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Why Fashion Brands Missed One-Third of Circularity Goals This Year

Brands and retailers involved in an industry initiative to boost circularity in fashion have missed more than one-third of their 2020 goals, according to a “final” update published last week by the Global Fashion Agenda.

Three years ago, the Danish think tank rallied nearly 90 brands and retailers, including Adidas, Asos, H&M, Nike, Reformation, Zara owner Inditex and luxury conglomerate Kering, to establish short-term targets for improving circular product design, expanding clothing and footwear take-back, increasing the use of post-consumer textile fibers and adopting resale models.

As the year draws to a close, however, the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment’s signatories have achieved only 132 of the 207 objectives they’ve set for themselves—or 64 percent of their original ambition—revealing the gap that often yawns between intent and results.

“Reaching almost two-thirds of the targets is an amazing achievement and goes beyond our expectations, both when we initiated the 2020 Commitment and when taking the recent global developments into consideration,” Jonas Eder-Hansen, public affairs director at GFA, said in a statement. “But we still have a lot of work to do to accelerate the pace of change.”

The most successful targets, with nearly 70 percent fulfillment, revolved around creating circular design guidelines and teaching product design teams about zero-waste techniques.

Tommy Hilfiger, for example, delivered a circular design training program to 129 of their designers globally and an additional 184 product associates, including product developers and merchandisers, over the past year. Together with its parent, PVH Corp., the brand will be developing indicators for a circular design framework. It also plans to create a more standardized scoring methodology for circular products, which it says will help with industry alignment.

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Signatories fell short in areas that required larger supply-chain changes, such as increasing the volume of used garments and footwear collected (56 percent of targets achieved), increasing the volume of used garments and footwear resold (62 percent) and increasing their share of products made from post-consumer recycled materials (67 percent).

One question is how much priority brands and retailers are affording circularity. According to the report, most signatories designated between one and five employees to spend one to three hours per week on the implementation of the targets.

But roadblocks also abound, including many that are less surmountable than others, brands and retailers said. The Covid-19 pandemic, in particular, has disrupted efforts to plan and execute resale activities, which require adding processes such as sorting, reviewing, washing and mending to existing logistics flows. Handling returns, too, they added, is still time-consuming and costly, since they’re largely conducted manually.

While signatories demonstrated a strong interest in transitioning from the extraction of virgin or non-recyclable materials to utilizing waste from production or other industries, current incentives for undertaking this shift are “rather weak” because virgin materials are so much cheaper, the report noted. Virgin and recycled fibers are not fungible, either, which requires more time in research and development.

“Finding the right balance between [the] shade of the fabric and general look after wash is the most difficult part when working with post-consumer waste cotton,” said Nicolai Ulrik Thorup, brand buying manager at Jack & Jones. “Both color and tear strength are different from virgin cotton, so tests and developments are done in close corporation with our manufacturers before we have the best results.”

Another obstacle, brands and retailers told the GFA, is the dearth of ready-to-scale textile-to-textile recycling technologies that can break down blended materials. Companies are currently hampered in their ability to trace the provenance of the fibers and monitor their chemical composition to ensure a product’s safety. Several signatories said they faced challenges in terms of the availability of post-consumer textile streams that met their quality, cost and logistical requirements, which were exacerbated by Covid-19, as well as regional barriers to trade and regulations on waste streams that can stymie material flows for breaking down into feedstock.

There have been some bright spots this year, including heavier investments from signatories into promising innovations with the potential to scale, such as Infinited Fiber and Circulose by Renewcell. This year also saw a slate of consumer-facing initiatives and online and in-store campaigns to educate consumers about responsible clothing disposal, garment care, upcycling and repair. In 2019 alone, Nudie Jeans repaired 63,300 pairs of its jeans. Collaborations between established brands and resale platforms, including Burberry x The RealReal, Nordstrom x Trove and Reebok x ThredUp, have similarly taken off.

Still, greater industry alignment and collaboration remain vital, Francois Souchet, Make Fashion Circular lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said at a press briefing last week. The 2020 Commitment’s signatories, for instance, represent just 12.5 percent of the global fashion market.

There’s also the matter of overconsumption and overproduction, he said.

“Today we look at the success of companies mostly through growth, in terms of volume, in terms of sales,” Souchet said. “What we feel is going to be very important…is to change the way in which we measure success, to look at how much use companies can get out of the products they put on the market. Because we can look at reducing the margin of impact of our products, but if fundamentally we keep making more of those, that’s a losing battle.”