No, ASOS' new collection isn't circular

It's full of loopholes to avoid closing the loop.

Not What It Seams is a free, fortnightly newsletter that unpicks the latest in fashion and sustainability. It was created with the average shopper in mind to encourage critical takes on the latest fashion news and demystify the language of sustainability. If you enjoy this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running! 💌

Don’t tell me about your one off recycled collection whilst failing to pay garment workers a full living wage and continuing to produce fast fashion clothing on a vast scale.

There is not a single legal definition for marketing-friendly words such as “conscious” “responsible” or “eco-friendly.” These are terms which are misused to make the consumer feel good about themselves whilst being convinced the brand is behaving ethically. Unfortunately it’s a greenwashing tactic we see again and again!

You could argue that it’s good to see more brands at least bringing up the topic of sustainability but it’s confusing for customers when the ethics of these companies remain questionable…

#fastfashion #consumerism #sustainability #ecofashion #eco #shopping #clothing #responsible #conscious #whomademyclothes #fashrev
October 4, 2020

Maybe it’s just me but when a fast fashion brand releases a “sustainable” collection, I treat it as an admission that the rest of their clothing range is pretty shit for the planet. Such greenwashed campaigns are supposed to distract us from the fact that these same brands pollute, waste and exploit but we’re smarter than that. Today’s case in point is the I-don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry news that ASOS have released a micro circular collection that isn’t circular at all. Yep, you read that right.

Sophie Benson has already penned an exceptionally well written article on this topic - likening the collection to “putting a plaster on a broken leg” - which I’ll try my best to summarise here.  

This collection may have been two years in the making, following ASOS’ 2018 Copenhagen Fashion Summit commitment to train all ASOS designers on circular design by 2020. And train all designers they did in a programme ran by the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Then in May, ASOS partnered with Make Fashion Circular, a collaborative, cross-industry initiative fostering circularity.

ASOS’ “circular” collection is comprised of 29 trend-led pieces which challenge the “misconception that circular and sustainable clothing can’t be fashionable”. Attached to each oversized and 90s-inspired item is a QR label that, when scanned, links to information on how each product was made. If I may interject, I’m not sure that trends and circularity are that obviously compatible. Designing temporarily trendy clothes that, in the current climate, go out of style pretty quickly places unnecessary strain on a circular system that must repair or transform. Maybe a simpler solution is drastically cutting back on production levels and creating timeless, classic staples - of course, a solution ASOS & co will never be fond of.

But I digress. To define circularity, ASOS turned to the three foundations of the circular economy, as outlined by environmental charity the Ellen McArthur Foundation: design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. Using this as a starting point, ASOS then developed eight circular principles of its own:

  1. Zero waste design

  2. Minimised waste

  3. Recycled components

  4. Durability

  5. Versatility

  6. Mono-material

  7. Easily disassembled

  8. Easily upcycled

“What’s the catch?” I hear you ask. Well, in order to be considered circular, each piece within the collection only had to meet at least two out of the eight principles. That’s not how circularity works. If we imagine that a circle is made up of 8 equal, interdependent pieces - each piece representing one of ASOS’ circular principles - and we take away 6 of those pieces, what are we left with? An uneven line. A linear design process where a garment is made, briefly used and then disposed of.

As Sophie writes, “the three foundations of the circular economy inherently work in tandem with each other. If you don’t design out waste, you don’t keep products and materials in use. If you don’t tackle pollution, you can’t regenerate natural systems. You cannot regenerate natural systems if you don’t keep materials in use because you constantly tap them for virgin resources.” All 8 pieces of the circle, then, are needed and it’s not for ASOS to pick and choose what they want.

The biggest loophole is that ASOS has not committed itself to closing the loop, a key component of circularity. While their fabric may be easily disassembled and recycled, ASOS takes no responsibility for post-consumer waste. Nope. No take back scheme, no repairs service, no money off your next purchase for returning a garment at the end of its lifecycle. The onus is once again placed on us, which means that while these garments could be swapped, sold or upcycled by those that are nifty with a needle, they could just as easily join the other 350,000 tonnes of used clothing that end up in a UK landfill each year.

