Linear Economy vs. Circular Economy | why it matters in fashion

Ever wonder how all the tangible products you own are made? And where they come from? And maybe even where exactly they end up after you’re done using them?

Let’s look at the difference between linear and circular economy. First off, just by the two names of these incredibly different economies says a lot about them. The linear economy has to do with the old fashion, take, make, dispose model of creating products, while the circular economy represents a much more regenerative design that we will dive deeper into as you read on.

Linear vs circular

Linear Economy

The model of the linear economy is very linear, and is how a majority of the economy is ran today. It operates on a take, make, dispose model where the stuff we use and buy moves through a system from extraction, to production, to distribution, to consumption, to disposal. This means that it contributed to the growing landfills, adding a tremendous amount to the growing green house gases and methane that is the byproduct of landfills.

This system is a system in crisis due to all the negative effects it has on our planet and us as a whole. This is because it is a no way regenerative economy and since we live on a finite planet, it is in by no means sustainable. There is no way we can run a linear economy on a finite planet indefinitely.

Although easy to follow on a screen, this linear system is happening in the real world we live in and is doing a detrimental amount of damage to our planet.

Circular Economy

Now that we’ve taken a look at the linear economy, let’s take a look at the circular economy. The circular economy is defined as an industrial system that is restorative and regenerative by intention and design. In essence, it closes the open loop that the linear economy opporates on and fails to complete. Instead of operating on a take make dispose system, the circular economy is continuously regenerating and has zero-waste in its cycle, like all other cycles that exist on this planet. It implements the “reuse, reduce, repurpose, recycle” points in a closed, ongoing loop of materials.

A few benefits include:

  • designing out waste and pollution
  • keeping products and materials in use
  • regenerating natural systems

Why it matters

It’s incredibly important to know the effects of both the linear and circular economies. Linear being the one that is most in use and the result of the industrial revolution, while the circular economy I really do see being the future and helping to reverse and put an end to our wasteful culture.

If the circular economy is able to be implemented in place of the linear, there would be so many benefits, and landfills would not be needed as all products would be in a continuous use and going through the production system, or else safely decomposed or biodegraded into Earth’s soil so more of that resource can be produced.

Implementing the circular economy would also drive innovation and entrepreneurial new businesses and structures which will lead to an increase of jobs and build communities working together with more service rather than being fully consumer based cultures. This is due to the reuse, reduce and recycle model (circular) having much more potential for services over just products, while the take, make, dispose model (linear) thrives solely off a die hard consumer culture.

Negative impacts of Linear Fashion

As of now, the textiles system operates in an almost completely linear way:

  • Large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that often get used for only a short period (think of fast fashion culture)
  • after short life cycle, materials are sent to landfill or incinerated
  • more than $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing under utilization and the lack of recycling textiles/materials.

Furthermore, this take-make-dispose model has endless negative environmental and societal impacts:

  • total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production is at 1.2 billion tons annually. This is more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined!
  • Hazardous substances affect the health of both textile workers and wearers of clothes, then escaping into the environment
  • When washed, some of these garments that are made with synthetic fibers release plastic microfibers of which around half a million tons every year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics

Making Fashion Circular

There is a solution that has continuous research and implementation around that could help create a system that works, delivering long term benefits and an overall wasteless solution. This would be a new textiles economy that is based on the principles of a circular economy.

It’s about time to create a fashion industry economy that is restorative and regenerative by design while also providing benefits to business, society, and the environment.

This would support the need for higher quality clothing that is also affordable and individualized. It would also regenerate natural capital, and design out pollution while using renewable resources and energy to make it all possible.

Steps to take to create a new textile economy that is fully regenerative using this circular economy include the following four steps:

  1. Phase out substances of concern and microfiber release
    1. ensure that material input is safe and healthy (organics, recycled) to allow cycling and to avoid negative impacts during production
    2. align industry efforts and coordinate innovation to create safe material cycles
    3. drastically reduce plastic microfiber release
  2. Increase clothing utilization
    1. transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature
    2. scale up short-term clothing rental
    3. make durability more attractive
    4. increase clothing utilization further through brand commitments and policy
  3. Radically improve recycling
    1. transform clothing design, collection and reprocessing
    2. align clothing design and recycling processes
  4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs
    1. reducing need for raw materials due to higher clothing utilization and increased recycling
    2. raw/virgin materials, when needed, would come from fully renewable resources

Thanks to the Ellen MaCarthur Foundation and their summary and findings of A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future for the above information.

There are already many companies implementing this circular economy model. For instance, Freitag, creates bags from upcycled street banner materials, as well as compostable clothing on their website.


8 Replies to “Linear Economy vs. Circular Economy | why it matters in fashion”

  1. Thank you for sharing a great article. You are 100% right and we do need to move away from the old model to the new model.

    I believe it all starts with education and then implementation. I think we are moving in the right direction and it is only a matter of time before people and companies realise we can’t continue on the old path for the sake of our planet.

    Maybe some further government incentives for companies will help to speed up the process of moving to the new model.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Moni! There’s still a lot of work to do but I believe that we are slowly moving in the right direction. 🙂 Government incentives would be a great way for getting companies to move towards the circular economy.

  2. Wow, this article is so insightful and informative. In my business class I learned a bit about this topic. The U.S. itself uses the majority of Earth’s natural resources, more than its fair share. And the industry produces products like clothing that will inevitably end up being thrown away due to the trends always changing. I donated my unwanted clothing to a thrift store, I think Goodwill. Goodwill is a great organization to donate to, because they put any clothing that wasn’t sold into textile recyling and donate their profits to charity. Anyways, keep up the great work and spread your message.

    1. Thank you so much Suha! I love to hear that you are learning about this topic in your business class. I started learning about it as well in a sustainability course I took at ASU and couldn’t help but dive into it deeper. I really believe that moving to a more circular economy is the start of creating a sustainable future for ourselve, our planet & all that inhabit it. 🙂 Goodwill is awesome, I love donating there and purchasing second hand clothing that satisfies my fashion taste buds. thanks for sharing!

  3. Riley, you’ve chosen an interesting angle on sustainable living. Most of us think about about things like farm to table, we think about the household trash we throw out, and recycling metals and plastics. Many of us don’t stop to think twice before throwing out an old (but still wearable) shirt or pants. I recently made it a point to donate unwanted items.

    1. Thanks so much for your interest, Dexter! I see a lot of the same stuff regarding or food and recycling, which is awesome! But often not a lot on other aspects like how larger corporations function such as the fashion industry. Hence why I am trying to broaden the angle a little and look at how our fashion taste has a huge part in the health of our planet and our future. 🙂

  4. This is a great post and you have highlighted the issues with a linear economy perfectly. Our planet is in a lot of trouble and as consumers we have the power to change this. We need to demand more from the manufacturers and they have a responsibility to start producing goods which are environmentally friendly and recyclable. I particularly like that you have said we need to ‘drastically reduce plastic microfiber release’ as this is a huge problem. Every time we use our washing machines, we wash away hundreds of micro plastic fibers into the waterways and this can enter the food chain and our reservoirs very easily. Great post and I look forward to reading more.

    1. thanks so much, Vicki! I appreciate you having an awareness about the textile industry as well and how microfibers effect us and the planet we inhabit. Luckily there are motivated people like us to spread awareness and do something about it, so we can ensure a better future for a youngins, and the generations to come. 🙂

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