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Circular Communities: Re-fashioning the Retail Landscape

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In her second piece for WhichPLM, Annabel Lindsay, Creative Lead & Circular Fashion Specialist for Mindless Mag, writes about the circular economy and our need to embrace it fully, for the good of our industry.

COVID-19 has highlighted the struggles of bricks & mortar retail and many brands, big and small, are struggling to survive lockdown. News of Arcadia falling into administration threatens to dent the blueprint of the typical high street we’ve come to expect from our major towns and cities. But high street brands’ dependency on continuous, maximised output is having detrimental environmental and social effects, causing us to question: what is the future of retail, and how will this affect our communities?

Acquisition < Experience

Retailers generally operate using a linear ‘take, make, waste’ business model. Finite resources, environmental destruction and increased social exploitation mean linear fashion is fundamentally unsustainable, as value is only captured if consumers constantly buy new clothes.

In recent years, there’s been a move towards more sustainable, conscious practices, as most brands recognise that failure to address these concerns risks loss in consumer loyalty and damaged reputations. Particularly as 73% of consumers believe brands have a responsibility to do more than just generate profit. But we also have to question whether large brands’ surface-level sustainability efforts are more for saving face, or are genuine commitments to structural, long-term change. When a brands primary goal is to generate profit, any environmental and ethical considerations will always be, at most, a secondary thought, if an after-thought at all.

Current high street formats and the retail giants occupying residence within them encourage fast movement, fast consumption and fast fashion. Consumers are socially expected to partake in these pacey requirements, by consuming and disposing equally as quickly. However, with the planet’s ecosystem hanging in the balance and growing public awareness of the damage caused by current consumption rates, shifting value embedded within retail from acquisition to collaborative experience is essential.

The History Bit

20th century high streets looked drastically different to what we associate with high street conventions today. According to fashion designer Patrick Grant, “as the 20th century progressed local capitalism became global capitalism. Industrialisation became globalisation. And local clothing businesses that cared about people and products gave way to global fashion businesses that were driven by share price and profits”.

When we begin to understand the social implications of the UK’s repetitive high street patterns (i.e. the predictable, monopolised presence of big corporations), the notion of retail is not only unsustainable, but refutably boring, lack-lustre and unfulfilling. High-street retail boasts an irrational ‘Buy now! Hurry while offers last!’ ethos. Seldom are we encouraged to slow down, to acknowledge and appreciate the value of resources and energy behind a product’s existence.

Slowing down the retail experience could encourage more deliberate, mindful consumption behaviours. This concept can be explored through the figure on the ‘Flaneur’. Popularised in the 19th century, flaneurs are defined as ‘the stroller’ or ‘passionate wanderer’ who remove themselves from the world while they stand astride its heart. An observer of modern urban life, the flaneur publicly challenges perspectives of physical space and social behavioural expectations. What if, adopting concepts of flaneurship within retail, could help directly change consumers’ relationship with consumption, through finding new value in the experience of retail scenarios, as opposed to the pursuit of commercialised high-street ‘stuff’ acquisition? And where could we find such spaces?

Circular Discourse

During the pandemic, ‘consumers may have begun shopping locally out of necessity rather than choice, however they are rediscovering their local shop as a place for human contact and personal service when they need it most’. This trend of returning to local, independent brands for unique products and services could incur new sustainable opportunities, if these consumer behaviours are met with systemic action from the brands themselves.

Discourse of sustainable retail scenarios increasingly involves the concept of the circular economy, the idea that all resources should be kept in circulation for as long as possible, for maximum efficiency, before returning harm-free and naturally to the biosphere. In fashion, circularity shifts the paradigm of clothing consumption to clothing longevity, innovation, experience and collaboration. Circular economy principles, merged with interactive retail experiences could rejuvenate independent retail communities, by centralising conscious interactions and meaningful public engagement.

