The fashion industry is known for being ahead of the curve. With the growing push for apparel manufacturing transparency and sustainability, the industry needs to leverage its designers’ creativity and innovation more than ever. Many clothing labels are going beyond seeking the next trend and are working to reshape the entire industry.
Industry leaders are innovating and redesigning products and systems to work with instead of against the planet. This restructuring includes all aspects of business, from initial material sourcing to packaging. In honor of National Packaging Design Day, we will take a closer look at an up-and-coming design concept, circular design, and how it can transform apparel packaging into a sustainability solution.
Circular design, which involves closing material flows in circular production loops, is quickly gaining traction in the fashion industry. Its application in packaging can help clothing and accessory companies striving to improve their sustainability make the final leap to full circularity and achieve a closed-loop system. Alternatively, companies just beginning their sustainability journey can learn more about circular design and how to apply its principles to their business models.
The fashion industry currently uses large amounts of resources and encourages greater consumption. The rise of fast fashion has nearly doubled the number of clothing collections created per year. Consumers are encouraged to regularly discard last season’s wear for the latest trends, and the industry produces clothing that is not made to last. The average apparel item is now worn 36% fewer times than it was approximately two decades ago.
This uptick in clothing production has left a mark on the environment. The fashion industry is responsible for approximately 10% of global carbon emissions and nearly 20% of wasted water worldwide. In addition, conventional clothing production methods are highly polluting.
Packaging is one of the waste hotspots in apparel and accessory production. The fashion industry alone uses 180 billion polybags, thin and flexible plastic bags, each year to protect garments during storage and transport. The vast majority of these bags end up in landfills instead of being recycled. Additionally, while e-commerce was already on the rise over the past several years, it has skyrocketed due to the coronavirus pandemic. This has led to even more shipping packaging and more significant industry waste.
Consumers and organizations are putting a spotlight on these unsustainable business practices. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals highlight sustainable consumption and production as a key to transforming our society. In addition, consumers are becoming more educated on unsustainable practices in fashion, and they are calling for change. Increased consumer demands for transparency and ethical production put pressure on businesses to shift gears and develop more sustainable supply chains and manufacturing processes.
The fashion industry is beginning to acknowledge the inherent social and environmental issues embedded in its current production systems. Clothing and accessory companies are leveraging their creativity to innovate for sustainable development, and some are even seeking to radically change the entire apparel industry. Many companies incorporate the principles of circular design into their production and operation processes to transform the fashion industry into a restorative and regenerative part of the global economy.
The traditional product lifecycle design is linear, with materials flowing through from sourcing, production, use, and disposal at the end of a product’s life. When scaled across entire systems and industries, this type of production generates enormous amounts of waste.
Nature has in a large part inspired the idea of a circular economy. Ecosystems and other natural systems have a more ‘circular flow’ than the linear product lifecycle. Materials are derived from nature, used, and then returned to the system to be used again in an endless closed loop.
The goal of circular design principles is to close production loops to create a regenerative and restorative system. The circular economy benefits both companies and society. By (1) designing waste out of the production system, (2) keeping materials in use for more extended periods, and (3) regenerating natural systems, circular design can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and biodiversity loss.
All product stages can incorporate this way of thinking: from ethical materials sourcing and production to extending item use and finally considering the product end of life. Using renewable resources as the material specification is one way to consider the flow of materials sourcing. Additionally, companies can develop production processes to minimize the use of resources such as energy and water and eliminate waste. Implementing circular thinking can further reuse, maintain, or otherwise extend product life.
Last but not least is designing products with the end in mind. This “cradle-to-cradle” approach is a critical component of circular design. Instead of landfilling items, manufacturers can take back products consisting of finite resources to remake, refurbish, or recycle them. Natural renewable materials are candidates for becoming the feedstock to create another product. They can also be composted and converted into fuel (i.e., biogas) or nutrient-rich compost to replenish natural systems and improve agriculture.
Designing products according to these principles is gaining traction across industries. This mode of thinking has particularly taken hold in the fashion industry. Nonprofit organizations and businesses are collaborating to redesign how we make and use clothing, bringing us one step closer to circularity.
Incorporating circular design into apparel brands can help create a resilient fashion industry that benefits society and the environment. There are substantial economic benefits to making this transition. The potential value of the fashion circular economy is estimated to be a staggering $5 trillion.
Circular fashion involves creating products from safe, sustainable substrates, such as recycled or renewable materials. Apparel in the fashion circular economy is used more times than in fast fashion, which promotes single-wear outfits. Circular fashion items easily disassemble and can be re-made into clothing or other products. Alternatively, clothing made from natural materials is compostable, providing an opportunity to regenerate Earth’s systems.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation promotes the development of the circular economy by working with companies to scale solutions. The organization collaborates with top fashion brands to incorporate circularity into their product design.
One of their more notable projects is redesigning jeans, a traditionally water-intensive and polluting clothing item, for the circular economy. Over seventy brands and manufacturers are now putting The Ellen MacArthur Foundation Jeans Redesign Guidelines into practice.
Several dozen denim experts collaborated to create guidelines to improve the human health and environmental impact of jeans. Jeans made under these guidelines have an extended life. Additionally, their material can create new jeans after use. The jeans manufacturers also use nonhazardous chemicals and production processes.
Banana Republic has already launched its collection of eco-conscious jeans, and Lee, Wrangler, and Outerknown plan to follow suit this month.
MUD Jeans has taken the idea of circular jeans to the next level. Not only do they incorporate recycled cotton and use minimal chemicals to create their jeans, but they offer free repairs and have even developed a jean rental system. Instead of purchasing the jeans outright and then disposing of them after use, customers can rent a pair of jeans for a monthly fee. The company then takes back the jeans after the customer is finished using them and utilizes the material to create new products.
