Circular Fibers Report Calls for a New Textiles Economy

Credit: Alp Allen Altiner

by | Dec 1, 2017

textiles circular economy clothing sustainability

Credit: Alp Allen Altiner

Every second, humanity trashes or burns enough clothing to fill a garbage truck, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In response, this week the foundation’s Circular Fibers Initiative released a sustainability report calling for a new textiles economy. Industry giants like H&M and Nike back the report, which proposes a new system based on circular economy principles, according to Refinery29.

The report begins with stark statistics to make the case for why industry-wide coordination and action will be necessary. So much gets wasted that companies are practically tossing their money directly into landfills.

“Less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing, representing a loss of more than $100 billion worth of materials each year,” according to the Circular Fibers Initiative. Even though some countries, like Germany, have high collection rates for textile reuse and recycling, most of the clothing collected gets exported to countries that have no collection infrastructure of their own, the report notes.

Environmental Effects

The textiles industry primarily utilizes non-renewable resources that amount to 98 million metric tons total every year, the report says. Those resources include oil for synthetic fibers, fertilizers to grow cotton, and the chemicals used to manufacture, dye, and finish fibers and textiles.

Emissions are also a major problem for the industry. In 2015, the report says, greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production totaled 1.2 billion metric ton of CO2 equivalent, which was more than the emissions from all international flights and maritime shipping combined that year.

These practices aren’t just environmentally unsustainable. They’re financially unsustainable, too. “The Pulse of the fashion industry report projects that, by 2030, fashion brands would see a decline in earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) margins of more than three percentage points, if they were to continue business as usual,” the Circular Fibers Initiative says. “This would translate into a profit reduction of approximately $52 billion for the industry.”

Circular Economy Solutions

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that its vision for the future, while distinct, complements existing efforts to make the textiles system sustainable.

The report highlights these four ambitions for a new textiles economy:

  1. Phase out substances of concern and microfiber release. Areas of action: aligning industry efforts and coordinating innovation to create safe material cycles; drastically reducing plastic microfiber release.
  2. Transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature. Areas of action: scaling up short-term clothing rental; making durability more attractive; increasing clothing utilization further through brand commitments and policy.
  3. Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing. Areas of action: aligning clothing design and recycling processes; pursuing technological innovation to improve the economics and quality of recycling; stimulating demand for recycled materials; implementing clothing collection at scale
  4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs. In other words, using renewable feedstock for plastic-based fibers and regenerative agriculture to produce any renewable resources.

Moving the needle that far requires characteristics that support system shifts. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s research shows that these are the key characteristics:

  • Alignment on the case for change
  • A positive vision for a new system
  • Broad stakeholder buy-in and time-bound commitments to a vision-led transformation
  • Demonstration that the vision is possible, with large-scale, pre-competitive, cross value-chain collaboration
  • Unprecedented levels of collaboration and alignment in areas of action

“Some of them are already partially in place in the textiles industry,” the report notes.

H&M and Nike were core partners for the publication. “This ground-breaking report lays the foundation for a new mindset and creates a shared vision for a circular fashion industry,” Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M Group, said in a press release.

“At Nike, we are pursuing new business models that move away from the take, make, and waste linear models of the past,” Cyrus Wadia, VP, sustainable business and innovation at Nike said in a press release. “Our success depends not only on the work within our own value chain, but on disruptive partnerships across a broader textile production and manufacturing ecosystem.”

We are accepting submissions for the 2018 Environmental Leader Awards. The final deadline is December 15, 2017. Learn more here.

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