As the world shifts its focus to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, consumers continue their search for ways to spend with a conscience. The fashion industry contributes to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consumers play an integral role in the system, so it only makes sense that it’s the industry seeing the most attention regarding climate action. According to a 2017 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 87% of the 53 million tons of clothing produced globally each year is either incinerated or dumped into landfills. With statistics like this getting more and more concerning every year, both activists and economists question the long-term viability of a traditional linear economy.
For many, circularity seems to be the best solution. An alternative to the linear economic model, a circular model focuses on keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible, getting the most value out of those materials while they are in use, and recovering and regenerating those materials at the end of each service life.
What does this look like for the fashion industry? First, it’s about making sure that garments are worn more. Second, it’s about making garments with renewable materials. Third, it’s about recovering textiles in order to turn old clothes into new clothes.
New business models based on circularity can pay off in the long-term by reducing the costs of production or creating new revenue streams, such as rentals or other new forms of ownership. But circularity is not just the smartest option, it’s the only option. If the global population rises to 8.5 billion people by 2030 as the United Nations expects, overall apparel consumption will jump from 62 million tonnes to 102 million tonnes according to The Pulse of Fashion 2017, a report by the GFA and the Boston Consulting Group. That is the equivalent of more than 500 billion t-shirts, 400 billion of which would end up being discarded at current recycling rates.
One way to accelerate the industry’s transition to a more circular system is by increasing the volume of textiles collected, reused and recycled. Many individual brands have introduced recycling programs that incentivize consumers to recycle goods, successfully diverting them from the landfill. At Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2017, nearly 100 brands signed up to the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, which requires companies to set and report on targets to reduce waste and increase recycling.
Despite the progress that has been made, brands are still struggling to meet their circularity goals as 2020 approaches. Brands are having difficulty making products from recycled materials due to a lack of expertise in the industry around these materials and issues scaling recycling projects. Modern clothes are made of complex textile blends that include both natural and synthetic fibers, making them difficult to breakdown. That’s why the old clothes that do get recycled end up being recycled into something of lower value and quality, like insulation or pillow stuffing. Not to mention that in order for shoes or clothes to be recycled, customers need to be convinced to send back their purchases when they’re finished with them. This collection process remains slow and manual.
Collecting materials will always include some kind of waste, whether through the use of fossil fuels in the collection process or the inevitable losses incurred. With each cycle in a circular system, materials slowly degrade. Taken to its most extreme, a 100 percent recycling rate could actually damage the environment through the energy expended in collecting and processing the least accessible waste.
But activists and innovators are working to fix these issues. Initiatives like CircularID are giving the supply chain some much needed transparency, while logistics platforms and recycling apps are making the recycling and collection process more efficient for brands and consumers alike. Textile innovations companies like Re:newcell and Evrnu are transforming discarded textiles into new high-performance fibers ready for garment production.
One of the key takeaways from the shift toward circularity is that a truly sustainability model extends well beyond any single stage of a garment’s lifecycle. For many brands, circularity begins and ends with marketing campaigns. The current discourse around circularity depicts a society that can continue to consume as much fashion as it likes, which is not the case. In order to get to the root of the problem, we must address the much larger issue of overconsumption. Americans throw away about 26 billion pounds of apparel and textiles every year, according to the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. The only way the industry can address the climate catastrophe is to slow its growth. No amount of reusing or recycling will offset the industry’s continuous growth, so the solution is to simply produce less.
Evrnu is a Seattle-based textile innovations company that has invented a new kind of engineered fiber called NuCycl made from discarded clothing. Discarded textiles are collected and sorted before being shredded and broken down to the molecular level. Evrnu engineers the raw materials into new fiber profile that is spun into yarn. Finally, high-performance fibers are made by the company’s mill partners to be used by brands and designers. The Adidas by Stella McCartney Infinite Hoodie is the first garment to be made using NuCycl fibers with customized performance features.
Adidas’ FUTURECRAFT.LOOP is a transformative approach to designing performance shoes that are made to be remade, by using one material type and no glue. Once the shoes come to the end of their first life and are returned to adidas — they are washed, ground to pellets and melted into material for components for a new pair of shoes, with zero waste. The first-gen FUTURECRAFT.LOOP shoe is currently being tested ahead of the second-gen drop. The wider release of the 100% recyclable running shoe is targeted for Spring/Summer 2021.
Born in VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Infinited Fiber’s technology allows transforms textile, cardboard, and agricultural waste into new high-performance fiber that has a natural feel, high color uptake, and natural antibacterial properties.
Ambercycle turns complex “end-of-life” textiles into new yarns. The company’s technology rescues PET polymers from old apparel and textiles, which is spun into new polyester yarn that is ready for garment production.
Swedish firm Re:newcell turns used cotton and viscose into new biodegradable Circulose pulp, new fibers, new yarn, new fabrics, and new garments. It has opened a plant with the capacity to produce 7,000 tons of material every year to test its chemical process for recycling cotton and viscose at industrial scale. After used clothing is collected by recycling programs, it can be sent to Re:newcell to be spun into new textile fibers.
In an effort to create a waste-free, circular resource world, Worn Again Technologies’ polymer recycling technology can reprocess both pure and blended cotton and polyester textiles, which represents 80% of all clothing and textiles. The company then turns them back into new textile raw materials.