A Circular Fashion Economy Offers Big Benefits

Oakland fashion sustainability expert Annie Gullingsrud and others like her want consumers to shift from the linear fast-fashion model to a circular fashion economy that keeps goods in circulation longer. It’s good for the planet — and humanity.


Annie Gullingsrud runs the nonprofit Design for Allkind.

When it comes to fashion, Annie Gullingsrud “wears her values,” but that wasn’t always the case for the Oakland fashion sustainability expert and founder of Design for AllKind.

“When I was young, I would shop at Forever 21 every three months, donate, shop again, donate, shop again,” she said. “Then I began to study fashion design and marketing, and learned what goes into those cheap clothes I bought and disposed of so easily. I saw the pollution and human rights concerns and knew there was a better way to celebrate style. I began to save my money and invest in fewer pieces of higher quality that I could be proud to wear.”

A particular favorite — one she refers to as her “spirit dress” — is an embellished gray knit by designer Stella McCartney that Gullingsrud bought secondhand. The purchase exemplifies for Gullingsrud how fabulous and affordable fashion can be when consumers engage in sustainable shopping within a circular fashion economy.

A circular fashion economy is one that runs on safe materials designed to stay in the fashion flow over time. It’s the opposite of a linear model in which fashion items are tossed out after a short term, as in fast-fashion lines. Gullingsrud is here to get you excited about the concept and to explain why now, more than ever, shopping sustainably is phenomenal fun for the customer. For fashionistas, shifting into circular economy shopping behaviors doesn’t mean limiting style options.

“Think of the circular fashion economy in terms of the Earth’s ability to recycle water,” suggested Gullingsrud, characterizing it as a system where all the materials used for clothing creation continually resurface and are repurposed — like water cycling through the planet’s ecosystem.

“There are fashion companies doing a great job using sustainable materials at the start, but they’re still based on a linear model of constantly pumping out new goods made with virgin materials. This is why I’m passionate about re-commerce and re-fashion. It keeps materials and products in the circular economy,” said Gullingsrud, a member of the board of directors for Goodwill San Francisco.

When it comes to shifting customer behavior, Gullingsrud, as both a fashion designer and fashion lover, acknowledged it can be difficult. Sustainable fashion hasn’t traditionally been affordable, and the excitement of lower-priced fast fashion can be more alluring than saving to invest in fewer longer-lasting pieces.

But with half of fast fashion disposed of in a year and apparel and footwear responsible for 8 percent of global carbon equivalent emissions, the negative environmental impact of the linear model is real. And the appeal of buying something new is also real, as evidenced by a global fashion industry that’s valued at well over $3 trillion annually.

“We’re working globally to implement more elegant solutions of reuse on both the company and the customer end,” Gullingsrud said. “It’s not just an industry shift away from a linear model of production; we, as shoppers, need to change our behavior, too.”

On the global and industrial scale, Gullingsrud works with fashion giants like Gap Inc., Eileen Fisher, H&M, and Stella McCartney as the program lead of the Fashion Positive Plus program, an initiative that allows member companies to collaborate their efforts in sourcing safe and sustainable materials for their clothing.

As valuable as sourcing sustainable materials can be, it may not be enough to correct the darker side of apparel production. Ayesha Barenblat is the San Francisco founder of Remake, an advocacy-based nonprofit focused on making fashion a force for good. She cautioned against solely relying on recycling or reuse of goods and materials to resolve the industry’s sometimes-bad behavior.

“Every couple of years, we pass the blame to other parts of the value chain without really looking at how the entire system is broken. Ten years ago, the focus was supplier ownership, and before that, it was women’s empowerment. It gets us away from the tough conversation about scale and growth and the amount of product being put out in world,” Barenblat said.

Remake creates short documentaries — view them at Remake.world — showcasing the lives of garment factory workers in areas like China, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. The films put a human face to the true cost of cheap-to-buy fast fashion.

“In the U.S., we’re used to buying too much for too little money without registering the human and environmental impact. When we can buy an ugly sweater for a holiday party for less than the cost of coffee, we’re going to throw it away after we wear it,” Barenblat said. “We need to have a human-centric conversation, otherwise it’s hard for people to focus and care in a bigger way.”

Technology plays a role in the cricular transition. On the production end, connectivity — embedding information into a garment via radio-frequency identification, or RFID — improves sustainability and fair labor accountability. “Consider connectivity like a birth certificate,” Gullingsrud said, “providing information about the dyes, social impact, and source of material for each garment.”

Gullingsrud serves on the global leadership team for the Connect Fashion Initiative and explained that this connectivity encourages reuse of materials, corporate responsibility, and opportunities for second- and third-sale profits.

“In a circular system, fashion companies could continue to earn on sales of the same garment, like artists do with royalties,” Gullingsrud said.

Technology helps companies earn on used pieces, allowing re-use to be profitable and humanitarian for a brand. San Francisco tech company Yerdle Recommerce has software technology and the structural logistics to enable brands like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia to buy back their used clothing from customers. The fashion companies repurpose or repair items, giving them new life. The garments can be resold under a fashion company’s secondhand label with Yerdle’s technology.

Tech companies are also changing secondhand shopping. Thrifting and vintage shopping are’t new, but not everyone loves the thrift experience. Many prefer to shop online or in traditional stores. “Bay Area-based companies like The RealReal and ThredUp bring technology and fashion together,” Gullingsrud said, “and their sites mimic the online shopping experience. Shopping on these sites is fun; it’s exciting. I can search by size, style, and price point easily. There’s nice branding, merchandising, and professional photography. It doesn’t feel like shopping in a thrift store.”

Part of the appeal of this elevated secondhand shopping is the transfer of assumed quality imbued in each item. Another appeal is the convenience of online shopping it provides. “Another perk of re-fashion,” Gullingsrud said, “is it makes luxury items more affordable and accessible, but it also makes nice clothes that are in great shape be competitively priced with fast fashion so people on a budget have options.”

The biggest step individuals can make is shifting their mindsets from that of consumers who use and dispose to borrowers or caretakers in a shared system. Customers can cut down on purchasing new clothes, unless they are truly sustainable. By refusing to buy (and then dispose of) fast-fashion items, shoppers can reduce environmental — and social — harm. This doesn’t mean sacrificing fashion or shopping or budget options; it’s engaging with new and ever-expanding ways to reuse.

Instead of buying, customers can also lease the latest styles online from companies like Rent The Runway or Express. They can also buy secondhand goods online or locally, selecting high-end luxury creations, everyday basics, unique vintage pieces, or gently loved contemporary styles.

If clotheshorses have items they love, they can redesign and transform them into something new via companies like Ateliers & Repairs in Los Angeles. They can sell back into the reuse economy through sites like The RealReal, ThredUp, and Poshmark or through the Bay Area’s resale and vintage shops. Or donatate to charities.

“This change will come from everywhere,” Gullingsrud said. “It comes from innovators making smart recycling materials; from you and I shopping on resale sites and secondhand; from companies using recycled materials; from celebrities and a new vision of luxury; from a sense of quality and beauty and legacy and pride in what we are wearing and a sense of camaraderie with the community. A successful circular fashion economy comes from all of us.” 

Fortunately for us all, the future is here, and it is very stylish.