Each second, one truckload of garments is landfilled or burnt. Worldwide, there is an abundance of clothing available to attire the forthcoming six generations. Less than 1% of clothing undergoes recycling, while the majority is discarded. Recognizing the potential to transition towards circular systems in this sector will require enabling policy frameworks and investments but also collaboration across the value chain to ensure valuable materials remain in circulation.

Broadpeak works with industry experts, impact-driven investors, and academia on pressing global issues. With our articles and trilogies, we want to share our key insights we gain in the process with our network. All our articles and earlier trilogies can be found here.

The Textile Crisis

The clothing industry is huge, generating a value of USD 1.3 trillion and providing employment to over 300 million individuals across the value chain. Garments constitute over 60% of the total textiles’ consumption, with clothing production nearly doubling over the past 15 years. Concurrently, clothing utilization has decreased by nearly 40%. This phenomenon, bearing the name ‘fast fashion’, is characterized by rapid turnover of new styles, an increased number of collections released annually, and often, reduced prices. This highlights the linear nature of our current clothing, spanning from raw material extraction to product disposal.

Moreover, significant volumes of nonrenewable resources – 98 million tons per year – including oil, fertilizers, and chemicals, are extracted to manufacture garments that have a brief lifespan, with materials ultimately lost in large part to landfill or incineration. This leads to severe social and environmental repercussions, as the industry exerts immense strain on resources, pollutes, and deteriorates the natural environment and ecosystems, resulting in substantial social impacts at local, regional, and global scales. Around 60% of the materials used by the fashion sector consist of plastic, contributing to millions of microfibers into our oceans, and causing catastrophic impacts on marine biodiversity and human health. Additionally, fast fashion has a human cost as numerous textile workers endure human rights violations, through labor exploitation for instance. Dr. Ashley Holding, Principal Consultant at Circuvate, told us “The textile industry is of the highest importance, because using materials is at the core of what they’re doing, and quite often they can be very complex products with composite materials, containing a lot of different polymers and auxiliary chemicals. The end-of-life stage, which involves recycling the whole post-consumer garments, remains a challenge, both technically and in terms of societal and economic considerations.” Indeed, this linear system overlooks many economic benefits; transitioning to a circular model could unlock massive economic opportunities, valued at 560 billion USD.

Currently, fashion production contributes to 10% of total carbon emissions. If the sector persists on its current path, its share of the carbon budget could escalate to 26% by 2050. The environmental and social cost of the fashion industry compels us to rethink fast fashion and underscores the urgency for adopting more sustainable business models and practices. Although several initiatives and efforts like collection for resale through second-hand stores or donation bins exist, the textile manufacturing industry remains global and fragmented. A circular approach to the textile involves a holistic strategy that encompasses the entire lifecycle, starting from design for circularity and the use of sustainable materials to the development of recycling technologies, implementation of service-oriented business models, extension of product lifespans, and promotion of value recovery and circular support models.

Barriers to Circularity

The main issue is recyclability. Garments of low quality and limited durability, frequently in fast fashion, are not conducive to being reused or recycled. Moreover, the abundance of inexpensive clothing encourages consumers to opt for new purchases, rather than upcycling, repairing, or buying second-hand items. The presence of chemical additives also raises concern, as it can undermine the quality and safety of the recycled material. These issues indicate a general lack of sensitivity and awareness, both from the consumer and supplier side. As mentioned by Katja Hansen, Senior Cradle to Cradle and Circular Economy Specialist, “Because supply chains in this industry are complex, very few industry players know their materials or their supply chain in detail. Therefore, textiles are not defined and rarely designed for disassembly and recycling or release in a biosphere scenario.” In addition, garments are in large part produced in Asia, consumed in Western countries, and then sent back to Asia, with low infrastructure of their own. The issue here is a global lack of collection, sorting, and recycling infrastructure for textile waste, but also technological limitations in recycling methods. In addition, the growing quantity of textile waste poses a substantial challenge to existing recycling systems, which struggle to cope with increased demand.

Moreover, there are insufficient incentives and innovation to design for prolonged use and recyclability, and design decisions frequently fail to address how materials can be circled back into the economy at their end-of-life. Compared to traditional sale business models, those business models that are able to raise product rates through rental or repairability services frequently face greater operating expenses or require additional capabilities, which take time to build or acquire. As a result, incorporating these requirements into textile design would necessitate investments, new collaborations, and higher costs – all of which aren’t currently rewarded by the market or addressed by policy. Informed decision-making to optimize value and circularity concurrently is challenging with the few indicators available for circular products, processes, designs, and existing infrastructure.

Toward Circular Textiles

The collective efforts of numerous initiatives and startups, exemplified by pioneers such as Patagonia and initiatives like Mud Jeans, which offer jeans for lease, among many others, underscore the momentum towards circularity within the industry. These endeavors promote reuse, recycling, and product as a service, and are complemented by a growing global regulatory landscape on textiles. The EU strategy for textiles, France’s Anti-Waste for Circular Economy (AGEC), and the index for repairability and durability in France are notable examples. Anticipated regulations such as the mandatory separate collection of textiles in Europe by 2025 also pave the way for transformative change. Moreover, the June 2022 Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles (EUSSCT) is expected to have a substantial influence on textile markets in East Asia. These policies effectively set the stage for change globally.

However, as pointed out by Brian Bauer, a Circular Economy Consultant, “At the start of the process, we need to think about the end of life, designing and using materials in such a way that you can take them apart in a cost-effective manner and where it can create value for the economy.” This suggests more policies focusing on upstream solutions and transparency around supply chains. Extended Producer Responsibility also emerges as a crucial mechanism for integrating externalities in prices and holding actors accountable for their impacts. Laurène Descamps, Senior Project Manager for innovation & socio-economic change at One Planet Lab Schweiz, specified “It’s pivotal to establish robust systems for transparency, such as product labelling and impact evaluations. We need global directives and framing conditions to endorse product repairability and recyclability in order to make sure companies are really incentivized and responsible to retain as much as possible and to re-integrate the resources they put out.”

While current policies and successful circular initiatives demonstrate the potential and benefits of circularity, there remains a need for more stringent regulations and increased funding schemes to drive innovation and scalability. Although Europe has taken significant strides in implementing circular policies, the global community must unite to establish comprehensive frameworks that foster collective progress. Sophia Hessling, Circular Textiles Project Manager at Interzero Circular Solutions Germany stated “Embracing circular business models requires a collective effort across the entire industry. This holistic approach, supported by both financial and regulatory framework, paves the way for a more sustainable and circular future.” This underscores the necessity for collaboration among stakeholders along the entire value chain. Such collaborative efforts are essential to showcase that circularity is not only possible but also beneficial. With the right regulations and by working together, we can accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable and circular textile industry.

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