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
During their years working inside the apparel industry, Nicole Bassett and Jeff Denby watched masses of perfectly usable textiles stockpile in dumpsters. They were fully aware that this was a national trend. In 2014, more than 16.2 million tons of textile waste was generated, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of that, 2.6 million tons were recycled or composted, 3.1 million tons were combusted and 10.5 million tons ended up in landfills.
Recycling more of these materials would have the equivalent carbon footprint impact of removing one million cars from roads, which largely motivated Bassett and Denby to launch the Renewal Workshop.
The Cascade Locks, Ore.-based operation helps brands address textile waste. So far the organization, which launched last September, works with five brand partners who send apparel to Renewal’s 7,500-sq.-ft. space.
“We are trying to figure out solutions for warehouse and distribution centers to deal with returned or damaged products they can’t resell,” Bassett says. “We are refurbishing clothes to put back in the market. But we are also beginning to focus on recycling and upcycling fabrics for other uses once clothes reach the end of their life.”
Filling a Void
Material recovery facilities have difficulties processing textiles and brands have limited resources to dispose of what does not sell or gets returned to them. As a result, textiles, with a recycling rate of 16.2 percent are among the least recovered materials.
The startup is addressing the recovery issue by working within the scope of an organized supply chain.
“Recyclers do not have infrastructure to efficiently collect directly from brands or to process,” Bassett says. “So we created a space to collect and organize materials, based on its value, prioritizing higher value items. This would be renewed apparel that can be resold in its original form.” Renewal cleans, quality reviews, repairs and adds a Renewal Workshop label signifying the clothes are refurbished.
As the company’s volumes increase it will focus on materials that will need more work to be salvaged.
“If something’s too damaged to be sold in its original form but has valuable parts we will move it to an upcycling area where we can make something else out of it,” she says. “Finally, when it’s not salvageable we would put it into our recycling area, where it’s organized by material type, and we will send it to recyclers who will turn it into a new yarn.”
e-commerce Opens Up Business Opportunities
The company sells renewed apparel on an online marketplace.
“What’s exiting is ecommerce has allowed access to used clothes all over the country,” Bassett says. “So I don’t have to hope it shows up in my local thrift store. And customers are comfortable buying online, especially if they know there is a quality control process in place.”
Currently the site is filled with a few thousand items, and brand partners’ shipments come in quarterly. The clothes then go into a large washer. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is used to conserve water. After detergent is added, the CO2 is converted to liquid, enabling the detergent to more easily penetrate fibers. After the cleaning process the liquid is converted back to gas so the clothes don’t have to be dried.
Ibex, an outdoor clothing company in White River Junction, Vt., is among Renewal Workshop’s partners. The manufacturer was already taking back its products from consumers who were done with them and sending what was reusable to charities. If a garment was ruined, the company tried to recycle the garments. But that proved too labor intensive. So material was piling up on the retailer.
“Renewal has provided opportunities to dispose of products properly but, more important, they provide a solution to refurbish, repair and resell products,” says Keith Anderson, vice president of marketing for Ibex. “We appreciate this because … we use fine grades of Marino wool, so there is a lot of value in the fabric and manufacturing.”
Ibex workers must still receive materials and separate what can be refurbished from what cannot.
“What’s different now is we stockpile returns for Renewal, palletize and ship in a consolidated way versus having to store and find outlets for each bucket ourselves. It’s a one-stop solution,” says Anderson.
“We see value in the products returned to us,” he says. “And especially in the days where there’s a focus on a circular economy, we see [Renewal’s model] to be an elegant solution to putting our clothes back into that circular economy.”
*This story first appeared on Waste 360