When more is more: could adding new institutions be the answer for circular materials?

Laila Petrie, for Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Development, University of Cambridge

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

In an industry like fashion — facing huge pressure to become sustainable — it is inevitable that a plethora of new solutions compete for space. In response, the industry is increasingly relying on a narrow group of NGOs and technical organisations to lead a coordinated approach to ‘going green’. Any new project or concept proposed will inevitably face the dreaded question: ‘but isn’t this duplication’?

But what if the answer is not narrowing down the range of institutions trusted to solve problems, but rather adding new institutions in a strategic way? That is a concept emerging from an industry dialogue recently held by Cambridge University, which aimed to leverage industry knowledge, and challenge assumptions, around solutions for scaling up closed loop synthetic fibre recycling in the European Union.

Held in response to the European Union’s plans under the Sustainable and Circular Textile Strategy, the dialogue brought together 35 industry experts, selected from over 100 applicants in 10 different countries and included brands, manufacturers, sector organisations, policymakers, recyclers and waste management experts, academics, finance experts and philanthropists.

Using innovative, participatory processes, developed at the Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Development, the workshop process is a major shift away from conventional sustainable fashion discussions. There was no immediate discussion of technical barriers, of existing programmes, or how coordination can be achieved. Instead, the process — called the Cambridge Policy Boot Camp (CPBC) — asks participants to first identify ‘untapped assets’ that could be used to support the developed of closed loop textile recycling in the EU; second, to combine these untapped assets into specific policy concepts; and third (only when one and two are completed), to understand potential causes of failure. This way of working gave participants a completely fresh lens — and quickly resulted in tangible and specific recommendations.

The most surprising aspect of these recommendations is how much of the focus was on the need for new EU institutions to support the creation of closed loop textile recycling across the global value chain. One concept called for a Circular Textiles Market Authority — a centralised trading platform for textile waste and setting processing standards. Another proposal was for a Recycled Textiles Technology Agency, that could support the development of a framework for assessing innovative recycling technologies, gather relevant data and analysis, and recommend infrastructure investment strategies to public and private funders. Participants also highlighted the need for existing EU institutions — such as DG Environment or DG Trade — to use their mandates to coordinate and drive strategic cooperative trading relationships with source countries to facilitate recycling.

The scale of the challenge and coordination required to shift global markets may now require a new kind of mandate and power — one led by policymakers rather than private and voluntary bodies. These new institutions must leverage the practical experience of the industry and the specialist analysis and recommendations of technical experts — but the technical approach of industry is no longer enough. Shaking up conventional wisdom through approaches like the CPBC — and adding rather than reducing the number of institutions involved — may be the only pathway to create a system change in the fashion industry.

Laila Petrie is the Director of the specialise boutique sustainability and textile consultancy 2050. She worked as the industry partner on this project with the Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Development, University

To read more about this project access the Case Study Speeding Up the Sustainability Transition to Fibre to Fibre Textile Recycling.