The Eileen Fisher Foundation commissioned a report to support the apparel industry to confront the climate crisis. Authored by Pentatonic, it focuses on the issue of textile waste and how circularity can be leveraged to effectively address it.
It is no longer a question of if the industry will adopt circular strategies but how. The latest IPCC Report, the starkest yet, warns that without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors in the next three years, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach.
The quantity of clothing entering the market has expanded rapidly over the last decade with 150 billion new clothing items produced annually. Currently, the volume of clothing produced and discarded is growing at a faster rate than recycling facilities can process.
In addition, highly recyclable or compostable materials only represent a nominal share of the overall market. Textile waste is a global issue, with the negative environmental and socio-economic consequences of overproduction and consumption already widespread.
Beyond textile waste, the industry is also struggling to keep its emissions in check. Notably, the fashion industry is the third highest producer of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Quantis estimates that apparel makes up 6.7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, rising to 8% when footwear is included, which is almost four times the estimated emissions from the airline sector.
The fashion industry is failing to meet the 1.5˚C target outlined in the United Nations Paris Agreement by a staggering 50%, placing the industry on a 3˚C trajectory.
A key principle of the circular economy focuses on eliminating waste and keeping materials in circulation at their highest value. By promoting existing infrastructure, rapidly upscaling emerging technologies and pushing for circular business models that genuinely reduce consumption, stakeholders can drive forward collective change.
Based on the research collected from over 50 interviews with prominent cross-sector stakeholders and a comprehensive literature review, this report seeks to uncover common barriers inhibiting progress and propose tangible, actionable recommendations specific to each group.
Why circularity is an urgent need
According to the authors of the report, when it comes to sustainability, about one third of the fashion industry has yet to take action at all. With total clothing sales expected to reach 160 million tonnes by 2050 – more than three times today’s amount, the urgency for change towards sustainability is only obvious.
The industry in 2018 produced 2.1 billion tonnes CO2eq. This represents 4% of global carbon emissions – an emissions share larger than that of France, Germany and UK combined. A report published by the European Regional Development Fund explained that from the 47 targets set in 2017 by brands for 2020, merely 11% of them were achieved by July 2019.
To achieve a step change in sustainability through innovation by 2030, the fashion industry needs US$ 20-30 billion of financing per year to develop and commercialise disruptive solutions and business models that will meet shifting consumer preferences and regulatory pressures.
To stay within a 1.5 degree pathway as recommended by the Intergovernmenal Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the fashion industry also needs to bring the share of mechanically recycled (or equivalent) fibre or filament within the polyester market from 14% to 90% by 2030.
Utilising current textile-to-textile recycling technologies itself can deliver a 75% increase to circularity in the industry. Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing.
The following eight points represent the most important overarching actions to promote a systemic transformation in the fashion industry to tackle the growing problem of textile waste. The report suggests that all eight priority actions must be pursued simultaneously in order to achieve timely net-zero emission goals.
- Scale collection and sorting infrastructure
To unlock the huge potential of textile-to-textile recycling, large scale investment is needed globally throughout the value chain, but particularly in collection and sorting. Funding and optimising these operations enables all other technologies to scale at the necessary rate and benefits all levels of a functioning circular economy from resale, repair and recycling. Private investment plays a central role to deliver the scale of investment required. Government legislation can help expand current capabilities, create demand for high quality feedstock and require brands to contribute, while incentivising citizen partnership.
- Invest in recycling infrastructure
To mitigate future textile waste from entering the landfill or incinerator, fashion players need to concentrate their efforts on supporting both existing and emerging recycling facilities. Enabling textile recyclers to rapidly scale proven technologies from pilot stage to commercial scale will help minimise global textile waste from entering the landfill or becoming a product of lesser value. Private investment again plays a central role to deliver the scale of investment required.
- Reduce production and consumption
The current pace of production is not sustainable. Brands need to scrutinise their current global footprint or risk financial and reputational decline. Citizens also have a part to play in shifting to circular systems and ways of engaging with fashion. Reducing consumption will help companies break free from conventional approaches to fashion and embrace new circular revenue streams.
- Establish comprehensive cross-sector collaboration
Achieving circularity will be beyond any one stakeholder – rather it will require fashion businesses, suppliers, investors, governments, citizens and all other participants to work together to deliver well functioning systems. Few brands have started to incorporate circular initiatives, however these remain marginal parts of a linear system. Looking ahead, as citizens become more active in demanding circularity and policy evolves to favour those businesses, brands will need to rapidly launch circular models aimed at recapturing and reusing existing products and materials.
Interviews with 51 prominent stakeholders revealed that 76% of all interviewees cited the importance of collaboration in achieving circularity.
- Design for durability and recycling
Creating products within a circular economy requires a new, holistic approach to design. Longevity and recyclability are key. Quality garments built to last as long as possible need to be produced with materials capable of longer life spans, constructed in ways suited to repair if appropriate and ultimately in ways that make recycling or composing viable when the garment reaches its end-of-life. Encouraging a new generation of designers to work with these considerations front of mind offers an opportunity for collectors, sorters, recyclers to transform textile waste into new revenue streams or valuable materials. This process will require equal involvement from all stakeholders. Governments can kickstart this process through mandatory product warranties, or repair services, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes which require companies to pay for the collection, sorting and recycling of clothing they put on the market, and subsidising preferred fibres.
- Promote industry standardisation and universal definitions
Government legislation can help regulate industry standards for investors and consumers to easily navigate and compare brand efforts. This will ensure brand accountability and diminish the probability of greenwashing. For brands leading the way in circular initiatives, standardisation will provide a unique opportunity to publicly demonstrate their encouraging progress. Standardisation will provide enhanced motivation for brands due to the potential risk of losing informed customers willing to make alternative choices. It could also foster smoother cross-sector collaboration with all stakeholders working from the same criteria and universal terminology.
- Divest from fossil fuels
Divesting from fossil fuel is essential for the fashion industry to achieve net-zero emissions and a net positive circular economy. Brands that do so will have a competitive advantage in the mid and long term, and positively impact many of the other critical aspects of circularity. Brands with outsourced supply chains must support their partners’ transition to renewable energy while reflecting on procurement practices which bring their goods to market. Furthermore, scrutinising fossil fuel fibres used within their products and packaging, seeking appropriate alternatives or investing in solutions to handle synthetic textile waste will help mitigate the impacts of their use.
- Change the metrics of success
A circular economy is regenerative by design. Defining its success will need to be framed not only through financial metrics but by the improved health of communities and the ecosystems – measured through triple bottom line accounting. By valuing waste as a resource, calculating materials’ true environmental and social costs and decoupling growth from resource consumption, companies should expect a complete overhaul of their business operations. Bold commitments with clear implementation strategies will help businesses, governments and investors navigate new ESG goals.
Circularity when viewed as a whole has the potential to revolutionise the fashion industry and create impactful, positive change for people, planet and profit. Everyone has a role to play when it comes to minimising and better utilising textile waste. From brands to citizens, investors to governments, the final destination of textile waste needs to evolve beyond the landfill. Companies committed to embracing circularity will become leaders in the industry and demonstrate that sustainability can be more than just a marketing buzzword.