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The Circular Economy: Fashion and textiles

20th June 2018 | Catherine Weetman

The fashion industry is a typical ‘linear economy’, with many business models dependent on increasing consumption (and thus disposal).


This extract from A Circular Economy Handbook for Business and Supply Chains by Catherine Weetman is ©2016 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

The fashion industry is a typical ‘linear economy’, with many business models dependent on increasing consumption (and thus disposal). This chapter will review apparel and textiles, looking at:

  • recent history and global trends;
  • issues and challenges in the traditional fashion supply chain, examining flows and resources;
  • circular economy developments, including a wide range of company ‘snapshots’;
  • summary and supply chain implications.

Global trends

Until roughly the mid-19th century, clothing was ‘bespoke’, with many garments requiring fitting, and clothing largely produced by local tailors and ‘seamstresses’. The world wars saw factories set up to make uniforms and other textiles. Sewing machines and the Industrial Revolution gradually changed the nature of clothing, enabling mass-production and standard sizes, instead of clothes custom-made at home or made by tailors and dressmakers. In the 1980s, World Trade Organization agreements led to phasing out of quotas and tariffs. These were set up in the late 20th century developed countries to protect their own manufacturing interests, as China developed its skills and infrastructure whilst retaining low wages.2 Clothing production moved around the world, as clothing brands and major retailers found new low-cost manufacturing countries to help them compete on price and speed to market.

‘Fast fashion’ emerged in the 1990s, as manufacturers developed ‘quick response’ methods to speed up the long process of turning a catwalk design into batches of each style, ready to be stocked in retail outlets. According to Burgen,3 the retailer Zara (owned by Inditex) ‘can get a new design made up and distributed in a week, and it launches about 12,000 new designs every year’. Critics say that ‘fast fashion’ has now become ‘throwaway fashion’, with relatively cheap clothing marketed as something to wear on a few occasions, before discarding it to make way for new items.

Estimates vary for the economic value for the global apparel industry, including clothing, footwear, textiles and luxury goods, with reports ranging from US $1 trillion for clothing in 2000,4 to US $1.7 trillion (1.3 trillion euros) in 2012.5 Around 80 billion garments are produced worldwide per year, equating to an average of just over 11 garments per person,6 though consumption in the United States is around 50 garments per person.7 Clothing and textiles represent around 7 per cent of total world exports, and the market is growing at around 2.5 per cent each year. Around one-third of sales are in the United States, one-third in Western Europe and one-quarter in Asia. Major players include H&M, Zara (parent Inditex), Adidas, Nike, Gap, Levi Strauss, LVMH and TJX. Sales are through retail outlets, catalogues and online, with the online channel growing rapidly.

Traditional supply chain: issues and challenges

Textile raw materials are normally categorized as either natural (plant or animal) or man-made (synthetic or regenerated cellulosic). These fibres are spun into yarns, which can then be knitted or woven into fabrics in the manufacture of textiles:

  • Natural fibres from plants and animals include angora, cashmere, wool, cotton, flax, hemp, sisal and silk.
  • Man-made fibres from cellulosics sources such as trees and other plants include viscose, tencel and modal.
  • Man-made fibres from synthetic by-products of petroleum include polyester, polyamide (nylon) and acrylic.

Looking at the footprints and production methods it is useful to note that natural does not necessarily mean ‘good’, and man-made mean ‘bad’. An environmental benchmark for fibres, used by some leading brands, classifies fibres based on GHG, human toxicity, eco-toxicity, plus energy, water and land use.8 It uses five classifications, with recycled wool, recycled cotton, organic hemp and flax, and mechanically recycled polyester or nylon in Class A, compared to conventional cotton, rayon and bamboo viscose in Class E. Textiles uses include clothing for fashion or workwear, upholstery, household linens, carpets and so on. Key developments in man-made fibres include:

  • The first commercial man-made fibre was an artificial silk, using cellulosics based on natural fibres, produced in France in 1892.9
  • Other cellulosics and acetates were developed, and then a scientist at DuPont discovered nylon, ‘the first truly man-made fibre’, in the 1930s.
  • Polyester was developed in the mid-20th century.
  • Man-made fibres generally use synthetic chemicals, mostly based on
  • Man-made fibres including polyester, nylon and acrylic now account for well over half the tonnage of all textiles produced, and polyester quantities increased by a factor of eight between 1979 and 2014.
  • Cotton accounts for around 85 per cent of the natural fibres used worldwide.

