The circular economy is a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. It is based on two key points: to decouple economic growth from increasing the use of resources, and to maintain the value of products, components, and resources in general as long as possible. 

Another definition, used by the European Parliament, is that the circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. This way, the life cycle of products is extended. 

The circular economy builds a model in which resource consumption is kept within the boundaries of the planetary capacity. The current system of production is not respecting this limit. Moving towards a more circular economy could deliver benefits such as reducing pressure on the environment, improving the security of the supply of raw materials, increasing competitiveness, stimulating innovation, boosting economic growth (an additional 0.5% of gross domestic product), and creating jobs (700,000 jobs in the EU alone by 2030) (EEA, 2022). 

There are 5 main schools of thinking with different approaches to circularity, most of them created in the second half of the 20th Century: 

Biomimicry: it is inspired by the solutions that nature provides. It is applied in construction, production, design, etc. Its main representative is Janine M. Benyus, with her book Biomimicry (1998). 

Cradle-to cradle: its aim is to design and to manufacture products in a way that minimises their impact throughout their life cycle. The representatives are Michael Braungart and William McDonough with their book Cradle to Credle (2002). They have created a certificate for those products.  

Industrial Ecology: It studies the flows of materials and energy in consumption and industrial activities; analyzing their effects on the environment and the influences of economic, political, regulatory, and social factors. Some of the main exponents are Ayres and Simonis, through their book Industrial Metabolism (1994). 

Regenerative Design: it deals with systems and ecosystems designed to create environments without waste. It is applied to the urban environment, industry, economy, and social systems. The main representative is John T. Lyle, with his book Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development (1994). 

Blue Economy: It is inspired by solutions based on nature, mainly in physics. It seeks the efficiency of the systems, questioning the productive resources and trying to eliminate residues from its inception. The main representative is Gunter Pauli with his book: The Blue Economy (2000). 

There are six principles of the circular economy:  

  1. Waste is food 
  2. Resilience through diversity 
  3. Use renewable energy resources 
  4. Systems thinking 
  5. Prices reflect real costs 
  6. Proximity as a priority 


The circular economy (CE) involves closing the loop to recover the greatest value from the resources used. It can be either in the technical cycle (by repairing, reusing, remanufacturing, or recycling) or in the biological cycle (by composting, or extracting the biochemical feedstock, converting to biogas, etc.). The entire life cycle of a product should be considered. This is why some authors (Jaca et al., 2019) consider five fields of action in the circular economy: take, make, distribute, use, and enrich an industrial symbiosis.  

Take: a technical product usually consists of different materials. The aim of the CE is to select more sustainable materials; to reduce the frequency with which materials are replaced, and to optimise the amount of materials used. It implies reducing quantity, maximising efficiency, eliminating toxic substances, replacing the scarce materials, etc.  

Make: the process of manufacturing consumes energy, water, and other resources. The CE tries to reduce the resources and energy consumption and recycle them as much as possible, to make the production more efficient. 

This aspect is also considered a Clean Production, defined as “manufacturing processes that minimise environmental impacts (e.g. low use of energy and raw materials, low emissions and waste) through changes in production processes” (OECD, Glossary of statistical terms)

Distribute: the process of delivering the products to the consumers (from the producers) involves means of transport, energy, packaging, etc. The CE aims to do this with the minimum impact, by optimising packaging, products, and routes.  

Use/Consume: the phase of “use” is an important one in terms of climate change impacts. In textiles, it is estimated that 14% of these impacts occur in the use phase (washing, drying and ironing) (EEA, 2022). CE aims to reduce the frequency of replacement of products, designing for a long durability, moving from ownership to service, providing systems of repairing and maintaining, as well as enough information to consumers about the caring for the products.  