Circularity is made possible through improved traceability, where companies track materials, products, and impacts along the supply chain. Transparency, when businesses clearly convey this information to stakeholders, also plays a key role. Transparency and traceability are both necessary for promoting the fashion circular economy and improving consumer trust.
Fashion Revolution, the most significant global fashion activism movement, published the Fashion Transparency Index, which rates the 250 top fashion brands and retailers based on how well they disclose their policies, practices, and impacts related to sustainability.
It is no coincidence that top scorers include H&M, C&A, and Adidas, which are also involved with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Labels that apply the circular approach to their business model can more easily and proudly communicate their impact, achievements, and sustainability goals to consumers and other stakeholders.
Improving product sustainability is crucial to creating the fashion circular economy. The next step in the industry’s journey to circularity and system revitalization is developing packaging that aligns with these principles and values.
Packaging in today’s world has become an extension of a brand. It reflects the brand values and identity. Thus, a clothing brand cannot be fully circular without considering its packaging design.
Achieving full circularity means that apparel brands must go green in every aspect of their business. Circular packaging is a great way to put your best foot forward and demonstrate to customers your commitment to promoting the circular economy.
Fortunately, there are sustainable packaging solutions available to meet the needs of companies who want to be a part of the new fashion circular economy. Circular packaging means less waste, social and environmental benefits, and an improved brand image.
Here are some ways to achieve sustainable packaging and participate in the circular economy:
1) Ethical sourcing
Considering where packaging material comes from is an integral part of its circular design. The same principles of ethical production in fashion apply to sourcing in that workers or the environment should not be harmed to obtain needed materials. Examples of these materials include renewable substrates such as cotton grown without pesticides and paper from timber harvested to maintain the integrity of the forest ecosystem. Worker protections should also be a part of sourcing processes.
2) Sustainable manufacturing
Similar to sourcing, circular manufacturing practices ensure that laborers are treated fairly, with living wages and safe working conditions. Manufacturing processes in the circular economy are also designed to eliminate waste, minimize resource consumption such as energy and water use, and produce little or no greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, zero waste and carbon-neutral production are ideals to strive for in developing circular packaging.
3) Product life augmentation
Extending a product’s life is an excellent way to get additional use out of it, which means less waste and more value from the same product. Creating reusable packaging is the most straightforward way to achieve this aim. Reusable packaging also has the added benefit of increasing brand exposure as customers can reuse the product in their daily life. Form is a crucial aspect of reusable packaging design. The packaging should be functional and durable to allow for multiple uses as well as cost-effective.
4) End of life waste diversion
One of the main goals of designing circular packaging is to divert packaging waste from landfills. Planning for the product’s end of life can accomplish this aim. As previously mentioned, the packaging design can incorporate disassembly. The consumer can return the product to the company after use. Then, the material can be used to create a new product.
Another option is to create a product that can be recycled. Using a single material that local recycling programs commonly accept gives your product the best chance of success in this area. Finally, composting centers can safely return compostable or biodegradable packaging to the Earth, where it then becomes an input into agriculture, fuel, or another purpose.
These are some basic guidelines for improving packaging circularity. Of course, each brand is unique, and its needs and circumstances vary. Edge2Edge Packaging understands circular design and can develop custom solutions for your women’s apparel brand to incorporate circularity into your retail packaging. Edge2Edge can navigate the complex roadmap of circular design from material selection to designing out waste to help create sustainable packaging for your brand.
Apparel companies are already putting circular packaging into practice. Some of these businesses are receiving a helping hand from organizations dedicated to improving the fashion industry’s sustainability.
One such group is Fashion for Good, a platform that fosters sustainable fashion innovations. One of their more recent projects improves the circularity of polybags. Participating manufacturers produce high-quality recycled bags using post-consumer waste. After use, consumers can return the bags to the stores. The manufacturers then collect the bags from the stores and brand distribution centers. They break down the bag material to create new polybags, closing the production loop and providing a genuinely circular solution to the industry.
Reusable packaging in e-commerce is also picking up steam. The predominately online clothing brand AHLMA is an example of using circular thinking across the full spectrum of their business operations, including how they ship their clothing. In addition to primarily using post-industrial and recycled fabric to create their clothing lines, the company ships orders in a box whose design encourages customer reuse. This helps to extend the packaging life.
THE ICONIC, an Australian retailer, found a different way to take packaging waste out of the equation. The company switched from traditional landfilled e-commerce packaging to 100% post-consumer plastic waste pouches for its garments. The plastic packaging then undergoes recycling again to produce another product. This sustainable packaging option prevents more plastic from ending up in landfills or entering the environment.
Another cutting-edge packaging solution is compostable bags. The Blinded by Color Project is a fashion startup focused on regeneration. The brand creates its clothing collections using recycled cotton, indigenous printing techniques, and natural dyes. It provides information on how to care for the apparel to extend its life and how to safely compost the item after use. In line with its restorative mission, the Blinded by Color Project also incorporates its circularity into e-commerce by sending its clothing items in a compostable mailer. Both the clothing and packaging can be returned to the Earth, demonstrating their commitment to the new fashion circular economy.
Incorporating circular design is an exciting opportunity for the fashion industry to reinvent itself once again. Many of the top women’s apparel brands are already making the change to circularity, creating a more significant shift in the industry. When considering circularity, it is essential not to leave packaging out of the equation.
Whether rethinking the design and impact of your current brand or creating a new brand that uses circular design, it is critical to remember to apply circular design to all aspects of the product. Packaging is an extension of the brand and contributes to a company’s environmental impact.
Working together, we can achieve the fashion circular economy and create systems of production and consumption that restore the Earth and benefit humankind.