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  • Patrick Elf, CEEDR

Fashion entrepreneurs’ resilience – how brands are advancing their circular economy ambitions

Model wearing birdsong dress looking at the camera
Birdsong AW20, Photography by Rachel Manns

The fashion industry constitutes a complex mesh of, often global interconnections between designers, producers, suppliers, distributors and consumers. It is the fascinating, yet environmentally unsustainable system that gave way to what is now referred to as the fast fashion paradigm. Unfortunately, the acceleration of fashion production came with a price, exploiting those at the very beginning of the value chain in remote places such as India and Bangladesh and puts considerable pressure on our natural support systems, through overconsumption of resources driven by actions at the end of the value chain.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, if anything, exposed the fragility of often both overly opaque and complex supply chains, and a system that was built with a linear mindset operating on small margins and high output. With huge numbers of stores closing, brands going bankrupt, absence of supplier protection (that led to cancellations of orders impacting the poorest the most) and factory workers being furloughed, the pandemic seemed like the beginning of the end for the (fast) fashion world; the overdue wakeup call that could revolutionise the fashion industry.

Yet what’s clearer than ever now, is that the majority of the fashion industry isn’t built for agility and while the global economic situation has sharpened focus on the negligent supply chains and business operations, a heartfelt move away from fast fashion remains absent, still.

The Fostering Sustainable Practices (FSP) project, is a close collaboration between Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF), The Open University and Centre for Enterprise and Economic Development Research (CEEDR) at Middlesex University. As a project team we focus toward the factors that allow UK based Micro and Small Enterprises (MSE’s) in fashion, to advance their practices.

Since starting the project in 2018, we’ve collated insights into the design practices and processes used as part of the sustainable fashion ecosystem, and how alternative business models work in practice, amongst much more. Due to timing, the project has been given an unique opportunity to explore data collected, before and during the pandemic. Which has allowed us to explore how MSE’s have manoeuvred and adapted throughout this time.

As part of the project, we’re exploring if and how fashion MSE’s have advanced their practices toward a circular economy, over the course of the pandemic.

A pair of boardshorts with a quote stating 'Think end of life at beginning of life'.
Image courtesy of Riz Boardshorts

What is the Circular Economy, and how is it applied in business models?

Circular economy business models, by definition, aim at eliminating waste through keeping resources in circulation. The term ‘Circular Economy’ often operates as an umbrella term for a number of business model approaches and practices such as re-use and repair, upcycling, and product-as-service models. The move towards more circular practices constitutes both a major opportunity and effort to advance sustainable practices across fashion. The Circular Economy has received growing attention over recent years, as a response not only to needed changes in supply-chains, but also to contribute toward tackling the climate crisis.

A shortcoming of the circular economy is the focus predominately on material issues, this is undoubtedly of importance – placing design approaches and material innovation at the very heart of a transition towards a circular economy. Simultaneously, however, its fixation on material issues can often lead to entrepreneurs trying to advance their sustainable practices, whilst forgetting the consumer must play a key role.

In the circular economy, there is no longer an ‘end-consumer’. Instead, the consumer is no longer the last piece of the value chain, but a user that has a responsibility to keep the product in circulation. That is, the consumer needs to take an active role, eventually feeding the product back into the value chain.

When looking closely at the data collected over 3 years throughout the FSP project, we found that a number of businesses that are already engaged in circular practices. Yet, with a pandemic posing significant challenges to enterprises of all models and sizes, we were curious to understand if and how fashion MSE’s advanced their circular economy practices over the course of the pandemic. Circular economy initiatives are often understood as complex and costly, unwelcome factors for businesses in a moment of uncertainty and potentially economic hardship, prevalent during a global health crisis.

We’ve explored the question of ‘how fashion entrepreneurs advanced their circular economy ambitions?’ for a forthcoming journal paper, and will draw on two insights from the paper below.

Trust and purpose

A key factor that allowed sustainable fashion entrepreneurs to advance their sustainable practices despite the pandemic was a profound level of trust. A trust manifested between entrepreneur, their suppliers and customers:

  • Trust in their willingness to care about employees during an economically difficult situation.

  • Trust to stick to their purpose and passion, often shared across the value chain and their customer base.

  • Trust to continue to do the right thing and fill a role in society that goes beyond economics and its promotion of shareholder capitalism. But, instead, put people and planet centre-stage.

FSP partner business, Cute Circuit introduced weekly Instagram Lives discussing stimulating topics. While, Finisterre offered yoga classes, mindfulness workshops and inspirational talks to further extend their customer engagement and raise awareness during a time where they couldn’t welcome their customers in their stores.

"If they grow, then I grow" Mona, Embroiderer and Head of Bow Sewing Centre, Poplar.

Equally, suppliers trust is of key importance – Birdsong is a prime example, and the quote from one of their suppliers above gives testament how tightly knit their supplier relationships are. Their incredible commitment to their supply chain and worker wellbeing became apparent once again, when they worked hard to keep orders thanks to their flexible make-to order model. The list goes on.

Agility: configuring vs reconfiguring

This is not to say that we haven’t heard of hardship or difficult situations caused by the pandemic – be that loss of sales or the economic shock it’s caused. Whereas big businesses’ hold the economic power to absorb shocks through downgrading their operations temporarily, any economic tremor to fashion MSEs can pose an existential threat.

However, thanks to their significantly shorter supply chains and the trust inherent across the value chain, sustainable fashion MSEs were able to be more agile. Less complexity and greater transparency helped them react quickly to the changing circumstances. Close connections with their suppliers, established over many years, allowed them to co-create solutions that minimised the impact for all involved instead of placing the weight of the issues caused by the pandemic on one party alone.

As a result, the fashion MSE’s greater agility didn’t require them to reconfigure their disrupted supply chain. Instead, less extensive configurations of their already agile business models were enough, allowing them to focus on what fashion entrepreneurs do best – they made use of their existing capabilities and creative mindsets to come up with innovative solutions.

FSP partner business jewellery upcyler ReAdorn, provided postable upcycling kits so people could get creative and use the additional time spent at home, best. Vin+Omi used their agile business models to make and donate masks with all profits going to the NHS. Whereas, Phoebe English’s Nothing New collection used deadstock from various studios across London beautifully circumnavigating disrupted supply chains.

Whilst we are still in the midst of the pandemic, we have encountered remarkable resilience during our research. Resilience grounded in an incredible passion for the work fashion MSE’s do, their responsibility and role in society, along with a profound understanding of their wider purpose in the world. A purpose that goes far (!) beyond conventional, growth-driven market logics. CSF’s Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham call this “Earth Logic”.

For some, a focus on advancing sustainable practices such as circular economy ambitions during a pandemic seems illogic. But, if you think about it, the resilience and trust we encountered in our research is everything but illogic. Instead, it is a logical consequence of the MSEs’ continuous commitment to its purpose and to accepting and fulfilling a role in society as part of the fashion ecosystem.

No business, regardless of the sector and size is out of the woods yet. But let’s hope that there is truth in the saying “what goes around comes around”.


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