Circular Economy in T-Shirts: Why does it matter for Sustainable Fashion

Paulina Kulczycki

Sustainability has been the buzzword in the fashion industry for a few years now, with more and more brands embracing eco-friendly practices – or at least pretending to. But what does it really mean to be sustainable in fashion, and what practices are really promising in terms of saving our planet's future? The answer may lie in the circular economy. We at SANVT explore circular economy in t-shirts and tell you why it matters for making fashion truly sustainable.


The circular economy is a system that aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, by reducing waste, recycling and upcycling materials, and creating closed loops in production processes. In sustainable fashion, the circular economy means rethinking the way we produce and wear clothes, to minimize their impact on the environment and promote a more responsible and ethical industry. But in order to understand the importance of circular economy, we need to understand the consequences of fashion production in the first place. So let’s start with the basics: how environmentally harmful is the production of one regular cotton t-shirt? The answer may surprise you.


Circular Economy in T-Shirts SANVT reducing trash


The Environmental Effects Of a Cotton T-Shirt

T-shirts are a staple in everyone's wardrobe, but do you know how much harm they can do to the planet? According to some estimates, it takes about 2,700 litters of water to produce one cotton t-shirt – that's enough water for one person to drink for 2.5 years! Besides the fact that cotton crops are notoriously water-intensive and pesticide-heavy, they are also causing soil degradation and biodiversity loss. And on top of that, the energy used to produce, transport, and store cotton garments contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It’s not without reason that cotton has been labelled the “dirtiest crop in the world” by the Organic Trade Association (OTA)

So, how do we make t-shirt production more sustainable? Here's the deal: we need to reduce, recycle and reuse like there is no tomorrow. Quite literally, if you consider our climate crisis. And while the individual efforts are crucial, companies and industries need to start doing it on a bigger scale – and that includes politics. Some companies are already implementing circular economy in their business plans, by collecting used t-shirts and turning them into new garments, or using recycled materials instead of virgin ones for their fabrics. Other companies embrace closed-loop systems, where the waste from one production process becomes the input for another, creating a circular flow of resources.

For example some upcycling companies offer a subscription-based model for t-shirts. Customers receive a set of shirts, and can send them back to be replaced with new ones when they're worn out. The old shirts are upcycled into new products, creating a closed loop and reducing waste. It's like a library, but for t-shirts!


Circular Economy in T-Shirts SANVT reuse


Circular Economy vs. Recycling

But hold on: what’s the difference then between circular economy and simple recycling? Well, recycling refers to the process of collecting, processing, and transforming waste materials into new products, with the aim of reducing waste and conserving resources. It involves breaking down the waste material into its basic components and using them to create new products ­– which in some cases isn’t that environmentally friendly either. 

A circular economy, on the other hand, is a more comprehensive approach to resource management that aims to keep resources in use for as long as possible, by minimizing waste and promoting a circular flow of materials and products. Meaning that in a circular economy, waste is minimized by designing products that are durable, repairable, and recyclable, and by creating closed loops in production processes, where waste from one process becomes the input for another. The goal is to create a regenerative system that is self-sustaining and resilient.

So, while recycling is an important aspect of a circular economy, it is just one piece of the puzzle. And to be frank, recycling seems like a rather outdated approach to sustainable fashion. But circular economy involves rethinking the entire product lifecycle, from design and production to consumption and disposal, and finding ways to create value from waste and reduce the environmental impact of production and consumption, which has a much greater value and positive impact in terms of sustainability.

Read here what recycling in the fashion industry really looks like.

  Circular Economy in T-Shirts SANVT recycle


Circular Economy & Water Recycling at SANVT

At SANVT we use only organic and recyclable materials for our t-shirts, such as organic cotton or lyocell, and have implemented a closed-loop system in our water systems. After all, fashion is responsible for nearly 20% of the world’s water pollution. Did you know for instance, that over 2,000 chemicals are used in order to process conventional textiles? Including nasty ones like mercury, formaldehyde and chlorine during dying processes. We therefore dye all of our fabrics without harmful chemicals or heavy metals. Moreover, our factories work with closed loop systems, ensuring nothing is sent back into nature that doesn’t belong there. By doing this, we recycle 99.9% of waste water. 

In order to minimise emissions, we keep things local and transport our products by road and boat. In addition, our modern factories only use machinery with A or B-grade energy efficiency for knitting and dying processes, which keeps our emissions successfully low. After we carried out in-depth analysis, we discovered that the complete production process of The Perfect T-Shirt  generated 5kg CO2 (by now reduced to 3.4kg). These emissions are about 50% lower than a conventionally produced t-shirt ­– and on top of that, we offset our emissions to be fully climate-neutral. As you see, we are continuously doing efforts to lower our environmental impact, through closed loop systems in our production and recyclable, organic materials. You can read more about our sustainability efforts here.


Circular economy in T-shirts: Conclusion

To sum up, the circular economy is a crucial concept for sustainability in fashion, and t-shirts are surely no exception. By rethinking the way we produce and consume clothes, we can reduce waste, conserve resources, and create a more responsible and ethical industry. From SANVT's closed-loop system to subscription models from other companies, there are many ways to make t-shirt production more circular – and it's up to all of us to support these efforts and make a positive impact on the planet. 

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