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Sustainable Style #1: Materials, fashion and a circular economy

24/06/2024

Welcome to our latest mini-series: ‘Sustainable Style: Designing a sustainable future for the fashion industry’. In an era defined by the urgent need for global sustainability, fashion is one of the many sectors that must play its part. Throughout this series, we will look at the critical role of intellectual property in driving innovation and economic progress, while shaping the course of the fashion industry’s development.

A circular economy

The current methods for producing clothing are placing an increasing pressure on natural resources, whilst simultaneously polluting and degrading the environment. With an ever growing population, society now stands in urgent need of clothing that is both stylish and ethical. The fashion industry, which already accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, is on a drive to be more sustainable.

The industry has traditionally operated using a ‘linear system’ where virgin materials are extracted from non-renewable resources and used to produce clothing following a ‘take-make-dispose’ manufacturing model. The clothes produced are often used for a short period before being discarded as waste and typically left to be placed in landfill or simply incinerated. The linear approach may be cheap and convenient, but it promotes material scarcity, climate change, natural resource depletion and waste creation; contributing to the key challenges faced within the industry.

Textile production doubled between 2000 and 2015, and the consumption of clothing and footwear is now expected to double by 2030. The driving force behind this being the rise of fast fashion.

Fast fashion is a relatively new phenomenon that follows on from a ‘linear’ approach to the production of clothing. In today’s world instant gratification holds power over consumer’s behaviour and society has become accustomed to having cheap clothing rapidly produced and made available. The fast fashion business model is highly profitable and fuelled by the constant rotation of new trends within the industry. The concept of fast fashion and the high number of brands using this model promotes the idea that ‘disposable’ fashion is acceptable. Yet, textile workers and the environment are paying a high price in order to maintain these low costs for the consumer,

The sustainable shift to a circular economy in the fashion industry is becoming an increasingly popular topic of conversation amongst consumers, innovators and investors.

‘Circular fashion’ focuses on using a ‘closed loop system’. The idea being to produce products with the intention of using them responsibly and effectively for as long as possible in their most valuable form. This can be done by designing clothes to have a longer lifespan, by recycling and by re-using clothes, using lower-CO2- impact materials, as well as fundamentally changing the material streams used to produce clothing.

The shift

Brands are becoming more aware of the sustainability of their processes. For example the H&M Group has taken a three system approach to business strategy, aligning with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) definition of a circular economy and focussing on the three key principles of ‘eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials at their highest value and regenerating nature’. Other popular street fashion brands such as Weekday and Tommy Hilfiger are also aligning themselves with the EMF principles and projects.

There is also increasing awareness and expectation from the general public with regard to environmental and social issues. It is becoming more common for consumers to place value on the sustainability of a brand’s clothing and manufacturing processes and to actively seek out brands that prioritise sustainability, ethical practices and transparency. Embracing the sustainable shift therefore becomes not only an environmental decision for businesses, but an imperative strategic advantage.

Further to heightened consumer expectations, the EU has announced a strategy for sustainable and circular textiles to create a ‘green textiles sector’, the aim being to have a new sustainable ecosystem for textiles by 2030.

The new approach provides a further incentive for brands to reflect on the entire lifecycle of products, encouraging changes in both production and consumption. The EU’s new eco-design legislation in December 2023 included a ban on the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear products. There have also been other new requirements including those focussing on the durability, reusability and repairability of products, as well as the minimum recycled content in textiles.

The EU strategy for sustainable and circular textiles has also outlined a digital product passport as a future requirement for all stakeholders in the fashion industry. The ‘digital product passports initiative’ is part of the proposed Eco-design for sustainable products regulation which aims to introduce the passport into at least three key markets by 2024 – one of the key markets being the fashion industry. The idea of the passport is to offer transparency about materials’ origins, production processes and end of life instructions, giving an overview of their environmental impact. The digital product passport results in an increased labour of due diligence but will also allow companies to generate new value and capture greater market share.

Protecting innovation

As the shift to sustainable fashion continues, IP considerations are becoming increasingly important. In view of exhibiting new strategies, sustainability initiatives that need to be trademarked and patents for innovation in the industry, IP must be taken into account to enable designers and brands to commit to greener, more ethical practices and ensure that their sustainable shifts are economically viable.

At Reddie & Grose LLP, we have extensive experience in the patenting of sustainable materials and would be happy to offer advice on innovation and suitable protection of inventions in this field as developments evolve. Stay tuned for further blogs in this new miniseries, dedicated to key developments in the sustainable fashion industry.

Read the next article of Sustainable Style: Designing a sustainable future for the fashion industry.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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