Closing the Loop through Clothing Design: Wishful Thinking or Achievable Practice?

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (article-based)
Degree programme
105 + app. 103
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 79/2021
The circular economy concept has made a strong entry into the sustainable fashion discourse in recent years, and today it seems to be one of the guiding concepts for moving towards sustainability in the fashion industry. What it practically means to design garments for circularity, especially for recycling, remains an underexplored area. This dissertation investigates an emerging phenomenon – the pursuit of advancing closed-loop textile recycling: What does it mean from the perspective of clothing design; and how do current clothing design practices appear in terms of this endeavour? The dissertation consists of four peer-reviewed research papers that form one mixed-method study of this phenomenon. The primary data were collected sequantially over several stages through semi-structured expert interviews and an online survey. The main methods of analysis were thematic and content analysis. Reviewing academic and grey literature, and actively following the work of national and international networks in the area of textile recycling supported the primary data set.  The findings indicate that moving towards a circular economy requires rethinking how clothes are designed. The development of novel textile sorting and recycling technologies plays a significant role here, and is likely to create various limitations as well as new opportunities for clothing designers in terms of materials, product aesthetics and their functionality. However, many such technologies are still in their infancy and their limitations and requirements for textile products keep changing. This will challenge clothing designers to continuously update their knowledge base, although their working reality is framed by multiple issues. Considering every aspect of a garment from a sustainability, let alone a circularity perspective, is difficult. It seems clothing designers approach sustainability mainly through sustainable material choices and long-lasting design, whereas the design for recycling approach seems much harder to implement in design practice. The research covered major concerns that hinder closed-loop textile recycling; underlined the lack of knowledge, transparency and resources required to implement the design for recycling approach; and revealed that designers have limited possibilities to contribute to closed-loop textile recycling. The dissertation contributes to sustainable fashion research, particularly to circular fashion, as an emerging field of study. The research may benefit fashion companies, sorting and recycling actors, and educators, and inform policy-makers of the critical issues surrounding the fashion and recycling sectors.
Supervising professor
Niinimäki, Kirsi, Assoc. Prof., Aalto University, Department of Design, Finland
Thesis advisor
Niinimäki, Kirsi, Assoc. Prof., Aalto University, Department of Design, Finland
circular economy, closed-loop recycling, design for recycling, fashion design, clothing design, design practice, post-consumer textile waste
Other note
  • [Publication 1]: Karell, E. (2018). Design for Circularity: The Case of In K. Niinimäki (Ed.), Sustainable Fashion in a Circular Economy (pp. 96-127). Espoo, Finland: Aalto ARTS Books.
    Full text in Acris/Aaltodoc:
  • [Publication 2]: Niinimäki, K., & Karell, E. (2020). Closing the Loop: Intentional Fashion Design Defined by Recycling Technologies. In G. Vignali, L. F. Reid, D. Ryding & C. Henninger (Eds.), Technology-Driven Sustainability: Innovation in the Fashion Supply Chain (pp. 7-25). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-15483-7_2 View at publisher
  • [Publication 3]: Karell, E., & Niinimäki, K. (2019). Addressing the Dialogue between Design, Sorting and Recycling in a Circular Economy. The Design Journal,22(sup1), 997-1013.
    Full text in Acris/Aaltodoc:
    DOI: 10.1080/14606925.2019.1595413 View at publisher
  • [Publication 4]: Karell, E., & Niinimäki, K. (2020). A Mixed-Method Study of Design Practices and Designers’ Roles in Sustainable-Minded Companies. Sustainability, 12(11), 4680.
    DOI: 10.3390/su12114680 View at publisher