In This Issue
The Bridge: 50th Anniversary Issue
January 7, 2021 Volume 50 Issue S
This special issue celebrates the 50th year of publication of the NAE’s flagship quarterly with 50 essays looking forward to the next 50 years of innovation in engineering. How will engineering contribute in areas as diverse as space travel, fashion, lasers, solar energy, peace, vaccine development, and equity? The diverse authors and topics give readers much to think about! We are posting selected articles each week to give readers time to savor the array of thoughtful and thought-provoking essays in this very special issue. Check the website every Monday!

Circular Fashion 2070: Clothing and Textile Cycles, Systems, and Services

Monday, January 4, 2021

Author: Rebecca Earley

During the covid-19 pandemic in spring 2020, I considered what fashion might look like from the consumer’s perspective in 5 years.[1] The “new normal” is changing the way people see the world, and increasing understanding of the role of fashion and clothing in the connected, global, ecological future. This essay takes three garment types and explores how they might be made and used in 50 years’ time, drawing on insights from multiple research projects and partnerships at the Centre for Circular Design (CCD).[2]

Shirts That Last a Lifetime

Working with Research Institutes of Sweden on the Mistra Future Fashion Programme,[3] a “super-slow” shirt[4] was developed to demonstrate how to design clothes that last as long as the materials they are made from (Earley 2019).

Polyester is a hugely popular and durable fiber, and in the right conditions can be recycled multiple times, reducing the need to use virgin oil resources.[5] Service Shirt used recycled polyester material for its first lives as a white then printed blouse, before becoming the lining for a jacket[6]; figure 1 shows its production and use cycles.

Earley figure 1.gif

Many collaborations and partnerships are needed to achieve such longevity and circularity: the design process itself has many more challenges than the traditional, linear design approach (Earley and Forst 2019). There are multiple barriers for businesses, specifically around “value creation, value delivery, and value capture” (Pederson et al. 2018, p. 308).

Importantly, to make clothes last as long as possible, fashion consumers will need to see themselves as fashion users. They will need both to be persuaded to rent clothes and to develop a philanthropic attitude to fashion by investing in products that have been built to last (and are therefore more expensive than the average item).

A range of new logistical and communication systems and services will also be needed to flow and exchange the goods. Mending and care services will likely be in greater demand; some people may be willing and able to mend clothes more often, but many will find that with economic and time pressures they want new services. The thrift/charity shop sector will need to be totally redesigned: digitized systems will offer specific and bespoke products to users who have created filtered searches, and will allow online browsing and dispatch goods, after covid-19-inspired deep cleaning.

Dresses That Decompose

An estimated £140 million worth (around 350,000 tonnes) of used clothing goes into UK landfills every year (WRAP 2017),[7] much of it from unsustainable “fast fashion” brands (Niinimäki et al. 2020). Kay Politowicz and the CCD team have been exploring how fashion cycles might be both fast and sustainable.

Engineering “fast” material cycles to fit very particular fashion consumption habits—where traditional textile production processing is replaced by materials created using paper and packaging technologies, for example—could result in clothes (or parts of clothing) that go into domestic composting processes after use.

Politowicz’s ASAP collection in 2012 for VF Corporation tested the approach for a workwear brand (Goldsworthy et al. 2018). Next, by working with material and perception researchers at Innventia in Sweden, also part of the Mistra Future Fashion Programme, Politowicz created the Ultra-Fast Forward, Paper Leather, and Pulp It collections (Goldsworthy et al. 2019), using paper-like nonwoven materials, engineered through nontoxic finishing approaches for softness, strength, and stretch.[8] Some of the resulting materials underwent double-blind testing with a group of fashion users, and the results came surprisingly close to fine, lightweight cashmere samples (Lindberg and Rådsten Ekman 2019).

A vision for 2050 is an industry
here fashion materials are made
from recycled synthetics and agricultural/biowaste. 

Fashion tastes and habits vary enormously over time; not all clothes can last a lifetime, and “an urgent transition back to ‘slow’ fashion” (Niinimäki et al. 2020, p. 189) might be resisted. Research shows that even when clothes are made well and are highly durable, circumstances mean that they may not be used or worn at all (WRAP 2017).

There are an increasing number of contexts where “better fast” materials could provide options that offer new opportunities to old clothes, to delight consumers rather than making them feel guilty. Fashion textile researchers working with engineers and materials scientists could produce lighter, nontoxic materials, component parts, and whole garments suitable for biological systems.

Jeans That Fall Apart

In 50 years technology will facilitate taking things apart, not just making them. One of the biggest barriers to achieving a circular economy for fashion and textiles is sorting and separating materials into the right recycling processes. CCD researchers have been looking at this challenge from different angles, including making textiles, material surfaces, and products that come apart (Forst 2019).

