Breakthrough Tech and Bold Collabs: 4 Circular Trends to Watch in 2024

By Anna Sáez de Tejada Cuenca, Assistant Professor at global business school IESE

With scientists reporting “off the charts” temperature records in 2023, fashion is a key culprit in our ongoing battle to protect the climate. Responsible for staggering levels of pollution and landfill, the global industry is the world’s sixth biggest contributor to the climate crisis – generating an estimated 10% of global carbon emissions.

It’s not all bad news, however. Earlier this year, the UN said that the sector was making progress, thanks to key initiatives such as the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action (with a mission to achieve net-zero by 2050 via pledges including 100% renewable electricity and sourcing eco-friendly raw materials).

There’s also evidence that retailers and consumers are starting to embrace circular    – harnessing revolutionary technology to  . With the umbrella effect of recycling R&D going head-to-head with an uptick in ultra-fast fashion, here are four  circular trends and talking points taking centre stage in a dynamic year ahead:

Recycling tech comes of age: 2024 is when circular innovation will hit the sweet spot in fashion as long-term R&D investment comes to fruition. After years of development, companies such as Renewcell are unveiling commercial recycling plants and industrial-scale infrastructure. The path ahead isn’t smooth – with Renewcell’s share price plummeting recently. But the Swedish textile-to-textile brand has backing from heavy-hitters such as H&M.

2024 will also see exciting developments from pioneering labels such as Worn Again, which is launching a state-of-the-art Swiss recycling base that produces closed-loop chemical recycling tech that claims to transform existing approaches to recycling. In another tech-powered initiative, Finnish company Infinited Fiber has created a cotton-like recycled fabric called Infinna that Patagonia, H&M and Inditex use. And Imperial College London startup DyeRecycle, which recently won a grant to develop its circular dye process, is believed to be the first to eliminate the need for water in fabric dyeing (responsible for one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution).

The rise of smart partnerships: In its report earlier this year, the UN urged the fashion industry to “adding that “by working collaboratively, companies can begin the hard work of slashing emissions.” Heading into 2024, we can expect to see more people heeding this advice – as organisations across the ecosystem look to share resources for a cost-effective, legally compliant, knowledge-building approach.

H&M Foundation’s groundbreaking alliance with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, for example, has allowed talented minds from the commercial and research worlds to unite on ideas such as the reProLeather prototype, a new form of biodegradable and recyclable leather. Meanwhile, Circ’s team of global scientists, working to crack “previously unsolvable textile recycling challenges,”  has attracted R&D funding from major clothing retailers, including Inditex and Zalando.

Equally impressive are the emerging consortiums made up of industry rivals. These include Fashion for Good’s polyester recycling project (with partners such as Adidas and Target) and the newly formed Alliance of Textile Chemical Recyclers, which includes hugely influential players such as Eastman and The Lycra Company among its members. A similar theme is taking shape with country-wide waste management schemes in America, Spain and France.

Rentals and resells gain pace: Moving into 2024, the most noteworthy partnerships will tackle textile waste and the capacity to resell and rent capsule or special-occasion pieces. Asos’ new rental service with Hirestreet and My Wardrobe HQ’s luxury collaboration with rental site Rotaro demonstrate how brands are looking to pool resources across supply, tech etc. – expanding their business models into new areas of circular competency, with help from a skilled partner.

Another great example is ReSuit, a marketplace for selling and renting wardrobe items. Company founder Nada Shepherd predicts that her platform will reduce emissions by 500 pounds per person annually. Simultaneously, we’re witnessing an uptick in virtual try-on tech, which may help chip away at fashion’s noxious returns culture.

Fast fashion’s moment of reckoning: For all the amazing innovation around circular fashion, the stark reality is that ultra-fast fashion continues to thrive. Shein, for example, produces around 10,000 new pieces daily. Kantamanto market, in Accra, receives 15 million Shein items a week. Up to 40% are dumped in informal landfill sites or washed out to sea.

Moving into 2024, we’ll need greater education to win over consumers’ hearts and minds   – persuading them that fast fashion is a broken production model. Governments also have a role to play, and the EU is leading the way. It recently adopted key recommendations, including policies to make clothes tougher, repairable and recyclable. “Consumers alone cannot reform the global textile sector through their purchasing habits,” said MEP Delara Burkhardt. “The EU must legally oblige manufacturers and large fashion companies to operate more sustainably”.

Added to the above trends is a wider threat written into the context of 2024. From the continuing impact of Covid on global supply chains to extreme weather events and the outbreak of war – just recently, Zara, H&M and Mango all shut stores in Israel – the geopolitical climate is volatile.

As we lurch from one crisis to another, it’s very tempting for fashion brands to put the issue of sustainability on the back burner. But the uncertain outlook makes environmental action more critical than ever. It’s up to a broad coalition of lobbyists – including shareholder activists, academics and NGOs – to hold brands and politicians to account. Because if we sidestep the problem now, the instability in years to come will be tenfold.