Sweden's Circular Fashion Industry
Sweden is Leading the Way
The fashion industry needs a makeover. In Sweden, the fashion industry saw a 38.33% increase in sales from SEK 120 billion (10.3 billion Euros) (in 2009) to SEK 166 billion (14.2 billion Euros) (2019) in ten years. An increase in sales means an increase in the total production of clothing garments. Producing garments results in excessive use of water, energy, and chemicals, and contributes to the creation of waste and pollution. The fashion industry contributes around 20% of industrial wastewater pollution worldwide and is responsible for 8-10% of global carbon emissions. To keep up with demand sustainably, Sweden has implemented changes and proposed more plans to create a circular economy within the fashion industry. Their industry is focusing on circularity in textiles by prioritizing resource efficiency and innovating ways to maximize the value of products and byproducts like residues, dead stock, and textile waste.
A Model for Circularity
The current linear model of the fashion industry follows three steps: take (harvest raw materials), make (produce garment), and waste (wear and subsequent disposal of garment). Fast fashion is a resource-intensive business model where inexpensive clothes made by underpaid workers are produced to keep up with current fashion trends. This concept feeds into the linear model by favoring short-term fads which in turn harm the environment and abuse resources and labor.
Sweden’s model for circularity aims to eliminate the environmentally harmful concept of fast fashion. The new model’s goal is to maximize resource efficiency and eliminate waste. To do this, a redirection of the linear flow of material and energy must occur. The change will result in a decoupling of economic growth and environmental loss.
Sweden has sustainable regulations in place but aims to focus more on sustainability in the fashion industry. One of those regulations is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which puts end-of-life collection of products in the hands of the producers, making them responsible for the recycling or proper treatment to avoid waste. As of January 1st, 2024, the EPR regulations will be amended to include licensed textile collections. This amendment will be rolled out over several years, with the goal that at least 90 percent of the textile waste collected will be reused or sent for material recovery by 2028. This new regulation will apply to clothes, household textiles, bags and accessories. All Swedish households and businesses that produce textile waste will be required to separate textile waste from other waste.
Examples of Circularity in Place
Businesses are already making the transition to a circular model. With a focus on sustainable textiles, brands are creating pieces meant to last a long time and be easily recycled. Here are three examples of Swedish clothing brands that are making the transition:
First, Filippa K is a brand that operates by the motto ‘sustainability leads the way to growth’. In 2014, the company established a circular business model founded on the sustainability principles of circularity, traceability, and impact reduction. An example of how the circular model is implemented can be seen in their new collection, which utilizes OnceMore®, an innovative wood-based material to create sustainably sourced, long-lasting pieces. Furthermore, the company aims to remake, resell, or recycle 100 percent of collected garments by 2030. In 2021, 535 garments were collected and avoided becoming waste.
Second, Houdini Sportswear has turned its business circular by prolonging the life of garments through repairs, rentals, and second-hand sales as well as changing the production of new garments to be made 100 percent of sustainable fabrics, from natural or recycled materials. In 2023, the company opened Houdini Circular, a store concept based on circular business models. The idea behind this storefront is that of a marketplace, where you can buy and sell new and used gear as well as get Houdini items repaired. The brand is trying to change customer perceptions from a throwaway culture to a long-term item lifespan.
Third, A New Sweden produces clothes made of wool from locally sourced materials by collaborating with farmers. Their pieces aim to leave no environmental degradation trace, from the farm to the finished product. Sustainability is considered at every step. They do this by creating plastic-free garments, sourcing materials locally to reduce waste of precious resources and reduce emissions, and designing garments for longevity. Their product is meant to be timeless, outlasting ephemeral trends.
A circular business model also provides an outlet that does not require new purchases. The company Klädoteket uses a business model for renting clothes, rather than purchasing new pieces. By creating a sustainable clothing ‘library’, customers can rent or purchase designer clothes if they love a piece. This concept is great for reducing the waste of items only worn for special occasions. With this method, an item can be worn over and over again by different people, therefore creating longevity and reducing waste and consumption.
Education is also contributing to implementing a circular business model. At the Swedish School of Textiles, students learn about the entire textile value chain. Through research, every aspect of the textile is studied. From fibers and recycling to design and textile management, the school offers a plethora of opportunities for circularity in textiles. An ongoing research project and partnership exists with Smart Textiles that innovates technology for recycling and reusing textile fibers. Another program is the ArcInTexETN, which connects architecture, interactive design, and textiles to create more sustainable forms of living.
The Future of Circular Fashion
To continue the transition from linear to circular models in the Swedish fashion industry more research is needed. Circular business models put a large emphasis on eliminating the waste aspect of an industry, but waste only accounts for about 3% of the industry’s carbon footprint. Whereas production accounts for 80%. Therefore, new circular business models need to take into account the 'take' and 'make' stages of a garment to target the most environmentally damaging steps. To do this, technology is needed to make new garments from old materials. This can be done by simplifying the sorting of textiles, incentivizing brands to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their product, and changing consumer perspectives away from a fast fashion mentality.
Government regulations are necessary to support and advance this transition. The Swedish government offers tax breaks on repairs for consumer goods, which lowered the VAT from 25% to 12%. The idea is to inspire people to fix household items, like appliances, rather than throw them away when broken. Expanding a program like this into the fashion industry by providing tax breaks on secondhand or sustainably sourced clothing items could incentivize consumers.
Another governmental initiative that can accelerate the transition to a circular fashion industry is the idea of developing digital product passports in Sweden. Digital product passports are being considered for implementation across the European Union (EU) in 2026. If implemented, any business selling a product on the EU market will need to provide a product passport for the item. The passport’s objective is to increase transparency by making data available on the entire lifecycle of the product, from material source to the supply chain and following to the end-of-life and reuse stage. With this, consumers can better understand where the materials were sourced, how the product was made, and what environmental impact it has. This initiative provides consumers with the ability to make sustainable choices when purchasing a product.
Sweden is a world leader in the transition from a linear to a circular fashion industry. With regulations already in place and many businesses following a circular business model, Sweden is a pioneer in the industry. Nonetheless, despite all the positive circular initiatives occurring, there are still improvements that need to be made. An article by Taylor Brydges investigates the circular economy practices of the nation and offers two important takeaways from the research. First, to apply circular economy principles, industrial specificity must be considered. Principles across industries for circularity remain the same, but implementation can look different in each industry. For example, the fashion industry presents barriers including the style and aesthetic of consumers that may not be as present in another industry. Second, geographic location and local communities need to be considered when implementing the circular economy. Just as implementation will be different across industries, implementation will also reflect local factors, such as policies and regulations or cultural aspects of a community.