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Switching Gear: Inside the first masterclass of Circle Economy’s new circularity project

By Huw Hughes

Dec 6, 2019

Circularity is one of the most important topics in the fashion industry at the moment, as brands, suppliers and manufacturers alike look to remedy the industry’s issue of excessive waste. According to research by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, global clothing production has approximately doubled in the past 15 years, while the average duration people are wearing their garments has decreased by 36 percent in that same period.

As the industry and consumers become increasingly aware of the immense and damaging effect the fashion industry is having on the environment, new circular business models are being introduced, such as rental and recommerce, to combat the problem head-on.

Extending the life of a garment is considered one of the most effective ways to reduce the overall impact of the clothing industry, on two fronts. Firstly, optimizing the use of clothing through circular business models can contribute to a decrease in production and consumption of new garments and secondly, can reduce the growing volumes of textile waste that are generated every year.

The impact potential is clear, as is the business opportunity. Market forecasts indicate that both the recomerce and rental markets are expected to grow much faster than the traditional retail market. Nevertheless, while many brands see the potential of these new models, they struggle to practically apply them.

Launched in November in Amsterdam, the Switching Gear project is looking to tackle just that. With the mission to accelerate the practical uptake of circular business models in the apparel industry, the two-year project, led by impact organisation Circle Economy and part funded by the C&A Foundation, will support brands in the design and launch of a rental or recommerce pilot by 2021. Participating brands will follow a circular innovation process; consisting of a year-long masterclass programme, and supplemented by online ‘scrums’ to make sure the brands are staying on track with their development.

The first of the four full-day masterclasses kicked off on 21 November at the Impact Hub just a stone’s throw from Oosterpark in the east of the Dutch capital. As strategic media partner to the project, FashionUnited was invited to attend the masterclass and meet the brands, partners and organisers involved in the project.

“Our very mission is to slow down consumption and overconsumption.”

“The day has been really good, it’s been very inspiring and we’ve seen a lot of cases and applications of various archetypes within circularity which really emphasised the urgency of implementing in,” said August Bard Bringéus, the co-founder and CEO of Swedish online-only menswear brand Asket. His brand, which he founded in Stockholm in 2015 along with Jakob Dworsky, champions slow fashion and focuses heavily on traceability and transparency across the supply chain.

“Our very mission is to slow down consumption and overconsumption. We want more people to buy fewer items and have them last longer. So joining this project was a natural step for us,” Bard Bringéus said. “My feelings about the fashion industry right now is that we are at a bit of a turning point and a paradigm shift where consumers are becoming increasingly conscious about its impact on the environment - they’re joining the dots between purchase and climate change and we’re really feeling it right now. I feel like Switching Gear is another step in the right direction.”

Swedish fashion chain Lindex, which was founded in Alingsås in 1954 and is part of the Finnish Stockmann Group, is another brand involved in the project. In April, as part of a wider sustainability promise, the retailer pledged to implement a more circular business approach, which included ensuring 100 percent of its materials are either recycled or sustainably sourced by 2025.

“We decided to get involved in Switching Gear because it’s part of our sustainability promise to have a circular business approach and of course we naturally saw the business opportunity that it also offers,” said Malin Kemi, the brand’s strategy and business development project manager. “I found the day to be really inspiring, motivating and high-energy, and we’re leaving with lots of things to think about going forward. We’ve learnt a lot from the first masterclass; I think the sense of urgency surrounding the subject of circularity has become even more obvious and we’ve gotten really good models to take forward that we can work with and build on.”

The challenges of creating a circular business model

But developing and launching circular business models doesn’t come without its challenges, especially for larger brands, something that Kemi acknowledged. Lindex currently operates around 460 stores in 18 markets, of which nine are franchise markets. “I think the challenge for us is that we are a fairly big company with structured processes and ways of working and here we have to think in an entirely new way. It’s the challenge of working with more of a startup mentality and being willing to try new things and not get stuck in our old ways,” Kemi said.

Dutch corporate wear specialist ETP was the third brand to get involved in the Switching Gear project. Founded in 1995 as a division of McGregor Fashion Group, the company specialises in the Dutch corporate wear trade and creates outfits for companies such as travel and tourism company TUI, bank ABN Amro and T-Mobile Nederland.

“Switching Gear offers a great opportunity to connect with a lot of business partners and other brands who can help us share and explore information together - to work together in the journey towards full circularity,” said Esther Oostdijk, director of product operations at the brand. “The best part of the first masterclass was meeting a lot of brands already working on circularity so we could learn from their insights and also getting to meet a lot of business partners like PwC who are working with financial business models which can really help us develop as a brand. It was just the start today - we’re excited to see what happens in the coming two years.”

In partnership with Amsterdam-based sustainability initiative Fashion for Good, the project has also established the Switching Gear Enabling Network, a network of over 30 rental and recommerce solution providers, frontrunning brands and topic experts, who can help the participating brands in operationalizing their new business model. Members of the network include companies such as ThredUP, RePack, Eileen Fisher, Style Lend, Lizee and The Renewal Workshop, and Stuffstr.

Stuffstr is a London-based company that partners with fashion retailers to buy-back unwanted products. “We want to be able to help companies that sell to consumers to be able to to be more circular and to be able to get their customers the tools they need to recirculate things,” said CEO John Atcheson. “One of the biggest problems with that is getting companies to be able to work through various pilots and experimentations that will lead to trying out new circular models so we looked at Switching Gear as this critical step to figure out how to best approach that.”

Commenting at the end of the first masterclass, Gwen Cunningham, lead of the Circle Textiles Programme at Circle Economy, said: “Today has been really great. The goal of this project is to help brands move away from traditional, linear ‘take-make-waste’ models towards a new circular form of consumption, and it’s been really exciting to see the collective ambition during the kickoff today. We’re really excited to see what’s to come.”

This is the first of a series of publications on Switching Gear that will follow the project's progress as it unpacks the challenges and opportunities of circular business models in the apparel industry.

Photo credit: Simona Tomms