What is Circular Fashion? How to Sustainably Close the Loop

Last Updated on March 20, 2023

It’s a new buzzword in the sustainable scene but here’s what real (not greenwashing) circular fashion actually looks like.

This post is kindly sponsored by Tonlé, thanks for supporting the amazing brands that partner with My Green Closet!

Awareness around sustainable fashion is growing and customers are demanding more responsible products. A recent survey found 67% of consumers consider sustainable materials as part of their purchasing decisions and 63% take a brand’s general approach to sustainability into account. And brands are responding to these demands, with genuine efforts and also with an unfortunate increase in greenwashing.

“Circularity” has become a big buzzword with sustainability, and while it can represent a new, important shift in the industry, it’s also used in misleading and deceptive ways. Companies sticking a clothing collection box in their stores or using a bit of recycled materials does not magically make them “circular”.

We need brands to go deeper and make real, holistic changes that aren’t just for marketing and press coverage. If a brand truly cares about helping to build a better industry and reducing their impact and waste, they need to be looking at the entire supply chain and life of the garments.

Circularity Is So Much More Than Recycling

The concept of circularity in fashion is often misunderstood. We typically see it as taking the “waste” or end of a garment’s life and bringing that back around to the start of the supply chain, i.e. recycling the materials into a new garment — but it’s so much more.

Tonlé is a brand I love in which circularity is threaded through all stages of their business. Unlike many “sustainable” brands who use an eco-friendly fabric and call it a day, the brands I really trust and respect are those where sustainably is a core value — brands like Tonlé who are constantly challenging the status quo and looking for innovative solutions while producing garments with heart, soul, care, and compassion.

Tonlé is a great example and case study to learn more about circular fashion.

Circularity Starts With Design

Products need to be designed with intention, for longevity, and with its next use in mind, otherwise there is no chance at a successful circular system.

From the beginning, designers need to be thinking about how the garments can have as long of a life as possible. This might involve decisions such as:

  • Ignoring trends and instead developing a signature, timeless style for the brand
  • Paying attention to customer feedback
  • Designing with versatility in mind
  • Testing and selecting high-quality fabrics
  • Possibly opting for seasonless collections
  • Selecting high quality sewing and finishing techniques
  • Considering options for end-of-life, extending use, and upcycling/recycling

While brands might have different design directions, the commonality is intentional and thoughtful design which considers the greater impact of the garments. Tonlé incorporates many of these elements and they’re always looking for ways to learn, grow, and offer more inclusive designs.

Your Greenwashing Is Showing

With fast fashion, “circularity” initiatives are flawed right from the start. Highly trend-driven, poor-quality pieces, and a high-turnover model for design, production, and consumption just has no chance at being successfully circular and part of a regenerative and restorative system.

If a brand is claiming circularity while constantly having new products in stores or over-producing billions of dollars of unsold clothing, it just doesn’t add up.

Materials & Fabrics

When we view fabrics from a circularity standpoint, some key characteristics are:

  • Quality: Poor-quality materials are unfortunately most likely to quickly become waste
  • “Waste” Recovery/Reuse: Can materials that might otherwise end up as trash be rescued and further utilized?
  • Recycled/Regenerated: Can fabrics made from recycled materials be used? (Although, it’s important to note that recycling things like plastic bottles into clothing has its own issues and is more of an interrupted cycle or down-cycling system than a restorative, circular one)
  • End-of-life: What happens when the material is no longer usable in its state?
    • Can it be reused or repurposed in some way?
Dyed fabrics drying at Tonlé’s studio in Phnom Penh

Brands can take different paths regarding their fabric choices and circularity. For Tonlé it means reclaiming and utilizing offcuts, “scraps”, and deadstock fabrics, and turning them into beautiful and useful garments. This not only saves the resources of creating new fabrics but also allows textile waste to circle back into the system.


A lot of textile waste is generated during production — from leftover fibres and yarns in the spinning and weaving process, to cutting scraps and snipped threads.

While this is typically trash, brands like Tonlé have an innovative zero waste production process; cutting scraps are collected and handwoven into unique garment, accessories, and home decor, and even the too-tiny scraps and threads are saved and turned into paper!

