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Fashion COMMENTARY

How circular is Asos’ first circular fashion collection?

By Simone Preuss

1 Oct 2020

After two years of hard work that started at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in 2018, British online fashion retailer Asos launched its first circular collection in cooperation with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion on Monday. The 29-piece “Circular Collection” challenges the misconception that circular and sustainable clothing can’t be fashionable.

In this way, Asos avoids the much more pressing question of how a fast fashion company whose business model is based on volume can ever be sustainable? Because that makes it part of the problem, namely producing in bulk and instigating overconsumption. Whether a 29-piece collection is circular has about as much impact as “putting a band-aid on a broken leg”, as Sophie Benson of the Independent argues.

Loophole: only two circularity principles have to be followed

But all is not all in vain, even if a closer examination of Asos' circularity commitment reveals a large loophole. As laudable as it is that the company not only incorporates the three foundations of a circular economy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation - designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems - but adds eight of its own design principles ones, it is unfortunate that only two principles need to be applied for a garment to be considered circular and included in the “Circular Collection”.

After all, the foundations were not designed like a buffet to pick and choose from; all three must be applied consistently and jointly to make a garment circular. Otherwise, if, for example, products and materials are kept in use and natural systems are regenerated but without designing out waste and pollution, then the effect achieved is small and one cannot speak of circularity.

If waste and pollution are avoided and natural systems are regenerated, but without keeping products and materials in circulation, this will not bring much benefit either. And if waste and environmental pollution are avoided and products and materials are kept in use, but without regenerating natural systems, then one cannot speak of a circular economy.

Asos own criteria alone does not make the collection any more circular

The fact that Asos then adds eight of its own criteria - zero waste design, waste minimisation, use of recycled, more durable materials and only one material per product for easier disassembly, designing products that can be adapted to trends and upcycling - makes little difference if the basic foundations are not adhered to. Conclusion: Just because a collection is called “circular” does not actually make it circular.

This does not mean that Asos’ efforts have been in vain. According to Dilys Williams, director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, the more than two-year-long cooperation has led to a rethinking of the design team and other teams along Asos’ supply chain: “For over two years we’ve worked closely with Asos, forging trusted relationships through open and honest discussion and commitment to expand a recognition of value in creative, environmental, social, cultural and economic terms. It has involved everyone from creative directors to design, buying, sourcing teams and suppliers.”

Has a long-term rethinking taken place?

Williams sums up accordingly: “CSF’s programme of research and education co-developed with the Asos sustainability team, has encouraged cultures and practices of sustainability that can contribute to vital transformation. Designers, by definition, seek to transform materials skills and resources into greater value, in aesthetic and practical terms. What this involves depends on what is recognised as valuable. The future of the industry depends on collaboration – on researchers, educators and fashion professionals working together to achieve the pace and scale of change that is required.”

One can only agree with this, but it remains to be seen whether a long-term rethinking has actually taken place that will eventually bear fruit. If the words of Asos’ head of design, Vanessa Spence, are to be believed, then something has happened, both internally and externally, as the company is now working closely with its suppliers to implement its own circular principles.

“With all of our designers now trained in circular principles and our first circular collection out the door, we’re excited to see how we can take this project forward and use our size and scale to share our expertise with our suppliers but also other brands and retailers,” says Spence.

Each of the 29 pieces of the Circular Collection, which consists of clothing and accessories in oversized styles and 90's prints in brown, purple and neutral tones, also has a QR code on its garment tag that can be used to learn more about Asos' circular design principles and how a garment was made. Let’s hope that when a big online retailer like Asos volunteers this information, consumers and the industry alike will be inspired.

Photos: Asos