Circular fashion: a complex problem for innovators to tackle

Close up image of a fashion catwalk

Innovate UK and the research councils are working closely with the UK government and the fashion industry to provide leadership on climate change.

The UK fashion industry is regarded as one of the best in the world, contributing £35 billion annually to the UK economy (2019) and is home to London Fashion Week. Yet we have a problem. In the UK, we buy more clothes per capita than any other country in Europe, and our appetite for consumption continues to grow.

Fashion the $3 trillion business problem: the 2nd largest polluter in the world

The challenges faced to drive circular fashion are complex. Innovate UK is committed to helping this transition aiding the shift from a linear approach model of take, make and waste to a closed loop system where waste is eliminated and where value is derived with the product life cycle repurposed.

The global challenge: an opportunity to collaborate to shift the transition

Since the inception of the industrial revolution which started in the UK, the industry is now on the cusp of transformative change. Once again, the UK is uniquely placed to be the global leader in this field to rise to the challenge and drive change across the globe.
However, circulatory is inherently difficult for an industry whose business model has been based on promoting consumption and disposability. Innovation will be at the heart of change through areas such as:

  • artificial intelligence
  • robotics
  • digital innovation
  • new materials

All have a major role to play, but so will building a truly circular national infrastructure.

Our vision

Together with colleagues from the research councils we are collaborating on a circular fashion programme which will focus on research and innovation challenges for transforming the sector.

Our vision for our programme is as follows: enabling the UK to be the global leader in circular fashion, a multi trillion-dollar future global industry, by levering industry expertise, the innovation ecosystem, and the research base. Supporting cross-cutting collaborations to dynamically identify common challenges through research, as well as de-risking industry-led innovation to address them. Transforming the fashion and textiles sector to adopt economically viable and scalable circular models by 2032, allowing them to meet net zero targets before 2050.

A worker walking between the heaps of garbage

Credit: Ziga Plahutar, E+ via Getty Images

The opportunity

The first activity from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) circular fashion programme is a recycling and sorting demonstrator. This activity was developed through many consultations across industry, thought leaders and trade bodies to drive momentum for change for good.

UKRI is funding this multidisciplinary, collaborative demonstration project to:

  • retain fashion and textiles in a closed loop system
  • increase value of upcycled fashion and textiles
  • reduce post-consumer fashion and textile waste sent to landfill, exported or destroyed
  • disseminate best practices in technologies, processes, business models to wider industry including policymakers to enable change across the UK and influence global dialogue

The opportunity is one which needs our collective strengths to achieve bringing together innovators, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, academia and government to drive the change towards our path towards net zero and steer the course forward for global fashion.

Hand putting used sock in bin with recycling sign.

Credit: Suzi Media Production, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

What else are we doing?

As well as this we will supporting small and micro-companies working on innovation solution to support the transition to circular models. This will be done through our new Creative Catalyst fund which opens on the 5 December 2023. We aim to build upon Innovate UK’s Creative Industries Fund: pilot, which funded an unprecedented number of exciting sustainable fashion innovators. Register now for the Creative Catalyst briefing event on 2 December 2022.

Lastly, Esra Kasapoglu, Innovate UK’s Director of AI and Data Economy is one of the British Fashion Council’s circular fashion champions and contributed to the establishment and development of a recently launch framework to help transform the sector.

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Top image:  Credit: Goran Jakus Photography, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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