance and technical expertise.