What's circular economy & why is designing with a single material important?

When shopping for clothing, how often do you check the material composition of the clothes you are about to buy? You probably know to check on the printed label below the neckline or flip to the inside of the garment to check the side-seam to find the label. It is a compulsory requirement in any country to show the material of the garment, but why is it important you may ask?

You may already have a preference on the type of materials you’d like to wear. Wool, one of the oldest and best-known natural fibre, is known for its warmth and is widely used from sweaters to base layers. Polyester and nylon are amongst the most widely used synthetic fibres from petroleum sources and are most commonly used in sportswear and waterproof clothing thanks to their fibre strength and hydrophobicity. For the sharp observers of you out there, you will notice that with the advance in textile technology, it is very common to see fabric blends, whether it’s duo-material such as polyester-cotton blend or tri-material blends such as polyester-lyocell spandex or even up to four or five types of materials wouldn’t be a surprise nowadays.

 

Photo by Utopia By Cho on Unsplash

  

Over the last decade, sustainability in textile has been focused largely on using natural materials but lately, the idea of circularity has become increasingly in the spotlight due to the fact that synthetic fibres have become an indispensable part of our lives because of their functional characteristics and versatility. In addition, people are becoming more aware of the problems the modern fast fashion and consumption-based model are creating, and that every piece of garment created has its own footprint, even if it’s organic cotton. The idea of circularity incorporates the thinking of starting at the end of life of the product, and includes the fabric, trims, threads and packaging etc. With the circularity model, a product can be completely recycled at the end of its life to be turned back into raw materials to be used again. So why does designing with a single material matter?

 

For garments made with natural materials, unless it is made 100% with natural materials so it is biodegradable entirely, what happens to the synthetics part? For example, fabric blends such as polycotton or cotton spandex are often used, but from a circularity point of view, it hinders the recyclability of the garment. For garments made with synthetic materials, they do not biodegrade for at least hundreds of years and is why recycling is crucial. Recycling can be categorised into mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. For mechanical recycling, products are churned into pieces and then melted without further separation of the material mix to be remade into new materials. The difference in chemical recycling is that it further separates out the mixture of material after melting (if it’s a mixture) via distillation or other methods so that the purity of the recycled material is increased.

 

 
Photo by Trisha Downing on Unsplash

 

The most common recycling method currently is the mechanical methods due to its relative simplicity and low cost but depending on the application of the recycled material, it is crucial to have the input recycled products to be made from a single material, as otherwise it can heavily degrade the quality of the output or even ruin the whole batch of material. This is why designing with a single material within a garment helps, and in the case that part of the garment such as zippers or elastics are made from mixed materials and not fully recyclable, they can be easily separated before recycling.   

Circularity has long been in our mind, even before we decided on our brand name Koup. It was the first thing that we wrote down in our business idea brainstorming session and has since become deeply embedded in our brand DNA and an important part of our product and research development. It is very encouraging to see the concept of circularity in design grown from a niche idea back when we started thinking about our brand to getting more mainstream attention. Notable brands/ products include and not limited to On running’s circular shoe and Napapijri’s recyclable jacket. We hope this trend continues and more brands collaborate in more circular projects, as what we need next is a strong network and collaborative effort to break more barriers and make circularity a staple rather just a one-off marketing project!