What is the difference between Recycling and Circularity?

Move over Blair Waldorf, the fashion industry is about to change, and your never-seen-before-five-outfits-a-day trend, ain’t going to cut it. Alright, so before I turn prey to an Upper East sider scheme, I will be the first to admit that B’s fashion on the show was *chef’s kiss*; the fashion practices though… not so much.

The linear product design model (aka make-use-discard) is one that has been around for decades (and not just in fashion, might I add). Today, with all the BTS being out in the open, companies are suddenly throwing the word ‘sustainability’ around almost as many times as radio DJs played T Swift’s Love Story back in 2008. How exactly they are planning on getting there is the real question.

Linear who? We don’t know her!

Before we go into sustainability, it’s probably a good idea to understand why staying linear isn’t so great. Speaking of linear, fast fashion has become such a trending topic, it might as well have its own Gossip Girl page. The reason why these brands thrive is because of how extremely affordable and accessible they are; add people’s extreme obsession to keep up with trends plus a smidge of impulsiveness and you got yourself a million-dollar business. However, just as the saying goes – even in fashion, everything cheap comes at a cost.

Take some random tee you bought from that online fast fashion store. Starting at the top, dying one ton of fabric takes up to 200 tons of fresh water. Considering how many pieces are made of a single style – that’s not a lot. If made of synthetics, 1174mg of microfibers are released per wash that enter our own bodies via aquatic animals, and their decompose time – 200 years! Oh, and forget not the greenhouse gas emissions that happen during production, transportation and finally, when you discard the tee – landfill decomposition; this year the fashion industry even won (or lost rather) third place at the largest polluter comp (World Economic Forum, 2021).

See the issue with linear models? It’s like that whole Dan Humphrey and Blair Waldorf situation – a complete disaster and there’s no going back.

Recycling: one step in the right direction!

In the world of booming business buzzwords, recycling has had its fair share of airtime. Recycling is all about converting waste into reusable material and it comes into play at the very end of a product’s lifecycle. Take paper for example: once recycled, it’s turned into new paper products which not only helps save trees but also reduce pollution and landfill. Compared to the linear model, recycling can easily pass for a Rufus – way less evil.

However, this concept too has its own dark little secrets: recycling consumes energy, and the post-recycled product is usually of lesser quality. Clothes are also made of complex material which make them hard to recycle in the first place. There’s also a limit as to how many times material can be recycled before they end up like the rest of them. An ideal model would be one that can be recycled as many times as possible with no environmental impact! If only…

Me: *talks about Circularity*. Them: Is this Recycling?

Everyone says they are ‘sustainable’, but if they mention the word circularity, that’s when you know they mean serious business; I’m talking Blair Waldorf on a mission-to-avenge-Serena-Van-der-Woodsen type serious business. A circular economy would ideally be about creating products that have infinite lifecycles i.e. an economy where products are designed using responsibly-sourced organic materials, produced using sustainable practices with minimal waste, built to be durable, and at the end of their lives – upcycled, making their way back to the start of this cycle with no quality loss. But – and yes there’s a but – this sort of model would take a long time to completely adopt, especially in fashion with fast fashion posing an obvious threat.

Adding another but to that first but, with the climate crisis being bigger than ever, brands have realised they don’t have a choice but to try going circular. Research done at the Ellen MacArthur foundation showed that only 55% of emissions are addressed by transitioning to renewable energy while the rest all depends on circular economy and how products are created – no pressure right? In fashion alone, brands such as Stella McCartney are taking a stand, designing their clothes using restorative and regenerative material.

No, the rumours are wrong, Recycling and Circularity are not the same thing. In a Circular model, ideally there wouldn’t be waste to recycle in the first place, but of course, a model like that is as unrealistic as Serena getting into two Ivy league colleges. The best solution to this would be to find a way to optimise Recycling and making it fit in the Circular business model. Here’s to hoping that brands will be able to find that middle ground between the two – a duo that might even give Chuck and Blair a run for their money!




Beall, A. (2020, July 13). Why clothes are so hard to recycle. Retrieved from BBC Future: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200710-why-clothes-are-so-hard-to-recycle

Carlson, D. (2021, October 7). Better than recycling? These manufacturers are taking part in a ‘circular economy’. Retrieved from Market Watch: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/a-better-way-than-recycling-these-manufacturers-are-taking-part-in-a-circular-economy-11633613962

Charpain, M. (2017). Fashion’s environmental impact. Retrieved from Sustain your Style: https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/old-environmental-impacts

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (n.d.). Recycling and Circular Economy: What’s the difference? Retrieved from Ellen MacArthur Foundation: https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/articles/recycling-and-the-circular-economy-whats-the-difference

Kim, H. (2021, March 17). What is Circular Economy and How does it Work? Retrieved from Network for Business Sustainability: https://www.nbs.net/articles/what-is-a-circular-economy-and-how-does-it-work

Stella McCartney. (n.d.). Circularity. Retrieved from Stella McCartney: https://www.stellamccartney.com/gb/en/sustainability/circularity-2.html

World Economic Forum. (2021, January). Net-Zero Challenge: The Supply Chain Opprtunity. Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Net_Zero_Challenge_The_Supply_Chain_Opportunity_2021.pdf

Research Papers:

Hartline NL, Bruce NJ, Karba SN, Ruff EO, Sonar SU, Holden PA. Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments. Environ Sci Technol. 2016 Nov 1;50(21):11532-11538. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.6b03045. Epub 2016 Oct 13. PMID: 27689236.