What Goes Around Comes Around: How Gen Z Embraces Circularity in Fashion and Beyond

Everyday goods that decorate our lives used to be separated by cultures and continents. Now, our goods are mass-produced, cheap, and disposable. A linear relationship between use and discard has been formed in the name of innovation, and young consumers are starting to reckon with this wasteful way of thinking. 

Circularity has always been a part of human history. From repairing a pair of shoes to furniture exchanges with strangers on Facebook Marketplace—you may not have known it, but you were participating in a long legacy of consumption called, “the circular economy.” 

Some communities are returning to traditional modes of creation to find solutions to modern problems. Using the processes passed down from their ancestors to connect back to their roots. Riley Kucheran of Ryerson University’s School of Fashion speaks on the episode “Indigenous Fashionology” from the Ologies podcast, where ‘what comes next’ for an article of clothing is baked into the creative process of making it. 

We talk a lot about Gen Z’s love for nostalgia, but our embrace of circularity is not just another moment in a trend cycle. It’s a mode of creation that makes us feel more connected to the planet and to each other. 

What is Circularity?

The best part about a circle? There’s no end in sight. This is the core of circularity in consumerism, where products can be reused, repaired, or recycled instead of being thrown away. This not-so-novel idea stands in direct opposition to the straight line between purchase and landfill that exists now. 

Products are designed with their own end-of-life in mind. Once we’re done with the product, it gets put back into the supply chain. 

TL;DR, waste not, want not.

Why is Gen Z Embracing Circularity? 

While there is hardly ever a single source for a given movement, growing up in rooms filled with plastic trinkets while the world burns around us certainly contextualizes our perspective. 

Having “sustainable” production is becoming increasingly meaningless as brands inundate us with greenwashing tactics. JUV  found that 63% of Gen Z respondents find sustainability claims by brands to be trustworthy to some degree. By contrast, 78% of respondents found “circular” claims to be trustworthy. 

Circularity provides an alternative to these claims of ‘going green’ because it’s all in the lifecycle of the product rather than solely the production happening behind closed doors. 

According to DNV Risk Management, 53% of Gen Z is already participating in circular economies, and our findings suggest this proportion could be much larger as familiarity with the term ‘circularity’ increases. We found roughly half of our respondents were familiar with the term ‘circularity,’ but 97% had engaged with activities like thrifting, recycling, and repairing items that fall under the circular model. 

These findings suggest that Gen Z is already on board with a circular economy, even if they don’t know exactly what that means. 

Gen Z’s passion for thrifting has already prepared them to participate in and easily understand circularity. With trends in de-influencing and a looming recession, we’re looking at circularity through a new lens and realizing that reducing waste is not just good for the environment, but also for our wallets and lifestyles. 

“Instead of constantly buying new clothes, most of my clothes are thrifted. If an [item] isn’t any good (torn, or just not good anymore), I cut it into pieces, and it is turned into a rag that can be used around the house instead of buying cleaning cloths.” – Gen Z Respondent

How can brands capture the wave of interest? 

(Courtesy of Coach)

Brands are beginning to catch on to the circular model with buy-back programs or built-in reselling infrastructure. They’re also positioning circularity at the very front of their branding and ethos. 

Coach’s newest sub-brand, “Coachtopia,” is harnessing more than 80 years of Coach leather expertise to make beautiful things according to their Made Circular design philosophy

Meaning, reimagining waste as a valuable raw material and working backward, crafting products from recycled, repurposed, or renewable materials and designing them to live multiple lives. Gen Z is responding to it, not only commenting on the circular process of Coachtopia’s products but also the look and feel of the pieces, resulting in the collection selling out. Not once; twice. 

Here’s what to keep in mind as a brand capturing this momentum:

  1. Talk with young people about their wants and needs in the circular economy—some products are more of an organic fit than others.
  2. Break down the predisposition that old = bad and new = good.
  3. Consider whether your brand can engage meaningfully with circularity and make changes to get there. If not, how can you engage with sustainability marketing in an honest way? 

JUV Data Collection (The Receipt): 

Circularity: May 11th, 2023 – 94 Respondents 

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): March 17th, 2023 – 103 Respondents 

Kate Graham
Steph Strickland

Steph Strickland is the Director of Research at JUV Consulting and currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts. At the age of 22 (aka her Taylor Swift year), she is working toward her Master’s in Media Science from Boston University. Steph is known for getting way too excited about well-organized spreadsheets (…it’s just so satisfying…) and will use her inquisitive nature to incorrectly guess your zodiac sign. Her favorite part of the job is connecting the science of data with the art of storytelling to spark something transformational.