Employment estimates vary too, with Fashion United estimating 75 million worldwide.10 Indications show that around three-quarters of garment workers are female. Gereffi describes fashion supply chains as ‘buyer driven’, with large retailers and branded manufacturers ‘playing pivotal roles in setting up decentralized production networks in a variety of exporting countries, typically located in the third world’.11 The retailer or brands do not make the products, instead providing specifications to tiered networks of suppliers, who then manufacture the goods to order. He contrasts this with ‘producer-driven’ commodity chains, where large manufacturers coordinate their production networks and are heavily involved in design, production and marketing the final product. Producer-driven chains are typical in capital- and technology-intensive industries, including aircraft, cars, computers and so on.

The fragmented nature of the supply chain, illustrated in Figure 7.2 (not pictured), means that suppliers and manufacturers have little influence, so are effectively competing with other countries to produce the cheapest, fastest products at the appropriate quality. Big retailers and global fashion brands decide what to produce, where from, and at what price.

Primary flows

Figure 7.2 outlines typical processes in the fashion supply chain, starting with fibre production, then yarn or thread spinning, followed by textile manufacture, dyeing and finishing, then final garment production. A garment typically consists of several component parts, often with several ‘body fabrics’: an outer layer plus linings, as well as additional waddings, interlinings and trim fabrics. Other components include the thread to sew the pieces together, plus fasteners such as buttons, zips or toggles. All components can be made from natural or man-made materials or blends of the two. Local specialisms in manufacturing mean that components for one garment frequently come from many continents. Additionally, retailers or brands may source the same garment from two separate locations, providing flexibility to respond to sales information through a more local manufacturer. Packaging, potentially including hangers, tickets for price/size/brand information and wrapping, is added during garment production or closer to the point of sale.

Reverse flows and waste

Consumers in developed economies purchase more clothes each year, driven by ‘fast fashion’ marketing and reducing costs of purchase. A UK survey of fashion purchasing habits for women found that the majority did not know how long they intended to keep their new purchases, and that when cheaper items became stained or damaged they were more likely to dispose of them than to clean or repair them:12

  • In the UK, WRAP estimates household consumption at £1,700 per year.13 Each consumer spends £625 per year on clothes, accumulating around 28 kilogrammes of clothing – quadruple the amount purchased in 1980.14
  • For 2011, this meant purchases of around 1.72 million tonnes of new clothes, with almost the same quantity then disposed of.
  • WRAP also estimates the value of content in an average wardrobe in a UK household at £4,000 and highlights research showing that 30 per cent of this has not been worn for at least one year.
  • WRAP (2012) estimated that £140 million worth, or 350,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill every year in the UK, equivalent to around 5 kilogrammes per person.15
  • The average US citizen throws away over 30 kilogrammes of clothing and textiles each year.16 The United States generates 11.5 billion kilos of post-consumer textile waste each year, with only 15 per cent recycled and the remainder going to landfill.

On top of discarded clothes from post-consumer use, there is also the issue of unsold products and customer returns, especially from online sales. Returns of 30 per cent are common for fashion online retailers, with customers often choosing more than one size or colour and then returning the items not required. With ‘fast fashion’, the time taken for return, receipt and processing might miss the window of opportunity for restocking and selling the item. Many of these clothes, plus those collected from ‘clothes banks’ at household waste recycling centres, supermarket car parks, or donated to charity, are sold, generating income via resale routes for used clothes and textiles to consumers as pre-owned clothing in the UK, or by selling it to textile merchants for export. WRAP estimates that more than 70 per cent of all UK reused clothing is exported, ‘joining a global secondhand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year’.