It’s also important for brands to be mindful about how much they’re producing. Small batch production, made-to-order garments, or pre-sales are ways that brands can help ensure they aren’t producing too much.

Tonlé artist completing a wall hanging made from fabric scraps

Unwanted, Worn & Damaged Garments

It’s not enough just to put a garment out into the world. Sustainable brands should be conscious of its lifecycle and try to prevent textile waste from ending up in the landfill. Some ways brands can take responsibility for apparel waste are:

Tonlé uses plastic-free packaging for shipping their products

To help address this, Tonlé runs their Open Closet: a store for pre-loved Tonlé pieces. People can trade in their used clothes which are resold, repaired, or turned into new pieces. It’s not only a wonderful way to reduce waste and keep clothing in the cycle but also a way to get a beautiful Tonlé garment at a lower price point, win-win!

True Circularity Means an Overhaul of the Industry

Waste is essentially part of all stages of clothing manufacturing and use (even while wearing and washing our garments we’re shedding tiny bits of waste ). Unfortunately, the faster and cheaper garments are to produce, the less ability and incentive there is to reduce or recover that waste and bring it back into the cycle.

One example of how the industry has changed for the worse: traditionally fabric cutting would be optimized to use the least material possible (patterns were carefully jigsawed together to reduce waste and fabric costs), however this takes more time and with the speed of fashion now, it’s more important for factories to get the pieces cut as quickly as possible instead of efficiently using the fabric. Tonlé founder Rachel Faller said they often find huge offcut pieces leftover from brands — enough to cut long dresses or multiple garments from!

Rachel also told me about how a lot of the deadstock materials come from factories over-ordering, (but not at the fault of the factory). Due to the quick production pace, factories don’t have time to order the appropriate amount of fabric after getting all the finalized numbers and info from the brand, like they would have pre-fast fashion. Instead they need to have enough fabric on hand to immediately meet the demands of the brand, because saying, “we can’t do that” or “it will take longer” could mean a lost contract, not being able to pay wages, and the brand going to another factory.

Like guest writer Hannah Neumann shared in a post about producing garments in a pandemic: “Not only do the producers behind our clothes make the least amount of profit within the fashion supply chain, they also have the highest risk and least protection.”

The insane demands brands put on factories mean so much unnecessary waste is created simply to save a little time or money.

And then there’s also the misguided emphasis on textile recycling. Textile recycling is still very flawed, but fast fashion brands are using it to encourage guilt-free shopping. Harmful “Wear, Recycle, Repeat” type messaging promotes the idea that you can buy endless amounts of clothing and it’s sustainable because you’re recycling it.

We unfortunately have a long way to go regarding a true circular economy in the fashion industry. New approaches and systems desperately need to be incorporated to foremost reduce — and then also recover and effectively recycle — waste.

However, it’s inspiring to see small brands like Tonlé forging their own path, collaboratively developing and designing innovative systems, taking on challenges, and continuing to push themselves.

Things can be different and a circularity in fashion can be so much more than a greenwashing buzzword!

What other clothing brands are reducing waste and embracing circularity? Check out our roundup of brands that are zero waste, upcycle, recycle and use deadstock fabrics.

Learn more about Circularity in Fashion: Ellen MacArthur Foundation Towards the Circular Economy Report

4 Responses

  1. Abhay Gupta
    | Reply

    Great post highlighting the importance of true circular fashion and the need to move beyond greenwashing. It is crucial for the fashion industry to adopt sustainable practices to reduce waste and create a more environmentally conscious future. Thank you for spreading awareness and educating on what real circular fashion looks like.

  2. […] example, in her article What Real (not Greenwashing) Circularity in Fashion Looks Like she covers everything from the meaning of circularity to the steps brands need to take to create a […]

  3. Riya Sen
    | Reply

    I love this blog post! I’m always looking for ways to reduce my environmental impact, and this post is a great example of how to do it without sacrificing style. Thanks for sharing!

  4. […] example, in her article What Real (not Greenwashing) Circularity in Fashion Looks Like she covers everything from the meaning of circularity to the steps brands need to take to create a […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *