The “circular economy” has become a buzz phrase in Europe, the UK and the US, especially in the fashion industry, where the fast take-up and disposal of clothing have embodied the antithesis of a circular approach. But sourcing materials with the least environmental harm, keeping clothing in use as long as possible, and reusing fabrics at the end of a garment’s life have long been the norm in other parts of the world.
Even as fast fashion brands expand their reach and export western attitudes about easy disposability, more inherently circular relationships with clothing still thrive in parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia. In many such cases, the wellbeing of the planet and of communities are seen as inextricably linked.
In Mexico City, Jesus Herrera and Gabriel Brandon-Hanson run an online vintage shop called The Vintage Jesus and a brand with a strong focus on upcycling, Les Jesus.
Their approach, which combines upcycled material and “deadstock” — ie, leftover — fabric to make fabulously voluminous frocks, started from a love of vintage. But it has been sustained by a desire to champion indigenous Mexican embroidery that they often find at second-hand markets. Their aim is to work with found materials that do minimal harm to the planet while also supporting indigenous artisanship.
“We’ve actually watched some handicrafts go extinct because the artist has died and none of their kids learned the craft, because the market couldn’t support it,” says Brandon-Hanson. For the two founders, the circular economy means contributing to the kind of market that allows artisans to sustain cultural heritage, in addition to using and working with upcycled materials. It involves designing high-quality pieces with the intent to create “future vintage” — items that will last and retain their appeal over time.
In the Philippines, a circular fashion project that started as a way to support rural livelihoods is under way. In the northern province of Cagayan, locals have long treated the bakong plant, which grows in lake water, as a weed and a nuisance because they rely on Bangalao Lake to attract tourism income.
But, when a government agency, the Design Center of the Philippines, started looking into ways to transform bakong into a fibre for weaving into fabric, the result was an economic opportunity for the local community. It could make use of a prolific plant that has long, strong fibres and grows year-round without pesticides or fertilisers.
In 2022, the Design Center partnered with Filipino accessory, fashion, home goods and industrial designers to demonstrate the potential of bakong. The result was a range of market-ready products — from apparel to lighting to furniture — that were made with circular design principles, of careful sourcing and reuse, in mind.
Although the Design Center is still researching how to harvest bakong without hurting biodiversity, executive director Rhea O Matute is hopeful about the material’s scalability.
“The designers are very excited about this new material,” says Matute. “The fact that we introduced them to the community [where the plant originates], and [to] the idea of converting bakong from an obstruction into something the community can make a living out of, was part of that.”
Collaborations like these can produce novel solutions to environmental challenges. However, some say Europe and the US should avoid idealising, or romanticising, circular economy practices that arise from necessity. A prime example is Kantamanto, pictured top, a second-hand market in Accra, Ghana — and one of the best examples in the world of a circular clothing economy in practice.
It is the largest second-hand market in west Africa, receiving garments from the US, UK and Europe. These are sorted, washed, mended, tailored, upcycled, and resold by — and to — locals.
Daniel Mawuli Quist, an upcycler and stylist who has been part of the Kantamanto ecosystem for years, describes it as “one of the most circular spaces” you could find.
But, for all the creative reuse that thrives there, he also has a deep sense of frustration that Ghanaians are left to solve a waste problem that Americans and Europeans have created and offloaded. Doing so can have life or death consequences for local people and ecosystems, thanks to dangerous market fires, overflowing landfill sites, and pollution of the shoreline.
To implement true circularity, Quist suggests that policymakers and fashion industry professionals in the global north need to listen to the people who are living on the front lines of fashion’s waste crisis. Instead of proposing solutions supposed to help Ghanaians from faraway fashion capitals such as London or Paris, a true commitment to circularity in fashion would mean looking to those living in Accra and elsewhere on the front lines to call the shots.
Quist’s views apply not just to Ghana but to Mexico, the Philippines, and anywhere else that is handling fashion waste on the ground. “We are dealing with [the waste crisis], we are having to see and go through it . . . so we can come up with solutions that are better suited for us,” he says. “It is time to stop playing politics with our lives and to really sit back and listen to us.”