Recover/Enrich: This field of action recovers the value of the materials at the end of their life cycle. Following the Butterfly Diagram (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019), there are different cycles, depending on the value recovered. The most efficient is to reuse or redistribute: it takes place when the products discarded are collected and shared, put in the second-hand market, prolonging their life cycle. Another way to do the same is through business models based on renting, in which many people successively use the products (bikes, cars, garments, etc.), extending their use. The second one is to remanufacture or to refurbish: some components in good state from discarded products are disassembled and used in the manufacture of new products, reducing the need of new resources. The third process is to recycle: it is the most well-known but it is far from being the most efficient – it is the least competent in recovering value from the products, although it is the only one that closes the loop. It consists of recovering part of the value of the material for the manufacture of new products: it can be downcycling, when the quality of the new material based on recycled content is lower (e.g. textiles recycled turned into insulation for building sector); or upcycling, when the recycled material has a different function with a greater value than the previous one (e.g. textile fabrics made out from coffee waste). 

This field of action is the one that turns the first principle of the CE into a reality: waste is food.

Both fashion (textiles) and food are identified as key value chains in the EU Circular Economy Action Plan among other five: electronics and ICT, batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, and construction and buildings (European Commission, 2019). This plan considers establishing common sustainability practices for the different sectors: 

  • improving product durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability. Addressing the presence of hazardous chemicals, and increasing energy and resource efficiency; 
  • increasing recycled content in products; 
  • enabling remanufacturing and high-quality recycling; 
  • reducing carbon and environmental footprints. 
  • restricting single-use; 
  • introducing a ban on the destruction of unsold durable goods; 
  • incentivising product-as-a-service; 
  • mobilising the potential of digitalisation of product information, including solutions as digital passports, tagging and watermarks; 
  • rewarding products based on their different sustainability performance.  

In the EU, food is the first industry in the use of raw materials (1,600 Millions Tn/year), and textiles is the fifth (including also household textiles) with 175 Million Tn/year; food is the first in water use, and textiles is the third; the same positions related to the land use; and first and fifth position, respectively, in the Greenhouse gas emissions (EEA, 2022). 

Both sectors share some practices that call for a shift towards a circular economy: organic production, km0 sourcing, packaging 0; business models based on offering services instead of ownership, etc. And both share a concern regarding the waste they generate: an estimated 20% of the total food produced is lost or wasted in the UE (European Commission, 2019:15), while more than $500 billions of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling (Ellen MacArthur, 2017) 

Ecoalf: Spanish fashion brand, focused on sustainable and recycled clothing.

Petit h Hermès: Petit h is the name of the products launched by Hermès born of existing materials (leftovers), to close the loop in a circular economy. They follow a design in reverse, as it starts with the discarded material to create unique objects.

Recover: Recover™ transforms textile waste into sustainable recycled fibers (mainly cotton-fiber and fiber blends, closing the loop on fashion.

Infinite Fiber: It is a Finnish company that has developed technology to made new materials from cellulose-rich waste like discarded textiles, used cardboard or even rice straw, and also blends with fibers like organic cotton and viscose. The result, InfinnaTM is a biodegradable fiber, soft, natural with anti-microbial properties, that saves water in its production. 

Original Unverpakt: It is a packaging free supermarket in Berlin for daily consumption goods. It can deliver also online orders.

Lush: it is a British company of skin products, naturally made, most of them packaging free.

Ayres, R.U., Simonis, U.E. 1994. Industrial Metabolism: Restructuring for Sustainable Development. NY: United Nations University Press. 

Benyus, J. 1998. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd. 

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2017. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. 

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2019. Butterfly Diagram. 

European Commission. 2019. Circular Economy Action Plan. For a cleaner and more competitive Europe. Brussels. 

European Environmental Agency, EEA. 2022. Textiles and the environment: the role of design in Europe’s circular economy.  

European Parliament, 2021 

Jaca, C., Ormazábal, M., Prieto, V., Santos, J., Viles, E. 2019. Circular Economy Guide for SMEs. Pamplona: Eunsa. 

Lyle, J.T. 1994. Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development. NY: John Wiley & Sons. 

McDonough, W Braungart, M. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things. NY: North Point Press. 

Pauli, G. 2010. The Blue Economy: 10 years, 100 innovations, 100 million jobs. Taos (US): Paradigm Publications.