Criticisms aside, something has to be said about the potential good that could come from this highly published collection. We could see a domino effect and, when implemented properly and fully, ASOS’ circular principles could be a force for good. Maybe we’ll see more brands follow suit, brands that are determined to get it right this time. Or we’ll see brands mimic ASOS with another half-assed attempt at circularity to cash in on the “trend”. Who knows?! What’s certain is that ASOS currently has no intention to rescale its entire business plan along circular lines. Nor will they require vendors on their marketplace to adopt circular principles. Rather, they want to lead by example, so they should probably start doing that first!

In other news…

The Levitt report found that Boohoo knew of the “endemic” problems in its Leicester supply chain. The independent review was commissioned following the publication of Labour Behind The Label’s damning report and a Sunday Times investigation which found that garment workers in Leicester factories were labouring in sweatshop conditions without adequate hygiene and social distancing measures. Boohoo have accepted the review’s recommendations and apologised for failing to “match up to the high expectations we set for ourselves”. Despite this scandal, Boohoo’s sales have continued to surge, which is a telling sign that we need more than consumer action. We need robust government legislation and codified safeguards for global garment workers.

“Stop lecturing women about ‘sustainable’ fashion” is a bad take and here’s why. When we talk about making sustainable fashion “more affordable”, why do we prioritise the western woman’s questionable “right” to pretty, affordable clothes over a garment worker’s human right to safe employment? And when did societal pressures to look nice take precedent over a dying planet?! The fashion industry is, among other things, classist and sexist and the global working class are its most vulnerable victims. But it is not classist and sexist to critique a system that is made profitable by the middle and upper classes or to educate women about making more sustainable choices. Fast fashion has undervalued the true cost of our clothes. While a £5 dress might seem cheap, it comes at a heavy cost for cotton farmers who are dying prematurely, for the children forced into garment factories, for the local community’s polluted rivers, for the planet. The democratic illusion of fast fashion is just that: an illusion. Until everybody in the global supply chain has fair and equal access to fashion, women in the global north are not entitled to an endless haul of clothes (and that’s not even addressing the blatant issue of overconsumption).

Fashion Weeks returned in their revised half physical show, half online format. In place of a traditional runway, Moschino staged a cinematically shot puppet show, complete with an Anna Wintour marionette. It was joyful and playful, as fashion should be. While virtual and digital fashion might prove the next frontier in sustainable fashion, Tamsin Blanchard believes that “Fashion Week is no longer about sustainability; it’s about survival.” Meanwhile, an XR protester gatecrashed the Dior runway, brandishing a neon sign that read “we are all fashion victims”. Hilariously, executives initially thought it was a planned part of the show. The rebellious act formed part of Extinction Rebellion’s revised Fashion Act Now campaign which is calling on the fashion industry to address its culture of excess.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

What is circular fashion?

Circular fashion is an intuitive alternative to the traditional linear take-make-use-dispose model. Circular fashion, by contrast, seeks to extend the lifespan and functions of garments for as long as possible. Rather than being thrown away after one use or minimal wear, circular fashion creates a regenerative closed-loop system in which clothes are continually repaired, reused, renewed, recycled and repurposed into other products. Circularity takes place at every stage of the industry, from sourcing and transporting, to manufacturing and marketing, all the way through to product disposal. In practice, this looks like minimising textile waste and pollution and regenerating materials into new resource streams at the end of their lifecycle.

The only way to implement a fully circular fashion economy is to decouple economic growth from the depletion of resources. In other words, we need to move away from a system that thrives on the exhaustion of natural resources. The true environmental benefits of circular fashion, therefore, can only be realised by radical cuts in global production and consumption rates - which is exactly why ASOS’ circular collection is a mere drop in the ocean.

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