December 28, 2022
Over the last few years we have been increasingly asked about the circular economy, and in particular circular fashion - what is it? Is Elvis & Kresse a circular fashion brand? How is the circular economy philosophy a more sustainable approach?
Before we dive into the detail, just think of nature; the natural world (prior to our desecration of it) is inherently circular. Water cycles, plants grow in the summer and die in the winter, feeding the ground for next year's growth. In the animal world we have amazing specialists - like vultures, carrion beatles and fungi - which are phenomenal at recycling formerly living tissues.
At its core the circular economy is a nature inspired roadmap for all of our human activities; it takes responsibility for the entire lifecycle of any product or service and minimises waste at every opportunity. This starts at conception, the idea, through to the resourcing of materials, the design, the manufacture, the packaging, delivery, use and crucially the end-of-life of everything we consume.
A truly circular product leaves absolutely no trace. It will use either naturally compostable, reclaimed or rescued materials, it will be manufactured with renewable energy, it will have negative or neutral carbon logistics and, once the service is fulfilled or the product is worn out, there will be an established plan to ensure that any materials can be returned to nature, re-used or re-engineered into something else. Nothing goes to landfill or incineration, nothing is wasted, everything is utilised to its full potential and then re-utilised, perpetually.
Within this, there are also many other facets to consider and it can get delightfully complex. Imagine a tube of toothpaste, for it to be circular you have to consider every ingredient in the paste, every component of the packaging, how everything is shipped and even what happens to the residual toothpaste when you spit it out! For us it is also crucial to consider fair working conditions and wages for workers in the supply chain. We think that capital also has to flow in a circular way, benefitting the many and not just the few. There is a significant amount of cross-over with slow fashion, which we’ve spoken about before.
Let’s take a look at each of these ideas in a little more detail:
“Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill.”
Ellen Macarthur Foundation
A key focus of the circular economy is to eliminate even the idea of waste. We firmly believe that enough materials already exist to sustain the fashion industry and that new raw materials or synthetic materials do not need to be produced - we need to re-use, rescue and reclaim and where reuse is not possible, recycle.
By manufacturing less synthetic materials, mining less or farming less crops for textile production we can massively reduce energy and water usage, we can reduce chemical and fossil fuel pollution, we can stop poisoning local and global ecosystems. If, as an industry, we opted to use materials that have already been created, design products for longevity instead of seasonality and create them in such a way that they can be re-engineered into something else at the end of their usefulness we could, quite literally, change the world for the better.
As well as raw materials, another fundamental tenet of the circular economy is zero waste design. By reducing, or ideally eliminating, wastage by designing for the resource, rather than for the sake of an end product, we would automatically be reducing the demand for new materials.
If patterns were to maximise the use of materials in their raw state, the amount of off-cuts would be minimal and, as we demonstrate, off-cuts can still be crafted into something beautiful. The design process itself needs to be re-engineered, Elvis & Kresse are proof that this can be done. Since 2005 we have been calling this Backward Design:
The final fundamental of the Circular Economy is an end-of-life plan for the product. Unfortunately, nothing can last forever (except possibly microplastics, but that’s for another post) and wear and tear does happen. So once a product has fulfilled its use or is worn out - what is in place to stop it from going to landfill or incineration? The answers here are endless and entirely depend on the product and the materials used - but keep reading for how we approach this.
Elvis & Kresse started with a waste problem. When Kresse discovered that heroic decommissioned fire-hoses were sent to landfill she knew she wanted to save them. At the time, the how didn’t exist - but with some hard work, creativity and trial and error, Elvis & Kresse learned everything there was to know about nitrile rubber and began to experiment. First came belts, then wallets and purses, bags and accessories followed, even fire-hose coupling candlestick holders are available to ensure the entire hose is gifted a new life.
Along the way, other waste streams were introduced and rescued - failed military grade parachute silk panels and also off-cuts are collected from a manufacturer in Wales and serve as linings or dust covers for many of our pieces. A partnership with the Burberry Foundation super-charged our 'rescued leather' project, where we transform leather scraps into components that can be made into new textiles, but also unmade, for future re-use.
Each new waste stream is analysed and researched thoroughly before becoming part of the Elvis & Kresse production process. We first make sure that we can use the material completely, with as little waste as possible. We then design products around the material - a length of hose is 10cm wide, so all our patterns have 10cm panels, or are based on divisions of 10cm.
It’s not just production where we aim to minimise waste though. We have built our own near-passive workshop in Faversham, Kent. It is constructed from locally grown straw bales, locking in carbon and providing an incredible amount of insulation. We generate and store enough energy to power and heat our incredibly efficient space. Our rainwater harvesting system covers the majority of our water needs and the combination of an air-source heat pump and an MVHR system (mechanical ventilation and heat recovery) keeps the internal temperature steady regardless of the weather conditions outside. Find out all about the construction of our workshop and everything we’ve done to stay as passive as possible here.
We are also incredibly conscious of our product lifecycles. We rescue beautiful materials and want them to enjoy a full second life, hopefully for decades to come. We understand that wear and tear can happen so we offer repairs, at cost, for life. We would much rather one of our pieces come back to us for repair rather than being discarded. We also design as many of our products as possible to have a future after being re-engineered again. The leather we use is woven together then stitched - this means that at the end of its life, a bag or purse can be unstitched and the leather pieces remade into something else. We also take on well-loved materials for bespoke projects like heirloom leather jackets or even a favourite family tent!
Unfortunately, not every pattern can be entirely zero-waste (though a lot of ours are) so we’ve also found uses for the off-cuts of our off-cuts. When you receive an Elvis & Kresse piece it will be presented in a dust cover or reusable shopper - made from parachute silk, or a presentation box made from printing blanket.
This all sounds quite positive, doesn’t it? So what are the downsides of Circular Fashion and why aren’t more brands and companies adopting the circular economy?
Simply put; complexity, greed and issues with volume.
Fashion is a tough nut to crack because of how long, convoluted and opaque the supply chain is. Long gone are the days when fashion was locally made from exclusively natural (biodegradable) materials and dyes.
Circular fashion isn’t yet as ‘profitable’ as fast fashion (if your definition of profitable is solely financial). While significant demand exists for cheap, disposable clothing, there will always be brands that will fulfil the demand. With no demand, there would be no supply. Equally, with no legislation to stop companies from exploiting people in their supply chain (modern slavery is an enormous issue in both food and fashion) or degrading ecosystems, companies can get away with profit maximisation at the expense of people and planet.
Finally, and truly problematically is that at its current size and churn rate the fashion system could never be sustainably circular - too many materials and resources are being used full stop. We need volumes to come down dramatically.
We can’t force change alone, but we are consistently proving that it is possible to create beautiful, valuable new pieces from discarded materials. If other brands take note, legislators act with courage and more people like you choose to buy circular, change will come.
Crafted from rescued leather, decommissiond fire-hose and failed parachutes.
Our most popular piece - decommissioned yellow or red fire-hose lined with reclaimed parachute silk.