A systemic transition is necessary for the textile industry to reclaim the human, economic, and environmental value lost in today’s linear system. Brands, retailers, innovators, and governments are looking for solutions to reduce the negative impact of textiles, and they have begun to focus on creating a circular industry to displace the use of virgin fibers upstream and eliminate textile waste downstream. Increasing consumer awareness has also lifted the curtain on the unpalatable practices of apparel manufacturing, adding pressure to brands and retailers to find better solutions. The moment for incredible transformation has come, and it’s time to address infrastructural developments to widen the bottlenecks standing in the way of a new, circular textile industry.
A garment’s life cycle has many stages: resource extraction, product design, manufacturing, distribution, use, and end of life. The first five are the most accessible for brands and retailers, and as a result, much of the industry’s sustainability efforts have been focused here. This has left end of life, where the value of these items is lost, largely unaddressed.
Today, take-back programmes are the primary instrument for brands and retailers to reclaim their used products, but these efforts are only collecting a small fraction of unwanted garments. In an effort to find more solutions to a rapidly escalating global problem, the industry is shifting into action: during the first two quarters of 2017 the Fashion for Good initiative launched, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation announced their Circular Fibres Initiative, and the Copenhagen Fashion Summit (quite literally) put circularity on the global fashion agenda.
Innovators are another important enabler for circular textiles, and they are deeply engaged in the research and development of new chemical recycling technologies. If these researchers and entrepreneurs succeed in introducing their groundbreaking processes into the textile supply chain at a commercial scale, the current range of textile recycling options would expand, and significantly more textile could be returned to the supply chain. This would enable garments that have reached the end of their useful life to become garments once again.
Governments are beginning to recognise their role, as well. In 2015, 193 global leaders in the UN unanimously agreed on a single agenda, set forward in the document “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) articulated within are now the common roadmap for efforts and programmes across multiple sectors, including textiles, to mitigate human impact on the planet. The European Commission has also just released a new policy document (1) focused on sustainability in the garment sector. These recent developments show that governments are beginning to understand the importance of maximising the human and environmental value of the textile industry, and they are starting to take action.
Until recently, consumers have had little exposure to the product creation side of the textiles industry. Because information is now highly accessible – 70% of Europeans now acquire the bulk of their news through the Internet (2) – and because the environmental and social repercussions of the textile industry are increasingly gaining exposure, the consumer blindfold is finally falling away. Engaging consumers in the conversation is now both easier and more important than ever.
This growing awareness coupled with a global focus on climate change, the increasing threat of resource scarcity, and the promise of new chemical recycling solutions has allowed circularity to gain significant ground in the textiles arena. These are incredibly valuable steps toward transformation, however, a systemic bottleneck still exists.
A critical success factor for circular textiles is often overlooked: infrastructure.
Circularity in textiles has been labelled a “chicken and egg” problem, and which element should come first is a common discussion. The reality is, two critical components of a circular system, post consumer consumer textiles and a range of re-processing methods and technologies, already exist. The development of next generation of recycling technologies is also beginning to accelerate. Unfortunately, a transparent and connected infrastructure of automated textile sorting capabilities, matchmaking between feedstocks and recycling technologies, and logistics to move the materials between stakeholders does not yet exist. As a result, the textile industry has a very limited volume of circular products on the market.
From an environmental perspective, this is a massive missed opportunity. The Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) estimates that collecting 1 kg of used clothing (as opposed to incineration or landfilling) reduces 3,6 kg of CO2 emissions, 6000 liters of water consumption, and 0,5 kg of fertilisers and pesticides used in raw material production (3). If we recycled just 10% of the 20 million tonnes (4) of post consumer textiles thrown away in Europe and the United States, we would save 7.2 billion tonnes in CO2 emissions, 12 trillion liters of water, and 1 billion kg of fertilisers and pesticides every year.
Recycling technologies can return non-rewearable garments to the supply chain, and a transparent infrastructure to connect recyclable garments to recycling technologies is the missing link in a new, circular system. Circle Economy’s Textiles Programme is addressing this challenge head on with three important and related projects: Interreg funded Fibersort, Circle Market, and the Denim Alliance. All tackle core infrastructural innovations that are needed to achieve a circular textiles industry and are being developed in close collaboration with the necessary eco-system of collectors, sorters, chemical and mechanical recyclers, manufacturers, and brands.
Textile recycling innovations are getting more attention and investment, forward thinking brands are proactively looking for ways to address post consumer textile challenges, and governments are exploring policies that will help mitigate further impact. Unfortunately, a lack of infrastructure can only amount to incremental change.
Now it is time to collaboratively develop transparent, market-driven solutions to connect the players and facilitate the movement of materials back into the supply chain. These are the digital tools and technologies that will help us to overcome bottlenecks, streamline processes, and accelerate the necessary and burgeoning transition to a new industrial paradigm.
Change is inevitable. Falling behind is optional.
(1) European Commission, Sustainable Garment Value Chains Through EU Development Action (2017)
(2) Eurostat (2016)
(3) Bureau of International Recycling citing University of Copenhagen study (2008)
(4) Environmental Protection Agency (2013), Eurostat (2016), Friends of the Earth Report (2013)