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The Next Economy
Selfridges & Circularity:
Signs of a Shift, But Still a Bit Short

More brands seem to be taking a two-pronged approach to growth — continuing to sell new products while demonstrating their ‘care’ for the planet through circular initiatives and takeback schemes. When will companies truly commit to changing the products they sell and how they sell them?

On a finite planet with finite resources, one thing should be clear to all: We cannot go on producing new items, products and garments at the current rate. The impact of our ever-growing consumption of brands and people is having a detrimental impact on environments, ecosystems, biodiversity, communities and the wider planet. We have only to look to the heavy increase of cotton growing around the Aral Sea basin, once the world’s fourth-largest lake — which has been drained nearly dry — to illustrate the cost of our rampant overconsumption.

In recent years, increased awareness of the negative impacts caused by the fashion industry has hit the mainstream media. As a result of increasing consumer expectations, many well-known, large fashion houses and retail outlets are creating sustainability strategies with stretching targets — opting for more sustainable, alternative materials; stricter policies and innovation opportunities around circularity. Yet the real root of the problem — the vast number of new products and garments being created — is seemingly still missing from the conversation.

Many businesses today seem to be taking a two-pronged approach in order to increase profits further — one, where they continue to drive for an increase in sales and number of garments sold; while they, two, demonstrate how they ‘care’ for the planet through circular initiatives and takeback schemes. The question is, when are we going to see businesses put a ceiling on the number of products sold that don’t fit their sustainability criteria? When are we finally going to have companies truly demonstrate that they are changing the products they sell and how they sell them for the betterment of the planet?

High-end UK department store Selfridges has been very public in its sustainability approach over recent years. Its just-announced new target — that 45 percent of transactions (defined as a transaction that includes at least one resale, rental, refill, repair or recycled product) will come from circular products; and that everything it builds, buys and sells will meet its environmental and ethical standards (but no details as to what they are) by 2030 — makes it one of the first companies to put a true percentage value against ambitions to tackle textile waste.

Selfridges’ ambition and public commitment demonstrates that businesses really can see the value in the resale, rental, refill, repair and recycled product space; and it is, of course, a great step in the right direction. Working to extend the life of garments and products instead of buying new is vital as we seek to change behaviours and shift toward buying better and buying less. However, Selfridges’ new target should not be heralded as a silver bullet.

Although the target is big and ambitious, Selfridges has failed to mention the fact that consumption cannot keep growing at the same rate. This omission suggests that the business still intends to grow and increase sales in the non-sustainable product space — allowing and, in some ways, encouraging new brands and products that may not be aligned to circularity or sustainability credentials to continue to fly off the virtual and physical rails.

If Selfridges were committing to creating a ceiling on the numbers of sales generated from non-sustainable and non-circular products that it stocks and sells, then this would be a different conversation. In fact, if Selfridges truly wanted to position circularity and innovation at the front of its strategy, we would be talking about the reduction of non-circular products, with targets to switch to better alternatives altogether.

The reality is though, this conversation doesn’t seem to be happening. At least not in the public space.

When brands talk about growth, circularity and sustainability together, we need to recognise that these commitments are more of a band-aid on an ever-increasing cut. Although it will help a little, as we encourage extending the lives of the products and clothes we already own, these half-measures won’t be anywhere near useful enough in the long run.

Of course, Selfridges is not the only brand who need to be part of this conversation. Many big household names — from John Lewis & Partners to Farfetch — all need to be considering similar perspectives, moving from implementing circular products and trying to work with customers to encourage these behaviours to more actively switching the products they sell for the better.

Repair, resale and rental are all fantastic opportunities and much-needed offerings as we look to encourage the purchasing of better-made, longer-lasting products; but the potential for impact of these options is greatly diminished if the original business model remains the same, still churning out high volumes of products. We need a shift — we cannot have our cake and eat it, too.

Making retail and fashion truly environmentally sustainable requires long-term thinking, recognition that we cannot go on producing at the current rates, and a large culture shift — which is still a long way from taking place. We need business to fully take a step beyond profit — to change how business is fundamentally run, so that there is a future for all. Selfridges is on that journey; but its commitments to date are equivalent to dipping a toe in the ocean.