Jun 30, 2023
by Karl Smith
Sustainability Is Dead. Long Live Circularity!
by Karl Smith
Jun 30, 2023

We have good news and we have bad news. Let’s get the bad out the way first: sustainability is dead. The fashion industry buried it, deep down under mounds of dirt and a mulch of vague, meaningless platitudes – covered it over with the greenest of grass. Whatever it was, it is no more.

The good news, then? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. We don’t need it and we haven’t needed it for a while now.

Now, this might sound contrary to our message and our mission here at FUTUREVVORLD; cheering the death of sustainability hardly seems progressive. But we’re not saying good riddance because we don’t want to see a sustainable fashion and footwear industry – or, indeed, a sustainable future in general. We’re saying it because, “sustainability” itself – as a term used and abused by industry interests – is an obstacle to that, rather than a pathway.

Not unlike the word “vegan,” which has used the shield of cruelty-free craft to create a certain kind of planet-friendlier subtext, covering for plastics and harmful processes, “sustainability” has been allowed to take root in fashion industry language as a positive, catch-all term that deflects scrutiny from the actual mechanics and materials of a brand’s operations.

But, people are wising up to this. Industry experts are pointing out the holes from within the system, and consumers – seeing third-party facts and figures about fashion’s environmental impact and realizing that they don’t tally with the sustainable marketing angle – are starting to ask questions.

“I absolutely despise the word ‘sustainability’ because it has lost all connection with a sincere action plan to reduce the negative impact that we (as human beings) are creating,” explains Transnomadica founder Maurizio Donadi. Working with brands and organizations – including names as recognizable and influential as Nike – on initiatives that utilize excess, waste and leftovers, Donadi has first-hand experience of the fashion industry’s problems, and how the narrative has become twisted over time.

“This idea of collectively reducing consumption, being happy with less, stopping exploitation, producing better, eating healthier and respecting this liveable planet is clearly a mirage.”

This may sound pessimistic – but it’s a dose of realism that the industry badly needs. And Donadi, of course, is not the only one administering that dose.

“I am getting very close to withdrawing the word “sustainability” from my vocabulary as it has been hijacked by the world’s biggest polluters.” – Paul Foulkes-Arellano, Circularity Educator and Founder at Circuthon® Consulting

But the question remains: if not “sustainability,” then what? It is imperative to have recognizable terminology, ideas that can be easily understood by the widest possible audience and which, reaching that audience, hold up to scrutiny.

Asked for his opinion on the usefulness of “sustainability” as a term and what might better serve a progressive agenda, industry expert Paul Foulkes-Arellano offers one alternative: “The only term which makes sense now is unsustainability,” he suggests, “almost everything which businesses do is unsustainable when there are more than eight billion citizens to care for.”

But this isn’t the only terminology that Foulkes-Arellano uses – or which, in general, feels like a better fit in moving forward. The answer, it seems – or the one which makes most sense, as a successor, at least – is something called “circularity.”

Where sustainability failed us in its vagueness and its vagaries, circularity isn’t quite so malleable: it has clear-cut meaning, a finite definition – a purpose. Where “sustainable” fashion could quite literally mean anything, “circular” fashion proposes a kind of closed-loop system; an end-to-end-to-start-to-end-again way of thinking that incorporates a product’s end of life into its design.

Can the product be recycled effectively and with little environmental impact (yes, recycling, particularly of plastics, can have negative environmental effects)? Will it biodegrade to a satisfactory extent in easily replicable conditions? When this product returns to the Earth, can its raw materials be used again once broken down? Or, ultimately, if this product is not designed to degrade, does its material make-up stand up to the rigors of exponential Earthly use?

These are just some of the questions that a circular design philosophy will test as a part of the manufacturing process.

Circularity, in that sense, is the polar opposite of the more familiar “not-our-problem-anymore” shrug that brands tend to give once a product is out of its hands and with the consumer. Circularity is a hands-on approach to ownership and accountability that is sorely lacking in the industry as a whole.

“I absolutely despise the word ‘sustainability’ because it has lost all connection with a sincere action plan to reduce the negative impact that we (as human beings) are creating.” – Maurizio Donadi, Founder at Transnomadica

Where “sustainability” said: “We’ve done our bit, now the rest is on you” – very much leaving questions about whether or not they had in fact “done their bit” entirely unanswered to any real extent – “circularity” says, “Here’s what we’ve done, here’s how it works, and here’s what you – as the end-point – need to do to keep that loop closed.”

