By Dr. Taylor Brydges, Centre for Urban Environments, University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada / Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, Australia
In a recent article in the Journal of Cleaner Production, I investigate the implementation of circular economy practices in the Swedish fashion industry. Funded by the Swedish Research Council, this paper shares the findings of a three-year project which mapped the circular economy strategies of Swedish fashion brands across the three key stages of fashion supply chains: take, make, and waste. Taking a qualitative approach, I conducted semi-structured interviews with the founders, CEOs, and/or brand sustainability managers of 19 Swedish fashion brand.
In mapping these practices, I found that that brands were predominantly focused on implementing circular economy principles at the waste stage. Examples of how brands are engaging with the circular economy include offering garment take back programs, introducing repair services, providing additional garment care instructors, and trialling rental services.
This research also illustrated the need to go beyond a focus on waste and consider whether the implementation of CE principles aimed at reducing environmental impact of the fashion industry at one stage of supply chains can affect other stages. For example, investing in efforts to extend garment life through targeted recycling or take-back programs fail to address social and environmental sustainability issues at earlier stages of supply chains, such as the use of chemical inputs, trend-driven design decisions which encourage a shorter garment life and unsafe working conditions for garment workers. Thus, the findings of this research expose the tensions of transitioning from linear to circular supply chains and the difficulties of retrofitting existing business models to become more sustainable.
It is argued that continued engagement with the circular economy that fails to take a holistic approach to the sustainability challenges facing the fashion industry is a missed opportunity to not only meaningfully confront and challenge dominant industry norms, but affect the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Indeed, on this trajectory runs the risk that the CE, like other sustainability concepts before it (Henninger et al., 2016), will become another nebulous idea susceptible to greenwashing. Yet, it is still important to recognize that the fashion industry is increasingly taking some steps towards circularity, and these steps may lead to the growing acceptance and implementation of circular practices. If successful well-known brands (like many of those that define the Swedish fashion industry) make significant, structural changes, other industry actors may be encouraged to follow suit.
For now, it remains to be seen if the industry will capitalize on this momentum and if the circular will prevail as a dominant sustainability approach – particularly in the post-Covid era. Future research is needed to continue to monitor developments in the Swedish fashion industry, studying its transition towards circularity over time.