What is a circular economy and why does it matter?

Circular economy

What is a circular economy? Image via Adobe Stock.

Did you know today’s economy is extremely wasteful? You only have to scroll through Instagram to see massive clothing hauls and unboxings. Wander through your local shopping mall to catch a glimpse of what feels like weekly seasons of new clothing ranges in the window displays. It’s never-ending, and while new clothes and accessories are fun and exciting, it’s a tedious model for brands to continuously be pumping out these products with no thought as to where it all ends up once we’re sick of wearing it. Spoiler* it’s usually added to an evergrowing landfill pile. I’m super passionate about this topic, which is why I wanted to look deeper into what the term ‘circular economy’ is all about and how everyone involved can do better.

What does circular economy even mean?
When it comes to the circular economy or Ōhanga āmiomio, the general definition means to ‘ensure we can unmake everything we make.’ Don’t you love that?

It’s a switch from our current model: make, buy, use, throw away (a straight line), to a round model where everything is more regenerative in the form of materials used, product design, recycling, repairing, reusing and waste management.

Think about it: clothing is usually purchased, worn, given or swapped with friends or family, sent to the op shop, clothing bins or simply dumped in the rubbish where it heads for landfill. When it comes to fashion, items are often designed to be worn or used with very little thought into the end game. Where do these broken/unwanted garments go, what happens to the clothing once it’s no longer worn, unwearable or no longer ‘trendy’? Think about it, where do you put all the clothes you no longer want or need? If something rips or breaks, what do you do with that garment if you’re not fixing it and re-wearing it? Lots of questions I know, but it’s super interesting to think about this process.

Thankfully we’re seeing a resurgence in things like thrifting, slow fashion and repairing items to get the most wear. I remember when op-shopping was so uncool. I got teased in seventh form at high school when we could wear our clothes instead of a uniform, and I was going to K Road after school to the op shops for fun, snazzy and unique outfits. If only I knew back then it would soon be trendy AF to grab preloved goodies.

When a product is designed for the longest use possible and can be easily repaired, remanufactured or recycled (or used, composted and nutrients returned to the earth) we consider it to have a circular life cycle.

According to the Ministry for the Environment, the circular economy is based on the following three principles:

1. Design out waste and pollution
2. Keep products and materials in use
3. Regenerate natural systems

Why is a circular economy model so important?
Studies show that there are several reasons why a shift towards a more circular economy is so beneficial. Some of these reasons include:

– long-term cost savings for both the business and the consumer
– repairing your clothes is seen as more of the norm
– increased local job opportunities at waste management and renewable energy collections
– encouragement of technical innovation by designing ‘smart’ products which can be used over and over again
– reducing the amount of harmful waste produced (like polyester fabrics which wash microplastics into the oceans)
– reversing our impacts on climate change with a restorative approach to ecosystems.

We are living in a climate emergency, which is caused by global heating, in turn, caused by CO2e emissions. Of these emissions, 45% come from all the food, materials, and products we make, use, and consume daily.

“The average garment is only worn seven times before it gets thrown out, which means that a garbage truck full of textiles is being trashed every second,” – Dame Ellen MacArthur.

When a piece of clothing or accessories materials is reused rather than put in a landfill, not only is that material no longer wasted but new raw materials are not required to be extracted to create new products.

Who’s walking the circular economy talk?
Some brands that have a fantastic Circular Economy model include the likes of locally made knitwear brand Standard Issue. They work with their customers to ensure the lifecycle of their garments is looked after. They’ll even chat to you about what happens to your piece depending on the condition they receive it in as well as offering a complimentary mending service on small flaws if they arise.

Adored NZ designer Maggie Marilyn also uses a circular model to design out waste and shift the needle when it comes to regenerative organic cotton farming and restoring ecosystems. The brand’s ‘Somewhere’ collection was designed to be circular. It’s made from organic cotton, NZ merino and regenerated nylon, all items can be either recycled or composted at the end of their life. Maggie Marilyn has launched a repairs programme as well a take-back programme too. According to the brand’s Sustainability Strategy for 2022, 100% of the polyester fabrics they use have either been certified recycled or repurposed (deadstock).

Global brand MUD Jeans work on a share-economy model where you lease a pair of jeans for a monthly fee. When you’re ready to try a new style or colour, simply send them back and pick a new pair. If you’ve had the jeans longer than 12 months, you can keep them or send them back – they’ll then create new jeans with the material which keeps the fabric in a closed-loop, genius!

What can you do to help people and the planet?
Big fashion companies need to take a closer look at what their overall strategy includes to make sure importance is placed on their impact. We need to be wasting less and reusing, repairing, sharing and recycling more. A great place to start is to think about your relationship with stuff.

There are a few different ways you can help reduce waste and switch up your relationship with what you consume. I’m loving how many lease/hiring options there are now – it’s becoming more the norm to hire a pretty outfit for a wedding or big event rather than buying something new each time. Borrow cute items from friends and get together for swaps.

If you do choose to buy new – support locally made fashion brands if you can and ask loads of questions before purchasing a garment. Embrace outfit repeating, mix and match styles, repair your favourite pieces if you can or send them to be mended and look at higher quality items which you’ll love wearing over and over again.

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