Kickin’ the But(t)s Volume 2: Circular Fashion

When it comes to ecological transformation, the same objections – the famous “buts” – often recur. In this new column series, we want to give experts a platform to address and dispel these doubts. A “Yes” instead of a “But”, facts instead of fake news. Episode two with Serena Bonomi, Design Strategy & Innovation Advisor for the Circular Economy, takes us to circular fashion, where persistent misconceptions often cloud its transformative potential

Serena Bonomi | May 14, 2024

Prejudice: Circularity means limitation for designers

The notion that circularity limits designers is a common misconception. In fact, constraints can foster creativity, leading to innovative outcomes. It’s akin to cooking with limited ingredients in your pantry; you might come up with creative and surprisingly good recipes. I recall a challenge during a project developing a circular capsule: we couldn’t find a dye that produced the black color typically used by the brand. This limitation led us to experiment with the fabric itself, resulting in alternative solutions like adjusting fabric finishes: these adjustments not only achieved the desired aesthetic but also enabled us to maintain sustainability aspects. Such limitations encourage a creative approach to problem-solving, ultimately leading to more thoughtful and inventive designs.

Prejudice: There are no good examples/blueprints

Contrary to this belief, there are numerous examples of successful circular initiatives, both within fashion and other industries. Brands are increasingly creating products that are designed to be recyclable, biodegradable, or made from recycled materials. These success stories provide blueprints for others, showcasing practical applications of circular principles that other companies can emulate. While many fashion brands have not created large capsules, there are notable examples of footwear and jackets designed for circularity. These products embed the strategies and principles focused on by these brands. Moreover, there are also many online resources available, such as those from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which share insights and case studies on circular design.

Prejudice: You can’t produce small numbers in a profitable way

To challenge this notion, I often refer to the business model of a Chinese ultra-fast fashion brand (which I choose not to name). Although not a sustainable brand at all, their approach holds disruptive potential for the industry as such: they’ve managed to create small and agile production lines within their massive operations. Most of the time, when they advertise a product, they only list it on their website for a few days alongside a shopping experience that is highly time-pressured and gamified, creating a sense of urgency and exclusivity. This model is mostly on-demand, with direct shipping to the customer, which significantly speeds up the process. Imagine if this type of production system were applied to a company with strong ethical values and used for promoting made-to-order, circular products —it would be revolutionary.

Prejudice: Circular items in fashion are costly

Today’s linear-economy-based pricing model in fashion often obscures the genuine expenses incurred to create a garment. The advent of industrialization and mass production have distanced consumers from the hidden costs. Take, for instance, a t-shirt priced at 5 euros — is such a cost truly feasible without externalizing the burden to those who produce it, often under dire conditions? Although sustainable options may present with a higher initial price tag, their longevity and the concept of cost per wear offer a compelling counterpoint. While consumers should be re-educated on the true cost of fashion, and concepts such as cost-per-wear could be a strong lever for; brands should develop new pricing processes, taking into account new economic models of value retention and resources loops, such as second hand, product as service, recycling, etc.

Prejudice: Fashion is too delicate for circularity (because it’s emotional)

Fashion is definitively highly emotional, but consumers don’t develop a bond with every single item they own: the circular economy offers brands plenty of opportunities to choose which approach makes the most sense for their customers. The key is knowing these customers’ needs, by leveraging existing data (today every company has an online presence) as well as ad-hoc research. For example, while some customers absolutely treasure owning a wedding outfit as a memento of such a special day, others might prefer economic benefits and the flexibility of rental solutions, or services to alter these special clothes to be worn at other future occasions.

Prejudice: Circular fashion is not cool or aesthetic

While once true, this stereotype has now been dismantled as designers integrate sustainability into high-fashion. The use of innovative materials and processes has led to the creation of fashion items that are as stylish and desirable as their more impactful counterparts. Advances in technology and material science have allowed designers to explore new textiles, colors and fits that meet both aesthetic and environmental standards. For example, we are seeing a move away from the muted tones of the first natural dyes and sustainable bamboo fibers; today, there are vibrant examples of brighter colors, prints and fabrics that merge sustainability and aesthetic.

Prejudice: You can’t disrupt the fashion industry

It’s time to go beyond seeing product sales as the sole source of revenue. Like a smartphone, which is a tool for accessing a variety of services, the fashion industry could shift from a product-focused to a service-oriented business model, offering services like styling, rental, events and more. I recently spoke with a designer who expressed a desire to make products free for customers, who would then instead pay for training sessions on dyeing, mending, and caring for these garments. This is an extreme example, but reimagining of the product concept could transform the way we think about fashion, turning it into a means of expressing individuality and engaging in a community.

Serena Bonomi

Design Strategy & Innovation Advisor for the Circular Economy

Serena Bonomi is a Strategy & Innovation Advisor with over 12+ years of expertise, most of which focusing on the Circular Economy. Serena led the development of Zalando’s Circular Design Criteria and strengthened circular initiatives through unprecedented customer behavioral insights. At VF Corp she guided successful innovations in EMEA, notably commercializing the first circular jacket in 2019, pioneering Napapijri’s Circular Series: Cradle to Cradle Gold-certified, with digital product passport and take back service. After working for global giants like 3M, BMW, VF Corp and Zalando, today Serena collaborates with ambitious organizations and individuals worldwide, developing circular innovation roadmaps, lecturing on circular economy, speaking at global conferences and events, and pioneering circular initiatives and products across industries like fashion, electronics, and e-commerce.