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This is the third step of our 5-step plan to circularity. Catch up on step 1 and step 2 first.

It is amazing to see such an explosion of interest in sustainability within the fashion industry. Over the past few years, the number of individuals and companies involved in the conversation is growing, and the level of knowledge is broader and deeper than ever. That’s a really big deal — it’s a signal that industry transformation, seen for so long as a mere speck on the distant horizon, is getting closer.

Take-back programmes are currently a hot topic, because getting clothing back from the consumer is critical to actually closing the loop and achieving circularity in the textile industry. Increasing the amount of used clothing collected is also high on the Global Fashion Agenda. Not surprisingly, the take-back discussion is focused around what can be done to reclaim more of the 20M tonnes of post consumer textiles that are landfilled across Europe and the US every year. In order to actually return the non-rewearable garments to the beginning of the supply chain, however, we must also understand how the system behind collection works.

First, here is a high level overview of collection methods (options vary by location)

Drop items into a public collection bin, donate them to a charity shop, use a brand / retailer in-store bin, or arrange for a residential pick up.

Online second hand shops and other web-based re-commerce platforms or initiatives, like the Next Closet, will often send a prepaid shipping package to send items to their facility for sorting and resale.

Garment leasing programmes such as MUD or Filippa K and libraries like LENA the Fashion Library own the items their customers wear, ensuring the return of these items once they are out of fashion or no longer wearable. These innovative business models have take-back built right in.

Today the vast majority of used garment collections happen through bins operated by municipalities, private collectors, or non-profits and in-store donations at charity shops. Curbside programmes offering a home pick up service are also growing in popularity in some regions, and many brands and retailers are implementing in-store bins serviced by a textile collector / sorter. As time goes on, leasing and library models, as well as other digitally enabled collections models, are likely to increase.

Next, let’s clarify an incredibly important factor

Once used items are collected, real-life human beings evaluate, sort, and re-distribute them. This costs money, because any sustainable system must include fair pay and good working conditions for those who keep it running.

Even charities, who essentially get items for free and may have low cost labor, incur expenses in handling items and putting them back into the hands of people who will use them again.

Keep in mind, regardless of whether the organisations who manage used clothing collection systems are for or non-profit, they cannot consistently lose money and remain operational.

This is the point where an understanding of how the system works becomes really critical, because a take-back initiative that enables closed loop (or circular) textiles must balance waste reduction and profitability. In other words, it cannot collect vastly more than it can sell, or it will eventually collapse. This makes creating sustainable take-back programmes tricky, because we must define and utilise the most effective methods of collection AND create more demand for the collected items.

Data is the answer

An effective problem-solver knows identifying the problem and collecting and analyzing data must come before generating solutions. In order to build an effective, balanced take-back system, we must learn more about consumer behaviour and effective textile collection methods. We must also figure out exactly what is in the items that are collected so we can develop end markets to absorb the influx of them when collection rates increase.

There has been some research done on the second hand industry by groups in the Nordics, France, UK, and the US. Unfortunately, the data sets either don’t address collection and consumer behaviour, or they aren’t comparable to one another. We need more clarity on what collection methods yield the highest number of garments per capita and how this varies between regions. We must also investigate what types of messaging, incentives, and other behaviours influence the decision to participate in a traditional collection system and / or brand sponsored take-back programme. This information will be extremely useful to plan, launch, and steer an effective textile collection model.

The other half of the knowledge gap is understanding what is actually in the items that get collected. When it comes to recycling the non-rewearable stuff, or “recycling grade”, most of the value depends upon the types of fibres, location of the goods, and how much work it will take to transform these materials into feedstocks for recycling technologies. This information is key to building up end markets for collected items and making take-back profitable. It’s also a double bonus, because the data will help brands design new products for cyclability.

Wrapping it up

Increasing used textile collections is not as easy as flipping a switch. However, doing some homework, becoming a project collaborator, and understanding the need for balance between waste reduction and profitability will truly accelerate our transition away from today’s linear, wasteful system. It will also help you define the right take-back programme as your company strives to achieve its sustainability commitments.

What you can do right now

Before launching a new take-back initiative or refining an existing one, do some homework. Dig into the habits and interests of your own customers. Join a collaborative project focused on post consumer textile data collection. Understand your company’s requirements and resources for launching and maintaining a take-back programme. Contact companies who manage take-back programmes, communicate the importance of collecting materials data, and see who is interested in working with you at this level to build a sustainable programme for the long term.

This research will give you a lot of fantastic insight and information to prepare you to take the next steps to take-back. We strongly recommend collaborating with post consumer textile experts to analyse this data, probe a little deeper, and understand how your specific needs fit within the current and future systems. This will help you define a solution that is the best fit for your own resources, goals, and the future of the industry.


We’ll dig deeper into take-back systems at Beyond Green 2017. Until then, let us help you do your homework:

Get involved with Beyond Green 2017

 

Or sign up for our Textiles newsletter and get access to our “Top 10 questions to ask before starting a take-back initiative” worksheet!  


 

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