“I am getting very close to withdrawing the word “sustainability” from my vocabulary as it has been hijacked by the marketing teams of the world’s biggest polluters,” Foulkes-Arellano says, referencing the way the term has changed – or lost – meaning since it was first coined. “But,” he adds, asked about whether “circularity” might be a more useful measure as we move into the future, “I also draw a big distinction between relative circularity, which means doing things better – i.e. using a cup twice or recycling some cartons – and absolute circularity, where 1kg of metal always remains as 1kg of metal, no matter what happens to it.”

And so, even within circularity, as a term and as a practice, there are points of confusion and contention. There is, after all, no perfect concept.

Circularity in fashion would be a fabric which never breaks down and can be recut into new items time and time again,” Foulkes-Arellano explains, “I think that is perfectly possible using cellulosics and 21st century biological solutions. People may hate the idea of gene editing, but it may allow us to create longevity in all kinds of feedstocks.”

And if this sounds like an idealized version of the future, we’ll, perhaps it is – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t attainable, and it certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth shooting for.

Who could really argue that the picture Foulkes-Arellano paints – “If we managed to reach absolute circularity with e-waste, batteries etc. then we could start shutting down mines and rewilding the old mines.” – is one that doesn’t take an artist’s eye to appreciate as beautiful?

“Humans need to look to nature more often for the optimal definition of circularity. Life on Earth is the ultimate circular economy.” – Luke Haverhals, Founder and CEO at Natural Fiber Welding

The question of how we get to that place, though, and whether we can get there while it still has the potential to exist, is a less obvious one.

As a relative unknown in the public sphere, compared to “sustainability,” at least, “circularity” is in a vulnerable position: for all its clearer definition and relative purity of concept, there is room for the industry to water it down before it reaches the same cultural saturation levels as “sustainability.”

Luke Haverhals, CEO and Founder of the next-gen materials company Natural Fiber Welding, remains conscious and vigilant of circularity meeting with the same slow death as its predecessor: “In defining “the problem” there are many times when people are either are not technically competent and/or not sufficiently holistic in their (transparent) scoping of the problem boundaries.”

In his work and his advocacy, which are fundamentally entwined, Haverhals is keen to bring a sense of clarity, honesty and urgency to the debate. It is clear, he says, that without being truthful about the nature and the scale of the problem at hand, there can be no real, lasting solution.

“Take circularity, which is a sort of proxy to a more general goal of increasing efficiency,” Haverhals offers, qualifying, “Yet, there are “circular plastic solutions” that some are promoting today which provably increase the prevalence of toxic microfiber pollution at a cost of high carbon emissions and without self-sustaining unit economics. To state that a “solution” or course of action is “good” when technical assessments suggest otherwise is, I suppose, some sort of textbook definition of greenwashing.”

If we are not, then, going far enough or hard enough with “circularity,” what would that look like? If it is necessary – and it is – to craft a set of definitions, intentions, outcomes and avenues for the circular concept before it can be twisted by marketing, where do we start?

“In my opinion, humans need to look to nature more often for the optimal definition of circularity,” Haverhals suggests. “Life on Earth is the ultimate “circular economy” – nature is full of elegant solutions (e.g., healthy ecosystems that are self-organizing and self-balancing flows of nutrients). This is why NFW is uncompromising in our approach to fit our materials platform within natural technical definitions and norms.”

Simply put, then, as Haverhals would have it, the answers are all around us.

It’s a way of thinking that may sound a little insubstantial or hippyish at first, but which – as well as being rooted in provable science – makes perfect sense. Problems, after all, are often self contained: if you were to smash a vase into a million pieces, you would look at how those pieces fit together in the first place as the key to fixing it.

“At NFW we believe that, because nature is abundant, redundant and diverse, it is possible to stay within planetary boundaries while delivering holistic, naturally circular material solutions.”

Which, as a final though, is a neat way of saying that the answers are there – that failure to find them is more about a reluctance to address the problem in the first place. To say that “nature will provide” may seem fanciful, but – in reality – it has been a long-held truth until fairly recent history.

It’s time, or perhaps, to stop using the language of “sustainability” to cover for inaction; to stop talking over our planet in order to hide our impact on its delicate and precarious eco-systems.

Sustainability is dead. We killed it. But circularity is alive and well, in-built into the world. It’s on us to pay attention. Sooner rather than later.