Clothing brands edge towards circular economy

Sensemaking / Clothing brands edge towards circular economy

More retailers are asking consumers to bring unwanted items back, but buying patterns still need a radical fix.

By Lizzie Rivera / 10 Jun 2013

It’s a year since Marks and Spencer (M&S) launched ‘shwopping’ – an initiative that encourages customers to bring old items of clothing into the store. The goal is to reduce the one billion items of clothing sent to UK landfill each year by creating a clothes loop where all garments are reused and recycled – currently through a partnership with the global poverty campaign Oxfam.

Within six months of launch, the first M&S coat made from recycled wool brought back from Oxfam was on sale in the shops. It illustrates the potential for closed-loop textiles. Mark Sumner, M&S’s sustainable raw materials specialist, hopes it will inspire innovation throughout the supply chain to find solutions for other material blends.

For a high street retailer, this is a disruptive model of exchange, ultimately asking consumers to reassess their ‘buy and chuck’ culture. But it’s a necessary one. Forum for the Future's Deputy Director of Sustainable Business, David Bent, believes global businesses only have to look ten years ahead to realise their current models are unmaintainable. With profits at risk from increasingly limited resources and volatile markets their green motivations stem from what he calls “enlightened self-interest.”

Shwopping brought in a total of 3.8 million garments last year, raising £2.3 million for Oxfam. While that’s no small feat, M&S sells 350 million garments a year and is not encouraging customers to buy less. “We need to change patterns of consumption and not mindlessly drive it”, says Sarah Farquhar, Oxfam's Head of Retail Brand. Bent agrees: "If incremental innovation was going to create a sustainable world, we’d be there already."

For Bent, truly sustainable business models need to be part of a circular economy, one where commercial success is based on delivering real social and environmental value. Through the Sustainable Business Model Group (SBMG) he identifies three requirements for transformative change. A business model must have a balanced portfolio of innovation, embed innovation in its culture, and set up management structures that spot and nurture breakthroughs.

"We constantly look to improve what we do. There isn't a big bang launch that solves everything, it’s a journey”, says Adam Elman, Head of Delivery for Plan A, M&S’s 180-point plan to operate more sustainably.

Now in its sixth year, Plan A has proven its worth, delivering a net benefit of £185 million to the retailer’s bottom-line through efficiency savings and new business opportunities, such as M&S Energy. Every action in Plan A is evaluated using normal business processes and reporting. “It would be forgotten and fall by the wayside otherwise”, says Elman.

While making it work for the retailer’s hard-nosed goals is essential, it’s just as important to make it work for consumers. "They want to be green, do the right thing, but they need it to be easy”, Elman observes. Putting a well-known and loved face to a campaign helps, as television star Joanna Lumley has demonstrated in her role as ethical ambassador for M&S, or ‘Queen of the Shwop’.

Convenience helps too. ‘Shwop at Work’, a dedicated service placing clothing recycling boxes in offices across the UK has had a take up of 50 companies in three months, reaching 94,000 people. “You need to keep things fluid so you can try new things,” says Jo Daniels who masterminds this commercial service. “If it works, do it more; if it doesn’t, change it.”

Finding new ways forward means collaborating with competitors in the fiercely competitive retail market to drive standards in the supply chain, for instance. Bent believes that the leaders of sustainability could go further and faster if more companies would step up to the challenge. H&M and Puma have now launched their own ‘bring it back’ models, helping retailers and consumers edge a step closer to a model of exchange.

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