New Initiatives Chase ‘Circular Economy’ in Fashion, Textiles

by | May 17, 2017

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The new Circular Fibres Initiative brings together clothing retailers H&M and Nike, philanthropic funder the C&A Foundation, and a consortium of organizations including the Danish Fashion Institute, Fashion for Good, Cradle to Cradle and MISTRA Future Fashion in order to “build a circular economy for textiles,” starting with clothing. The members will address the environmental drawbacks of the “take-make-dispose” model currently dominating the industry and attempt to create a new system for textiles based on the principles of a circular economy, generating growth that benefits citizens and businesses, while phasing out negative impacts such as waste and pollution, the organization says.

“The Circular Fibres Initiative is important because it will establish the shared agenda and deep collaboration needed to shift the apparel industry to regenerative and sustaining business models,” said Leslie Johnston, executive director of the C&A Foundation.

A similar initiative, also funded by the C&A Foundation, brings together international brands and retailers, existing industry initiatives and other stakeholders across the supply chain to form Cotton 2040. Convened by sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, with support from the C&A Foundation, the cross-industry initiative is meant to ensure that more sustainable cotton becomes a mainstream commodity.

The initiative includes leading retailers M&S and Target, industry standards Better Cotton Initiative and Cotton Made in Africa (CMiA), organic standards (represented by Textile Exchange), the Fairtrade Foundation, industry initiatives Cotton Connect, IDH, Cotton Australia, Value Added in Africa and Organic Cotton Accelerator as well as the London College of Fashion.

Through research and consultation with cotton stakeholders across the industry over 2015-2016, Cotton 2040 identified the following priority areas for action:

  1. Building demand for more sustainable cotton: enabling an increased demand for sustainable cotton within the fashion and apparel industry
  2. Closing the loop on cotton: scaling up cotton recycling and circularity
  3. Traceability: building greater visibility and transparency throughout the cotton value chain and across standards
  4. Upskilling for resilience: creating a cross-industry forum to build resilience among smallholder cotton farmers in a changing world.

The C&A Foundation claims that right now, the fashion industry isn’t working for the good of the 150 million people who make clothes. “Our preference for fast, trendy and affordable fashion leads to severe forms of just-in-time production at the lowest cost possible. It means cotton farmers handle dangerous pesticides that harm their health and the environment. Factory workers make clothes in dangerous conditions, and struggle to make ends meet with their meagre wages. Forced labour is rife but stays hidden in complex, murky supply chains,” the foundation’s website claims.

Fashion Industry Already Taking Steps toward Circular Economy

A number of clothing retailers and manufacturers have been exploring solutions to these challenges in recent years. Earlier this month, European fashion retailer C&A debuted its line of “C2C Certified” T-shirts, which the company says are made of 100% organic cotton, produced using only chemicals that are designed for safe cycling as biological nutrients, and manufactured in a socially and environmentally responsible way. The clothing line will be available for consumers beginning in June.

C2C Certified means the products have been made using safe, healthy materials designed to stay in a perpetual cycle of use and reuse – even when the consumer is finished with the product. The shirts embody the notion of a “new future,” one that includes a cycle of use, reuse and rebirth of clothing in which “the T-shirt you are wearing is in an endless cycle that does not create waste, or that it becomes nutrition for the soil at the end of its use.”

In April, Reebok announced it is bringing plant-based footwear to the market later this year in an initiative that the company says will create shoes that are “made from things that grow.” The first release will be a shoe that has an upper comprised of organic cotton and a base originating from industrial grown corn (a non-food source). While the company doesn’t expect the line to be a significant sales driver initially, the goal is to expand the range over time. “This is really just the beginning,” Bill McInnis, head of Reebok Future, told Environmental Leader.

The Reebok initiative, Cotton + Corn, focuses on all three phases of the product lifecycle. In the development phase, the company is using materials that grow and can be replenished, rather than the petroleum-based materials commonly used today. When the product hits the market, the company says it has ensured consumers won’t have to sacrifice on how sneakers look and perform. Finally, the shoes are focused on plant-based materials and are compostable at the end of the lifecycle. Ultimately, that compost will be used as part of the soil to grow the materials for the next range of shoes, the company says.

And Adidas has just announced its spring/summer 2017 Parley Hero swimsuit line, made from regenerated fishing nets and other ocean waste. Once collected, the waste goes through the Econyl Regeneration System. This program to turn waste into high-performance swim apparel was created by Aquafil. The regenerated waste still offers the same qualities as materials usually found in wider swim apparel: the garments are durable, lightweight and breathable but with the additional environmental benefits of using regenerated waste, Adidas says.

Clothing Production on the Rise

Fibers are an important part of today’s global economy, according to the Circular Fibres Initiative: clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years, with sales of footwear and apparel reaching $1.67 trillion in 2016.  Meanwhile consumers keep their clothing for half the time that they did 15 years ago. After use, only around 15% of apparel waste is collected in the US, while the remaining 85% ends up in landfill. This linear economy puts high demand on land, energy and other resources. The production and use of clothing accounts for around 3% of global CO2 emissions, and cotton production is now responsible for a quarter of worldwide insecticide use.

The Circular Fibres Initiative has a stated goal of the textile industry using only recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030.

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