As volumes-sales business still dominates high street brands, circular practices would be undermined here, by the sheer scale of profit-first production. Unlike linear sustainability offerings from big brands, like polyester ‘conscious-collections’, circularity tackles industry environmental and social issues at the core. Circular systems, like the sharing economy and closed-loop supply chains, can unify relevant businesses through collaboration to maximise resource usage, through sharing infrastructure or combined recycling efforts. The unique, co-working and social cohesion of circular systems, creates an inspiring sustainability discourse. This might then entice other independent businesses to become a part of a growing circular community vision.

To put it into some context, a local charity shop could take in public clothing donations and any unsellable pieces could be passed onto a local designer who upcycles fabric into new garments. Innovations also offer new opportunities. S.Café technology produces yarn made from coffee grounds, which offers excellent natural anti-odour qualities. Therefore, a local coffee shop’s surplus coffee beans could be transformed into sustainable fabrics that could be used by a local activewear brand. Both are just small examples of how shared resources and efforts alongside public participation could help establish community through circular-driven retail, with countless benefits including minimising waste or resource longevity – and the possibilities are endless!

Fashion is so much more than the mindless consumption and clothing acquisition it’s come to be. It’s culture, art, community, iconography and expression. These celebratory attributes are being compromised by high street retailers in the name of profit. It’s time we re-invested in retail communities that not only strive to remind us of this but celebrate it within their purpose.

The Re-Discovery

High street layout convenience discourages explorative experiences of retail. Consumers are directed towards likelihood of purchase, through reducing the amount of effort required to move between adjacent stores, supported by pre-conceived franchised expectations of a store’s contents.

Independent retail community landscapes are usually more energetic, with the ambiance of that community not only captured by the settings in which they reside, but individual, expressive interpretations in relation to those settings. Unlike the ease-of-flow on a major high street, independent retail communities are often more spaced out, on different streets or nestled amongst historical buildings. You’ll likely have to navigate specialised fashion designers, eateries, music venues or antiques stores before arriving at a desired retail destination, and the store contents are not guaranteed like on the high street. But in embracing this, we become more connected to our behaviours in the process.

Re-discovering the individuality of different retail communities could encourage local spending, generating more social and economic community prosperity. For every £1 spent with a small or medium-sized business, around 63p remains in the local economy, compared to 40p with larger firms. Spending-power allocated into independent brands enables more investment and innovation possibilities, to realise a localised circular economy, alongside engaging consumer interactions.

Reports document a surge at grassroots level of social organisations who are reusing waste and discarded items and recreating completely new items which are then sold.  Grassroot circular implementation, married with a retail community’s urban footprint could enable the public to become future flaneurs and reclaim retail spaces through their own conscious intention.

The Key Ingredient

Professor David Tyler, in a lecture of Manchester Metropolitan University, argued that a “circular economy means we don’t treat businesses as isolated entities, but all are embedded in an industrial ecosystem where there are mutual dependencies”. The essence of an effective circular economy is networking, collaboration and cross-industry innovation.

Small fashion-players are the key ingredient for implementing circular innovation at grassroots level. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation CE100 Network claims “elements of circularity already exist in many buildings and projects, therefore inspiring new projects to pick up on these elements and create a built environment that is holistically circular”. Independent retail communities are in a unique position to action this and network closely, as the established environment encourages such collaborative prospects.

Realistically, a successful new era of circular retail prosperity comprises issues of scalability, infrastructure, accessibility, finances and so on. However, over 30% of UK consumers plan to spend more locally post-COVID-19, implying a chance to get the ball rolling and begin investing in future-proof practices that work to serve independent brands, communities and planet alike.

The Magic Combination

Capturing the value in the unique overlap between retail communities and the circular economy will require a unique, collaborative, cross-industry effort to reclaim and rejuvenate the retail experience for a new circular era. This will require three core pillars:

  • Circular economy: circular fashion systems that prioritise people and planet.
  • Experiential retail: retail scenarios encouraging participation and future flaneurship.
  • Public engagement: new retail access points, which support and celebrate community.

Circular principles challenge the norm of what can be expected in retail and in its most authentic form, will directly serve local, independent brands with a core mission of goodness that benefits the wider community. With the right efforts, investments, stakeholders and public interest, we could re-fashion the retail landscape and breathe new life into our communities, by collectively embracing the circular economy.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.