Resources: technical

Cotton, accounting for over 25 per cent of fibres used in textiles, is the most important non-food agricultural commodity worldwide, and is ‘particularly vulnerable to pests if no protection methodology is employed’.17 In India, cotton accounts for over half of all pesticides used each year, despite occupying only 5 per cent of cropland. Hardly any global production is organic, and even genetically modified (GM) cotton requires pesticide use. The Better Cotton Initiative explains that ‘One large class of GM cotton plants has a gene implanted that creates Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a toxin found in nature, which provides “built-in” protection from certain insect categories.’ The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) produced a report with the Pesticide Action Network highlighting the impacts of chemicals used in cotton farming worldwide:18

  • Cotton accounts for 16 per cent (US $2 billion-worth) of global insecticide releases, more than any other type of crop. Around 40 per cent of this is toxic enough for the World Health Organization to classify them as hazardous to human health.
  • 1–3 per cent of farm workers worldwide suffer from acute pesticide poisoning, with at least 1 million requiring hospital treatment each year. EJF cites joint research from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and estimates that 25–77 million agricultural workers are affected.
  • Pesticide poisoning can cause acute symptoms including vomiting, tremors, seizures and even death. Long-term exposure can cause chronic effects including impaired concentration and memory, severe depression and confusion.
  • Aldicarb is highly toxic to humans, with just one drop absorbed through the skin being enough to kill an adult. Aldicarb is common in cotton farming, used across 26 countries in 2003, and with almost 1 million kilos applied to cotton grown in the United States.


Allwood, JM, Laursen SE, Rodriguez, CM and Bocken NMP (2006) [accessed 16 March 2016] Well dressed? The Present and Future Sustainability of Clothing and Textiles in the United Kingdom, University of Cambridge, Institute for Manufacturing [Online] www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/resources/sustainability/well-dressed/.
Burgen, S (17 August 2012) [accessed 21 March 2016] Fashion Chain Zara Helps Inditex Lift First Quarter Profits by 30%, The Guardian [Online] www.theguardian.com/business/2012/aug/17/zara-inditex-profits.
Allwood, M et al (2006) [accessed 16 March 2016] IfM Well-Dressed: The Present and Future Sustainability of Clothing and Textiles in the United Kingdom, University of Cambridge [Online] www.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/resources/sustainability/well-dressed/.
Stotz, L and Kane, L (February 2015) [accessed 22 Mar 2016] Facts on the Global Garment Industry, Clean Clothes Campaign [Online] www.cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/factsheets/general-factsheetgarment-industry-february-2015.pdf.
6 Greenpeace (2011) [accessed 15 March 2016] Dirty Laundry 2: Hung Out to Dry, Unravelling the Toxic Trail from Pipes to Products, Greenpeace International [Online] www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/reports/Dirty-Laundry-2.
Statistica (2016) [accessed 16 March 2016] [Online] www.statista.com/topics/965/apparel-market-in-the-us/.
Made-By (2016) [accessed 24 May 2016] Environmental Benchmark for Fibres [Online] www.made-by.org/consultancy/tools/environmental/.
Carmichael, A (2014) [accessed 21 March 2016] Man-Made Fibers Continue To Grow, Textile World [Online] www.textileworld.com/textile-world/fiber-world/2015/02/man-made-fibers-continue-to-grow/.
10  Stotz, L and Kane L (February 2015) [accessed 22 March 2016] Facts on the Global Garment Industry, Clean Clothes Campaign [Online] www.cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/factsheets/generalfactsheet-garment-industry-february-2015.pdf.
11  Gereffi, G (1999) [accessed 24 May 2016] A Commodity Chains Framework for Analyzing Global Industries, Duke University, USA [Online] www.ids.ac.uk/ids/global/pdfs/gereffi.pdf.
12  Siegle, L (8 May 2011) [accessed 16 March 2016] Why Fast Fashion is Slow Death for the Planet, The Observer [Online] www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/may/08/fast-fashion-death-for-planet.
13  WRAP (2012) [accessed 16 March 2016] Valuing Our Clothes: The True Cost of How We Design, Use and Dispose of Clothing in the UK [Online] www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/VoC%20FINAL%20online%202012%2007%2011.pdf.
14  Siegle, L (8 May 2011) [accessed 16 March 2016] Why Fast Fashion is Slow Death for the Planet, The Observer [Online] www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/may/08/fast-fashion-death-for-planet.
15  WRAP (2012) Valuing Our Clothes: The True Cost of How We Design, Use and Dispose of Clothing in the UK [Online] www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/VoC%20FINAL%20online%202012%2007%2011.pdf.
16  Council for Textile Recycling (2016) [accessed 21 March 2016] [Online] weardonaterecycle.org/.
17  Better Cotton Initiative [accessed 21 March 2016] Q&A [Online] bettercotton. org/about-bci/qa/.
18  EJF (2007) The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton, Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK, London, UK.

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