Circularity: Potential advantages for local apparel businesses 

by Nicole Tutino –

Blacksburg, Va., Feb. 16 A knitted sweater featuring worsted wool yarns on display in local art and fiber supply store, New River Art and Fiber. Photo: Nicole Tutino

To limit the fashion industry’s accumulated waste throughout apparel production processes and growing environmental concerns, solutions, such as a circular economy, change local businesses’ frameworks to offer more sustainable options to consumers.

A circular economy model increases the use and recyclability of any type of product through efficient design processes while limiting environmental impacts, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“With fashion in particular, some of the biggest ideas are this idea of using materials that are recovered from the economy — the existing things that we already have — instead of having to manufacture new ones from either natural resources or petrochemically-derived materials,” said Jennifer Russell, Virginia Tech assistant professor in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials.

In her work with apparel company H&M, Russell observed the companies’ difficulties in implementing a circular economy framework across the brand’s divisions.

“The advantage of small businesses is that they tend to be less stuck with the infrastructure, supply chains [and] relationships that they have,” Russell said. “They can be a little bit more agile, and so if demand or if interest changes in their community, they can respond quickly.”

Business models associated with a circular economy include resale, repair, and rental services. Russell notes clothing rental options allow companies to increase the circularity of the items within the economy and remove consumers’ responsibility for caring for the garment. While continuing the usage of the products, the business models face increased transportation expenses for larger business initiatives.

Russell explains local businesses can engage consumers with circular economy methods efficiently due to close proximity.

Blacksburg, Va., Feb. 16 – Berroco’s 100% Pima Cotton yarns are offered for sale at $16 at New River Art and Fiber. Photo: Nicole Tutino

Renewable inputs, like cotton and wool, offer environmental benefits, but Russell warns that consumers need to be aware of how natural fibers are sourced. The circular economy framework ensures renewable resources, like natural fibers, are not consumed more than they can be replaced, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

A Blacksburg art supply business, New River Art and Fiber, sells yarns composed mainly of natural or renewable fibers. Synthetic materials, such as polyester, can feature plastic particles, called microfibers.

“We buy synthetic yarn, wear that fabric, wash that fabric and then shed it into the oceans to the point where we are eating that fabric,” said Jessica Jones, owner of New River Art and Fiber. 

Jones said the business’s focus on selling more natural fibers in yarns began as a personal choice, and her understanding of the environmental benefits developed over time.

“I like to think that by not putting it [synthetic fibers] out into the world I’m having a generally positive impact on our local environment,” Jones said.

New River Art and Fibers’ loops groups allow community members to knit or crochet together. Repair techniques can emerge from these collaborative sessions which help extend the use of garments.

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