If a pair of jeans could be taken apart at the end of its useful life—the rivets, zippers, and labels easily and efficiently removed, the cotton pocket lining separated from the cotton/elastane–blended legs—these materials could be reused in their own particular way. Startups like the Belgium-based Resortecs are developing smart materials for active disassembly (Chiodo et al. 1998) using a polymer melt thread. They are targeting the denim industry and aim to “have around five ovens and dismantling lines, each dealing with 500–600 kilos of textiles per hour. In five years, we will have 20–30 million denims produced with our stitching thread.”[9]

By 2070 new chemical recycling plants will be linked to sophisticated sorting facilities with textile disassembly ovens. They will be part of regional textile and clothing hubs, where flows are enabled between fiber producers, distributed manufacturing and retail units, consumer and user networks, and end-of-life collection and sorting. It’s a very different picture from what exists today and it’s where pioneers like Cyndi Rhoades,[10] founder and CEO of cotton and polyester chemical recycling venture Worn Again Technologies, have been building the foundations for change for many years. Rhoades’ vision for 2050—presented at the first World Circular Textiles Day, October 8, 2020[11]—is an industry where no virgin materials are grown or extracted; instead, all fashion materials are made from recycled synthetics and agricultural/biowaste.

Systems Change Ahead

Enough materials have been produced to clothe people for the next 50 years. Land can be used to grow food instead of cotton, and oil left in the ground instead of used to manufacture and transport polyester and other synthetic fabrics.

In the Trash-2-Cash project,[12] the CCD team discovered that this fashion future vision requires systems change, driven by pioneering new collaborations. As we explored design-driven material innovation approaches as a diverse group of stakeholders (Tubito et al. 2018), producing six new regenerated material “mastercases,”[13] we learned that we need face-to-face connections, coupled with an understanding of our skillsets and how they can best be combined to traverse disciplinary boundaries (Earley and Hornbuckle 2017).

Accepting that some people will always want regular “newness” in their wardrobes, regenerative, circular fashion will be needed at a variety of speeds, offered as both product and service. It’s quite a challenge for designers and engineers for the next 50 years.


Chiodo J, Billett E, Harrison D. 1998. Active disassembly. Journal of Sustainable Product Design 7:26–36.

Conca J. 2015. Making climate change fashionable: The garment industry takes on global warming. Forbes, Dec 3.

Earley R. 2019. The Service Shirt: Ultra-slow fashion textile design research for industry. In: Futurescan 4: Valuing Practice, eds Britt H, Almond K, Morgan L. Association of Fashion and Textiles Courses (

Earley R, Forst L. 2019. Everything that went wrong: Challenges and opportunities in designing and prototyping long-life garments in a circular economy. Proceedings, PLATE 2019 Conf, Sep 18–20, Berlin.

Earley R, Hornbuckle R. 2017. Face-ing collaboration: A meditation on the faces of circular textile research. Journal of Textile Design Research and Practice 5(2):85–109.

Forst L. 2019. Disassembly discussed: Creative textile sampling as a driver for innovation in the circular economy. Journal of Textile Design Research and Practice, doi: 10.1080/20511787.2019.1667156.

Goldsworthy K, Earley R, Politowicz K. 2018. Circular speeds: A review of fast & slow sustainable design approaches for fashion & textile applications. Journal of Textile Design Research and Practice 6(1):42–65.

Goldsworthy K, Earley R, Politowicz K. 2019. Circular design speeds: Prototyping fast and slow sustainable fashion concepts through interdisciplinary design research (2015-2018). London: Mistra Future Fashion Programme.

Lindberg S, Rådsten Ekman M. 2019. Consumers’ perceptions & acceptance of material and design choices: The user perspective. Mistra Future Fashion Programme, report no. 2019:23. Göteborg: Research Institutes of Sweden.

Niinimäki K, Peters G, Dahlbo H, Perry P, Rissanen T, Gwilt A. 2020. The environmental price of fast fashion. Nature Reviews Earth and Environment 1:189–200.

Pederson E, Andersen K, Earley R. 2018. From singular to plural: Circular business models for fashion. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management 23(3):308–26.

Tubito C, Earley R, Ellams D, Goldsworthy K, Hornbuckle R, Niinimäki K, Östmark E, Sarbach V, Tanttu M. 2018. Applied DDMI: A white paper on how Design-Driven Material Innovation Methodology was applied in the Trash-2-Cash Project. EU Horizon 2020 Project Report. Online at publications -page/.

WRAP [Waste and Recycling Action Plan]. 2017. Valuing our clothes: The cost of UK fashion. Banbury UK.


[1]  The Covid-24 Family Fashion Diary, fashion-diary-2f755f6ea585



4]  “Slow” contrasts with the “fast fashion” that transitions quickly from the catwalk to the mass market.

[5]  According to Forbes, “Nearly 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to make the world’s polyester fiber” (Conca 2015).

[6]  A Fifty-Year Fashion Statement (Service Shirt), Circular Design Speeds project,

[7]  In the United States, 11,150,000 tons of textiles ended up in landfills in 2017 (US EPA, Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste, and Recycling, waste-and-recycling/textiles-material-specific-data).

[8]  Pulp It, Circular Design Speeds project,

[9]  Cédric Vanhoeck, founder/CEO of Resortecs, interview by author, June 24, 2020.

[10]  Cyndi Rhoades, Worn Again Technologies (, interview by author, July 9, 2020.




About the Author:Rebecca Earley is a professor of sustainable fashion textile design and codirector of the Centre for Circular Design, University of the Arts London. Photo credit: Bec O’Conner for Black Neon Digital