Thursday, 01 April 2021 03:07

A circular economy for textiles to design out waste and pollution


Europe has an opportunity to use the textiles strategy, due to be published this year, to build on its history of textile manufacturing and switch to a more sustainable industry, benefitting citizens and the environment, writes Valérie Boiten.

It’s hard to imagine a world without textiles. From the clothes we wear to the bedsheets we wake up in – we come into contact with textile fabrics nearly all the time. The textile sector, which includes the fashion industry, is marked by low rates of utilisation and low levels of recycling, leading to substantial and ever-expanding pressure on resources.

On average, European citizens discard 11kg of textiles per year, with garments typically having been worn only 7 or 8 times. At the same time, the European market has seen a sharp rise in apparel sales over the last two decades, with a 40% jump in pieces of clothing bought per person.

Both developments are mainly due to the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon, with quicker turnaround of new styles, increased number of collections and often, lower prices.

To produce fibres and fabrics, today’s textile industry largely relies on non-renewable resources, such as oil to produce synthetic fibres, fertilisers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce dye, and finish fabrics.

As much as 87% of the total fibre input is ultimately destined for landfill or incineration, with a significant amount of fibres and microfibres leaking into natural environments. Our linear economic system fails to capture our products’ and materials’ inherent value, including all the creativity, resources, labour, and energy that goes into them.

It is a wasteful system that puts pressure on resources, pollutes and degrades the natural environment, and creates significant negative societal impacts. As demand for clothing and household textiles grows, the current industry trajectory is set to have catastrophic consequences.

A new textiles economy

In recent years, the vision of a circular economy gained traction among industry leaders and policymakers. Sixty-six companies are part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, and 72 leading brands, manufacturers, and fabric mills are using our Jeans Redesign Guidelines to produce circular jeans.

The ambition of our work is to build a system that keeps materials at their highest value while regenerating the environment. In a circular economy, textile products are used more and are made to be made again, so they can be reused, remade, and ultimately recycled as a last resort.

The materials used to produce textiles are safe for human health and ecosystems and are sourced exclusively from recycled or renewable feedstocks produced through regenerative practices.

The European Commission has announced an EU Strategy for Textiles, to be released later this year, to address the current system’s negative impacts. An EU strategy can provide a common direction of travel for the industry and all relevant stakeholders on the road from linear to circular. Building a circular economy is about designing better products and services.

New business models that increase product use can strengthen European manufacturing capacities while creating significant local jobs, not only in production but also in resale, rental, repair, sorting, recycling, and indirectly through cleaning and logistics.

A policy framework to unlock a systemic transition

Four elements are key when designing an effective policy framework to create a circular economy for textiles, addressing both upstream and downstream dimensions:

  • Stimulate the design of high-quality, durable, and recyclable products

While more and more market leaders have begun to implement circular design principles, a more harmonised approach is needed to mobilise innovation and deliver the necessary change at industry scale.

The EU Textiles Strategy can set out the overarching framework for circular design in textiles, including incentives to phase out substances of concern, radically reduce microfibre leakage into aquatic and atmospheric environments, and prioritise renewable and recycled materials in manufacturing.

This framework could guide public procurement decisions when purchasing workwear and other professional textiles. Importantly, it could lay the groundwork for the development of minimum design and information requirements under the Sustainable Products Initiative, applicable across a wide range of products on the European market.

Inspiration for what “good circular design” looks like on a product level can be found in the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign Guidelines, which establish minimum criteria on the durability, material health, recyclability, and traceability of denim jeans.

  • Promote the development of business models and resource management systems that keep textiles in circulation

By deploying new infrastructure, harmonising collection systems, aligning standards to support markets for secondary materials, and preventing textiles from ending up in landfill or incineration, the EU Textiles Strategy can enable significant economic value retention and create novel business opportunities in the circulation of textile products.

Increased fibre recycling can also help mitigate climate change impacts: by reducing the sector’s reliance on virgin resources, greenhouse gas emissions could be lowered and the industry could save some of the 53 billion cubic meters of water that are used annually in manufacturing textiles purchased by EU households.

Combined with a well-designed Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, the funding for scaled operations in collection and sorting can be secured over time and tied to specific circular economy objectives, set in close collaboration with the industry players contributing into the system.

  • Align incentives and the wider ecosystem in which textile businesses operate

Circular business models are making inroads into the linear economy and have moved beyond the proof of concept. The secondhand market, currently worth $24 billion, is expected to rise to over $50 billion by 2023.

The challenge we face is to mainstream the circular economy and bring it to scale. Now is an opportune time for the EU to stimulate the market for circular business models and address regulatory barriers that may be slowing down their adoption.

For instance, by updating accounting frameworks, investing in skills and capacity-building, and creating harmonised end-of-waste criteria for used textiles to enable the trade in materials.

  • Avoid policy fragmentation

As we look to rebuild from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, an integrated approach, aligning around policy goals across sectors and local contexts, opens up opportunities for the transition to scale.

This involves addressing impacts upstream, by changing how products are designed and manufactured, and downstream, by building the systems and infrastructure to keep materials in circulation. In parallel, efforts to create economic incentives, enable investments, and reduce switching costs through public-private collaborations, will help to create a systemic fix.

With the Textiles Strategy, the EU has an opportunity to build on its textile manufacturing heritage and the longstanding tradition of quality and high value-added products. Delivering marked benefits for citizens and society, a circular textiles economy can offer an iconic blueprint of structural change.

Dressed to kill – the environmental cost of fast fashion exposed

The EU needs to introduce strict measures to slow overconsumption in the fast fashion industry and increase the recyclability of textiles in order to reach a zero waste and net zero economy by 2050, according to a new report.