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
A boom in cheap fashion is coming.
And unless we change the way we produce and sell clothes, it’s going to put massive strain on the environment and the people who make them. The conclusion comes from new research by McKinsey & Co., which looked at the way we currently consume fashion as well as the amplifying effect emerging markets could have as their growing middle classes buy more clothes.
McKinsey found that a culture of disposable fashion is proliferating in which retailers keep putting out greater volumes of inexpensive clothing. Consumers, attracted by the low cost and constant newness, are buying these clothes in greater quantities, and often wearing them only a handful of times before discarding them. This fast-fashion ecosystem uses large amounts of natural resources while producing carbon emissions that fuel climate change. It has also been linked to numerous cases of worker abuses in countries sewing the garments.
The report warns: “Without improvements in how clothing is made, these issues will grow proportionally as more clothes are produced.”
In all likelihood, more clothes will be produced. Between 2000 and 2014, clothing production worldwide doubled, according to McKinsey, and the average number of collections produced by European apparel companies in a year rose from two to five between 2000 and 2011.
This clothing boom is set to continue as growing middle classes in populous developing economies spend their rising incomes on clothes. “In five large developing countries—Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and Russia—apparel sales grew eight times faster than in Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States,” the report states. These consumers still buy a “fraction” of what shoppers in countries such as the US buy, but sales would still rise “significantly” if they continue buying more.
And it’s only getting easier to do that. Clothing prices aren’t keeping pace with other goods, meaning that, relatively speaking, clothes are getting cheaper. The number of garments the average consumer purchased each year rose by 60% between 2000 and 2014, McKinsey notes, and people are keeping clothing items for about half as long compared with 15 years ago, according to the report.
To make all this clothing requires land, water, and energy, and the impact doesn’t end in producing the clothes since water and energy are used each time a garment is laundered. If 80% of emerging markets rose to Western levels of per capita consumption, the effect on the natural resources we use alone would be significant.
What’s to be done? To offset this environmental impact “will likely require action across the industry,” McKinsey states.
It suggests, for one, that the apparel industry develop standards and practices for garments to be recycled. Currently, it’s extremely difficult to separate out fibers by type in fabrics made of blends, and mechanical methods of recycling cotton degrade its quality. McKinsey suggests more investment in chemical methods. (Textile technology company Evrnu and Levi’s recently created a pair of jeans from mostly post-consumer cotton waste using Evrnu’s chemical recycling method.)
It also recommends establishing higher labor and environmental standards, encouraging consumers to use low-impact methods to care for clothes, and investing in development of new fibers.
These are known problems, however. Organizations and individual brands are working on them, but their progress isn’t always straightforward. H&M, which positions itself as a leader in sustainable fast fashion, is investing in programs to reduce its impact while cranking out huge volumes of new clothes. Like Zara’s efforts, including its new sustainable collection, these actions do little to offset growing footprints. And these brands are hardly alone.