'Testbed': Behind the scenes at Asos' latest 'circular' fashion collection

BusinessGreen gets a behind-the-scenes look at the fast fashion company’s new green range

A growing band of major fashion retailers have pledged to achieve net zero emissions and overhaul their design and manufacturing processes to make the notoriously resource intensive industry more sustainable. But how will this drive change the look, feel, and price tag of items on sale on high streets and fashion sites?

Fashion giant Asos has taken a stab at answering that question with its latest collection, which officially launched this morning. The new range of clothes is made exclusively from recycled, renewable or ‘innovative’ materials, with the online retail giant claiming the collection has been created to test a range of “circular” or “sustainable” and textiles that could eventually become mainstays of the fashion industry of the future.

Among the pieces in the 47-piece collection is a colourful romper suit made with fiber produced using a chemical process that binds upcycled cotton scraps with wood pulp, and a unisex jersey tee made from yarns made by mechanically breaking down post-consumer waste and offcuts .

The clothing range also includes a number of denim items made from 100 per cent recycled cotton with removable buttons, meaning the clothes can be easily disassembled for recycling. Moreover, all the items have been designed using digital 3D technology, which reduces the need to manufacture samples in the design process further curbing demand for raw materials.

The collection is, in theory, a taster of Asos’ entire product range if the retailer is to achieve its 2030 sustainability goals. The company has pledged to make its entire home collection with “more sustainable” or recycled materials by the end of the decade and has also promised to achieve net zero emissions by the same date, prioritising industry circular design principles and investing in product recovery programs .

As such, all the items in the new collection have been designed to meet principles set out in the ASOS Circular Design Handbook, which was published last November and is based on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s vision for a circular fashion economy. The company also announced today that it has partnered with resale service Thrift+ to encourage its customers to return used clothes for recycling in exchange for credit that can either be donated to charity, used to purchase clothes through Asos, or to buy second hand clothes on the Thrift+ platform. Some 30,000 Thrift+ bags will be available for customers who want to return their clothes during the first phase of the trial, it is confirmed.

Jo Mourant, senior sustainability partner at Asos, said the brand had produced the circular collection in order to help much-needed turbocharged of scale that can help Asos and its peers meet their ambitious sustainability goals. “We can trial it in small quantities and prove that it works,” she said. “We can get that supply chain working, start to collaborate with our suppliers better and look at how we can scale up [the processes, technologies and textiles]”.

ASOS is taking something of a financial hit to sell the collection at retail prices, despite the items being more expensive to produce. But Mourant said the firm expects the overheads associated with the new garments to tumble as sustainable materials and greener production processes become more commonplace. It is a dynamic that is already underway in the cotton market, she said, noting that the cost of organic cotton has rapidly fallen as more and more companies have invested in the material and helped build out supply chains that comply with sustainability standards.

“As more brands start to move towards recycled fibers, that will support producers and set up a whole new supply chain, and a whole new industry, that didn’t exist five to 10 years ago,” Mourant said. “I definitely think we are definitely going to move in the direction where costs will come down… From a materials perspective, I think we’ll see prices eventually be comparative to conventional markets.”

But she conceded that it was impossible to say whether the cost of clothes would go up as the industry’s various climate and circularity goals drew closer, noting the price tag of items sold in the future would be influenced by a number of variables, including economy- wide inflation and supply chain disruptions.

However, she stressed the collection launching today would help the retailer understand the key areas where it would need to work with industry peers and suppliers to make “sustainable” goods more scalable and cost effective. “We’re not just addressing the easy stuff, we’re trying to understand where some of those challenges might be,” she said. “Let’s start having those conversations around how we change those parts of the industry.”

What is uncontestable is that action to deliver a more sustainable fashion sector is critical if the world’s climate and plastic pollution gaols are to be met. An investigation into the growing use of synthetic fibres by fast fashion companies published last year alert that fashion brands are propping up demand for some of the dirtiest fossil fuels while also being responsible for rapidly growing instances of microfibres contaminating food, water, oceans, and ecosystems . The United Nations Environment Program estimates the fashion sector is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions – more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined – as well as 20 per cent of global wastewater pollution. In addition, the sector is the cause of mountains of waste, with the EU estimating that roughly 87 per cent of clothing material is currently incinerated, landfilled, or dumped in nature.

Mourant noted that there are solutions in place to reduce the environmental footprint of cotton, polyester, and viscose, the three most commonly used fibers found in Asos’ clothes. But she conceded significantly more collaboration across the industry and innovation is going to be required before brands like Asos can credibly claim their collections meet circular design and manufacture principles.

For example, ASOS’s head of design Nick Eley explained how the company’s sustainability mission depended on a major effort to rethink how footwear is designed and manufactured. “Maybe the biggest challenge is footwear,” he said. “There isn’t any footwear in [the circular] collection. Footwear is generally made of lots of different components: plastic, metals, rubbers, woven [materials], glue. That makes it very difficult to make something you can recycle.”

He also explained how Asos had purposefully picked colors and shapes for the collection that held evergreen appeal with customers, in a bid to prevent the clothes from falling out of fashion and being binned.

“We pride ourselves on being able to react to the latest Instagram or red-carpet trend, and get it in as quickly as possible,” he said. “[But] those types of things have quite a short life cycle. So, what we’ve been very conscious of this collection is to look at prints, colors and shapes which have a lot more longevity.”

Asos’s new circular collection is unlikely to win over all environmental campaigners, some of whom would point out that a 47-piece collection is a small drop in the ocean for a firm with more than 100,000 products on sale on its website and a mission to grow sales of its home brands by £1bn annually by mid-decade. Multiple reports, after all, have stressed the only way to reduce fashion industry’s sizeable toll on the environment and climate is to move away from the high-turnover fast fashion formula, which sits at the heart of the business model for Asos and many of its peers.

There will also be questions as to how quickly and seriously the company intends to roll out the methods and materials piloted in its latest circular collection across the rest of its product range. The company’s first “circular collection”, launched in 2020, was met with accusations of greenwash from some in the media, with arguing the pieces in the collection had been designed to meet a low bar for sustainability, or just two out of the eight principles for circular design set out by the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Eley conceded the legacy of the first circular collection had been limited from a product transformation perspective, but stressed it had prompted the company to train teams from across the brand on how to better incorporate sustainability into their thinking. “The first collection was also a testbed, but it was a testbed from a design perspective,” he said. “So, at that point, we had only trained six to eight designers; it was much about understanding the design process and what we needed from our own systems. Most of the lessons we learned were related to training, which we then iterated and rolled out to more teams, which is where we’ve got to now.”

Looking to the future, he said there were some elements of the second circular collection that could be folded into its main collection imminently. “Things like the inside-out, reversable T-shirts are possible and I see no reason why they wouldn’t be rolled out,” he said.

As the fast fashion industry comes under mounting pressure to reduce its significant toll on the environment, Asos’ can expect to face on-going calls for it to move further and faster to curb the impact of its products. But the technologies that made the new collection possible provide an exciting glimpse of how the fashion industry could produce clothes with significantly less resources, waste and carbon emissions, and companies across the indutsry should be taking note.

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