The apparel and footwear industry is forecast to generate double-digit growth to 2020 according to business analysts McKinsey & Co. One of the challenges is reconciling this growth with sustainability initiatives. As this report states it, “Sustainability and rapid business growth are not compatible; to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous.” The solution proposed is an alternative business model that is based on a closed-loop system.
A circular economy
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the circular economy as being “restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles.” In striving to achieve greater environmental responsibility, the notion of a circular economy is the latest iteration in creating a blueprint for industry.
In his book, Closing the Loop, Brett Matthews asks whether this laudable aim of infinite recycling is in fact realistic. The report is divided into seven sections and concludes with actionable recommendations and further reading resources. The first section gives an overview of the issue, definitions, and the global and local challenges. The second section considers how these principles are applied largely using interviews with innovative thinkers, manufacturers and brands. The approach provides a clear introduction for readers new to the field, as well as more in-depth information and actionable strategies for those already implementing a sustainable plan.
In the U.S. there are an estimated 25 billion pounds of textile waste generated annually of which just 15 percent is donated or recycled, much of it shipped to African countries. In Uganda, 81 percent of all clothing sold is second hand, according to Dr Andrew Brooks, whose book Clothing Poverty investigates the connection between garment retailers and sub-Saharan poverty.
Recycling alone is clearly not enough. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is one of the initiatives that’s attracting much interest as a way of promoting recycling and end-of-life management. The European Union (EU) has already successfully implemented such schemes for the automotive and packaging industries. Voluntary measures are also not enough, but they do serve an important function with trial initiatives on a small scale, before larger investment is made. Ultimately, legislation is needed at an industry or global level.
Mechanical textile separation has been used with some success for quite a while, but the increase in blends and hybrid textiles, laminates and finishes make this process increasingly difficult. Chemical recycling is now receiving more attention and some funding – in Europe.
Scale is a key issue in the sustained supply of quantity and quality of material ideally achieved locally to prevent increasing the carbon footprint. Solvay’s Move4earth is a European Union funded project that seeks to recycle airbags using a technology that allows them to separate the technical textile from its coating without any significant loss to the material properties.
The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have been developing a cellulose dissolution process for recycling cotton that reduces the water footprint by 70 percent and the carbon footprint by up to 50 percent.
In North America, Evrnu use a combination of chemical and mechanical processes to recycle post-consumer cotton garments. The process is designed to prevent off-gassing, reusing solvents and manage the environmental impact in a closed vat system. Importantly for the industry, it works within existing apparel business models.
“Going circular” successfully will require a varied but cohesive approach, and should include these considerations:
- Whole system solution: The issue has to involve stakeholders at every stage, as textile innovation alone is not enough.
- Collaboration: This needs to go beyond textile manufacturers and brands to include retailers.
- Mechanical versus chemical recycling: Partnerships are crucial to achieve scalability and commercial success.
- Complexity: More research is needed to determine the level of benefit measured against cost of development and implementation.
According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitive Index (GMCI) report the U.S. is set to overtake China as the most competitive manufacturing nation within five years. This brings tremendous opportunity and responsibility for North America to take the lead in developing the principles of a circular economy for the apparel and textile industry. This has to be part of the innovation agenda if it is to be made to work environmentally and economically.
*This story first appeared on Advanced Textiles Source
About 13 years ago, I was travelling in a beat-up “bakkie” (or, as we Americans call it, pick-up truck) through a dusty, northern Mozambican town. With a bucket on her head and a face lined from years of hardship, an elderly woman walked slowly down the road, quietly going about her business… while wearing a bright red Ohio State sweatshirt, complete with their mascot, Brutus Buckeye! This sweatshirt, probably discarded at one point in a Salvation Army depot in Ohio, found a new owner in the most unlikely place.
And while one can argue the merits of second-hand clothing imports and their effect on African apparel industry, the following conclusion is clear: When we discard our unwanted clothes, they do not go away.
Rather, the “lucky” ones go on to reuse, after being sorted, categorized, packaged, and shipped, often to faraway lands. This fascinating video shows what happens when these discarded duds arrive in India. “Maybe the water is too expensive to wash them,” says one of the sorters, perplexed by the state of the clothing sent by the West.
But what happens when a piece of clothing is too worn to be, well, worn again? Has it reached its end of life? Judging by the millions of tons of clothing ending up in landfills across the world, one would think so. But it doesn’t have to be.
Clothes that cannot be worn again can be taken apart. The “easy” way is via mechanical fibre recycling, which entails chopping the clothing into small pieces to create new fibre. But this process weakens the fibre, which still needs to be blended with a high proportion of new (or virgin, in industry speak) fibre. And only a small percentage of total clothing actually goes through this process.
But this process doesn’t work if your old t-shirt is made of blended fibres. And we absolutely love those stretchy, fitted t-shirts, which usually have a bit of elastane. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s clothing is made up of a cotton/polyester mix, which means these fibres cannot be “born again” as new fibre for clothing.
But perhaps not for long. Over the past few years, a number of research institutes and innovators (like Worn Again, Evrnu, re:newcell, Saxion University, Mistra Future Fashion, Deakin University, VTT, Aalto University and Tampere University) have been developing chemical recycling processes that can get more life out of those blended t-shirts. I have had the opportunity to speak with some of these guys to learn more about how such technologies can transform the way we use – and reuse – clothes. As Worn Again states, such technologies can create “Abundance for Everyone. Forever.”
In other words, there is no end of life. Only end of use.
But we’re not there yet. The processes for turning blended clothing into new fibre still need perfecting – and scaling – to help the industry eventually eliminate the concept of waste. So, in the meantime, there are some practical things that we – the customers who love stretchy t-shirts – can do.
Love our clothes! We can be inspired by the tips from the Love Your Clothes movement, helping us to think about how we buy, use, and pass on our clothing.
For every new piece of clothing we buy, we can gift or swap an old piece… give it to friend, take it to a charity shop, recycling centre, a “take back” scheme, or take it to swishing party.
Pull a Mark Zuckerberg. We should not be afraid to wear the same thing, every day, to work. Apparently, this also helps us to be more successful in our careers.
Check the labels. Until cotton recycling technologies really take off, a blended t-shirt (e.g. cotton and polyester) is harder to recycle than one that is of a single fibre – whether natural or man-made. Let’s go for that 100%.
Tell our friends…and kids. The clothing we love is taking its toll on our earth. At least 350,000 tons of clothing end up in landfills in the U.K. alone. In the US, just 15% of used clothing and textiles are diverted from landfill and incineration. We all have a role to play. Let’s spread the word and bring back our clothes.
And the more that we do that, the more we can give new life to our old clothes.
*This story first appeared on The Huffington Post