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  • Monica Buchan-Ng

How can circularity change the way we design fashion products?



The global fashion industry of today predominantly operates on a linear production model. We take natural resources from the earth, we design and make them into products, we use and wear and love them – and then we dispose of them. Historically, the fashion economy has had very little interest in what happens once a product leaves a store. Value is defined by how much the product sells for, and not by any other stage in the product’s lifecycle.

But this linear model is not the only one available to us.

The circular fashion economy is an alternative system that aims to ‘close the loop’ on resource use through three principles: eradicating waste and pollution, by keeping products in use for as long as possible, and by regenerating natural systems. It focuses on all stages of the product lifecycle, from resource extraction to end of life. Rather than discarding unwanted items through landfill or incineration, the circular economy considers how materials can be cycled back into the fashion economy – for example through re-use or recycling.

The circular economy has a critical role to play in getting the fashion industry to address its destructive ecological impacts. It focuses on environmental and economic sustainability, addressing the former through its circular principles and the latter by decoupling revenue from resource use and by shifting to alternative business models and income streams. However, the circular economy is not the whole picture – it does not explicitly focus on cultural or social sustainability, leaving topics such as human equality and labour rights to other movements. If you’d like to know more about these, visit our Fostering Sustainable Practices resource page.

The fashion sector has seen the beginnings of an industry-wide shift from linear to circular, in part guided by movements and organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s leadership and research (including their vision for a circular economy for fashion); and the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, in which 86 signatories met 132 targets (out of 207 set) across action points including circular design, collection, resale and recycling.

A key step in bringing this system to life is design – a core focus for CSF, and where the circular economy really begins. Design determines what materials are used in a product; how it’s constructed, how it’s manufactured, what colours or finishes are used, the product’s style, quality and aesthetic – all these decisions and many more are made at the design and product development stage. Circular design changes the brief for the fashion industry from ‘how can a designer create a profitable product?’ to ‘how can a designer create a product that will easily pass through the circular economy?’ It helps to move fashion design from an extractive relationship with nature, to a more restorative and considerate one.

As our director Professor Dilys William puts it, “nature is the most experienced, most talented designer we can learn from and each one of us is a part of nature, so for us to thrive, we must ensure that nature thrives. Designing and developing product uses skills, including ingenuity and imagination, to improve a situation, but unless it improves life, it isn’t good design. By making our starting point good design we harness the ability to create meaningful change in the industry.”

But how can designers actually design for the circular economy?

Centre for Sustainable Fashion has been working with UK brand ASOS since 2018 on this very subject. Beginning with an experimental curriculum and accompanying pilot programme, our multi-year partnership has led to the creation of nine circular design strategies helping to answer this question. The latest output from this collaboration is the ASOS Circular Design Guide – a 112-page interactive resource co-authored by CSF and ASOS to help designers, students and fashion brands design and create fashion products that support the circular economy.

The Guide introduces the circular economy to learners, and why it’s a key tool to bring about positive change to the fashion industry. It includes detailed breakdowns of each of the nine circular design strategies – including what the strategy is, why it contributes to a circular economy, and how it can be applied in practice through a series of self-reflective designer considerations. Other resources include a zero waste pattern cutting guide, a guide to fibre recycling techniques, and an introduction to fashion’s most popular materials – and their circular alternatives.

Simon Platts, Responsible Sourcing Director at ASOS, notes that “launching this guidebook together with CSF means we can help accelerate the transition to circular design across the entire fashion industry, critical to achieving the sustainability we all want to see. This in-depth, accessible and easy-to-use resource should prove invaluable to other brands, designers and students looking to implement circular design in practice...”

The ASOS Circular Design Guide is an open, publicly accessible resource available for anyone to use. You can download the interactive version (please note: you will need to open it using Adobe Reader or Acrobat on a desktop to access the interactive elements) or the print version from the ASOS website.

If you use the Guide to develop your design practice or to create fashion products, we’d love to hear about it – contact CSF’s Knowledge Exchange team. How will you use the Guide?