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From Sustainability to Circularity, Fashion Has New Weapons in its Going-Green Arsenal

Amid growing consumer awareness of the apparel and textile industry’s environmental impact, startups are moving the needle from “talk” to “tools” with the goal of scaling sustainable best practices in fashion.

In recent years, groups like Fashion Positive, part of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, and the H&M Foundation, through its Global Change Award that honors apparel innovation in the areas of waste, digitization and climate positive advancements, have nurtured a burgeoning interest in conscious design that considers all aspects of apparel’s impact while investigating new ways to create clothing from alternative materials.

Last fall, Eileen Fisher, Gap, Guess, Levi Strauss, Nike and VF Corporation all signed onto the Science Based Targets, signaling their commitment to establish emission reduction targets consistent with global efforts to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. What’s more, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has attracted numerous high-profile apparel retailers, including Target, with its Higg Index that empowers companies to measure their sustainability performance. The coalition had a role in launching late in 2017 the Apparel Impact Institute, which made its first project focusing on improving the impact of textile mills in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean by Design program.

Now, VF Corp., denim producer Orta Anadolu and Danish mattress and bedding company Auping, have partnered with Circle Economy to develop a tool over the next year that’s expected to help fashion companies reduce their environmental footprint and build more sustainable business models. The effort is supported by C&A Foundation, which has focused on building a more sustainable cotton production model, improving on-the-job conditions for garment workers, strengthening communities where garment factories are located, and eradicating slavery and child labor from apparel supply chains. Now it’s setting its sights on circularity in fashion.

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The Circle Fashion Tool is envisioned as a digital resource that will guide fashion brands as they consider a garment’s end-of-life options, cradle-to-cradle means of reducing textile waste, and the methodology to compare the practical, economic and environmental impact of each of its options.

First and foremost, the tool will offer insight into a brand’s waste levels and help to set appropriate benchmarks so it can measure its achievements over time. The Circle Fashion Tool can also connect brands to industry partners that will help them transform ideas into action.

As launch partners, VF, Auping and Orta Anadolu are tasked with providing feedback on the Circle Fashion Tool’s features and functionality as it moves through development, offering key input on how the resource will be useful in real-life scenarios. Circle Economy plans to make the tool available for additional testing later this year.

“At VF, we believe that the linear system of production, as it works today, is not sustainable for a planet with a growing population and limited resources. For this reason, we are exploring new Circular Business Models to build better products, extend product life, transform transactions into deeper relationships, and turn waste into value,” said Anna Maria Rugarli, senior director, sustainability and responsibility, VF Corp.’s EMEA region. “In this journey toward a new way of doing business, Circle Economy is a crucial partner for us as it brings together knowledgeable people and high potential tools and projects that will support our pursuit of more circular operations.”

The U.S. alone generates 15 million tons of textile waste, an amount that has doubled annually over the past 20 years.

“Collaborations and partnerships generate transformational outcomes and we believe that the Circle Fashion Tool will create a platform for the type of circular solutions that the industry is searching for,” Orta Anadolu said in a press statement.

Circle Economy also reported that its Fibersort technology, which auto-sorts large batches of mixed post-consumer textiles based on fiber composition, is of­­ficially up and running. Fibersort is expected to reduce the need for sourcing virgin materials by creating more viable fabrics from textile-to-textile recycling. In addition, the technology increases textile recycling’s attractiveness as a business model and could grow jobs in this area of the industry. Project partners include Valvan Baling Systems, Reshare, Procotex, Worn Again and Smart Fibersorting, which are investigating end-use markets for sorted textiles, optimizing the Fibersort machine, and confirming the viability of the auto-sorting business model.

“The Fibersort will enable suppliers of post-consumer textiles to meet the feedstock specification for our process more efficiently than today’s sorting methods,” said Cyndi Rhoades, CEO of closed-loop textile recycling and design company Worn Again. “We are very optimistic that this innovation will help to provide advanced sorting capabilities for the new generation of textile to textile recycling technologies like ours and help the industry on its way to circularity.”