From the Catwalk to the Compost and Back: An Exploratory Study Investigating a Circular Economy in the European Fashion Industry

Pia Lotta Straub & Simon Schiehle

Student thesis: Master thesis


In recent years the European fashion industry and its stakeholders have begun to pay attention to the industry´s negative environmental impacts. The increasing awareness of resource waste, the use of hazardous chemicals, vast amounts of garments that go to landfill and the pollution of the ocean through microplastic led to a call for significant changes towards more sustainability. From a scholarly as well as a practitioner’s point of view, a circular economy is regarded as a promising approach to tackle the problem of resource scarcity and eliminate negative environmental impacts of human activity. Among the several different streams of circular economy, the Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) concept is regarded as the most rigorous and holistic approach, incorporating environmental, economic and social benefits. With its positive agenda, incorporating abundance and long-term sustainable economic growth, the concept presents an alternative to the strategies of eco-efficiency. This study explores the emerging implementation of C2C and investigates the emerging transition towards a circular economy in the European fashion industry. Through a multiple-case study of six European fashion brands and ten expert interviews the opportunities and challenges of C2C first movers have been analyzed and compared to more commonly applied sustainability strategies within the industry. The study demonstrates that although C2C possesses several opportunities, its implementation is still low and especially for first movers it implies various challenges. These challenges are closely connected to the complexity of the concept and the industry. Additionally, the call for fundamental changes of traditional business thinking and the redesign of materials and their flow constitute challenges in terms of risk management as well as material and technology availability. To overcome the challenges and foster the transition towards a circular economy by implementing C2C more fashion companies need to be willing to cooperate with each other and their supply chain members. Moreover, clear marketing concepts to raise awareness and communicate the benefits of the approach to consumers and suppliers are required. Finally, the lack of C2C certified materials and recycling technologies can be remedied by investments in research and development as well as openness for collaboration to jointly develop circular solutions. However, although those actions are already recognisable to some extend within the fashion industry, no clear evolvement of one dominant sustainability strategy could be observed in this study and there is still a long way to go for a successful implementation of a circular economy in the European fashion industry.

EducationsMaster of Business, Language and Culture; Business and Devlopment, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2018
Number of pages196