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What’s Holding Circularity Back? Consumer Bias, Sorting Issues Play a Role

As many as 60 percent of apparel companies are focusing their efforts on designing and creating their products with reuse in mind, while another 50 percent reduce resources used to produce raw materials, according to a recent survey from Sourcing Journal and Cotton Incorporated. But while the industry is actively doing more to make circularity a priority, there’s still not enough investment in post-consumer recycling, leading to significant pileup and waste in factories and stores.

Although recycling is one of the basic building blocks to circularity, it remains perhaps its biggest challenge for a variety of reasons that can be broken into social/cultural, technical and financial terms, according to Hilde van Duijn, senior project manager circle textiles, Circle Economy.

From a cultural standpoint, consumers have to be re-educated.

“There’s a negative perception on recycled content,” van Duijn said during Sourcing Journal’s Recycling: Circularity’s Weak Link webinar. “Very often, consumers would see recycled content as if it has a lower value than virgin alternatives. In recent years, there has not [been] that much urgency to address or investigate what could be done with post-consumer textiles, but recently we do see a shift both from the private sector as well as government.”

Steve Hoffman, partner, McKinsey & Company, cited that a lot of this perception comes from consignment and thrift store shopping, which can create biases among consumers before they really understand that products made from recycled fibers aren’t dirty or inferior to newer garments.

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“My view is you’re going to have to have some type of incentive to start to get that adoption,” Hoffman said. “It could come in the form of a government incentive or local incentive, but we’re really going to have to break down and overcome a lot of the underlying biases that people have.”

Sorting complicates the recycling process

Van Duijn also cited the “ever-changing composition” and the unknown origin of post-consumer textiles as barriers to recycling. In the case of the latter, companies will have difficulty repurposing garments if they continue to add certain chemicals in the production process that make the product harder to recycle.

Many of these products also have parts like zippers, buttons and other accessories that prevent the textile itself from being recyclable. Additionally, the benefits to collecting and sorting these used textiles simply don’t outweigh the costs yet, limiting the pool of upcycled textiles to hit the market.

“There’s still quite a big chunk of all these textiles that have no valuable destination,” van Duijn said.

Van Duijn said more than half of all discarded garments are not suitable for the secondhand market because they are broken, dirty or out of fashion.

But recycling them is also a challenge because 41 percent of all product labels inaccurately display the fiber composition of the garments, according to Circle Economy. In that case, there’s no way to accurately sort those garments for mechanical recycling.

“The good news is that there are chemical recyclers out there that are looking at recycling these materials that currently have no destinations, very often because they have synthetics in them,” van Duijn said. “But the main disadvantage of chemical recyclers is they are simply not there yet at scale.”

Cotton Incorporated survey reveals gap in circularity perception

During the webinar, Melissa Bastos, director, corporate strategy and insights at Cotton Incorporated, indicated there is still a gap between how the industry perceives circularity initiatives compared to what consumers know about the concept and how they define it. According to a Cotton Incorporated consumer survey, 68 percent of shoppers have never even heard of circularity as a sustainability initiative, while 57 percent can’t define circularity as it relates to fashion.

“The largest percent who responded with a definition was about 16 percent and they perceived it to mean the circularity of fashion trends,” Bastos said. “Only about five percent of the respondents really understood the term in the context we’re discussing it.”

Bastos noted that nearly three out of 10 shoppers said they’d be willing to pay more for responsibly made products. Instead, the top purchase drivers historically have been price, fit, comfort, quality, durability and style—all of which have not changed even as sustainability in apparel has become more important from a consumer perspective.

She did point out that consumers could approach apparel purchasing as more of a long-term investment since quality and variability have become more important to them, which aligns well with the industry’s circularity push. Additionally, consumers are hearing and learning more about today’s environmental concerns, which could help them down the line have a better idea of what circularity means in fashion.

“The visibility of environmental issues related to fashion like the persistence of synthetic micro-fibers in waterways, even connections between climate change and deforestation with some of the rayons and concerns about landfill overcrowding,” Bastos said. “Consumers are becoming more aware of these issues overall and that absolutely could play a role in what they should be purchasing. How that will align with what they afford, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Madewell tackles the issue from a variety of angles

Getting consumers involved and educated has been a main thrust of Madewell’s initial circularity-related efforts. Liz Hershfield, senior vice president of sourcing, supply chain and sustainability at Madewell, noted that her company has a laser focus on denim circularity since it’s one of the “most challenging items to produce sustainably.”

In 2014, Madewell partnered with Cotton Incorporated on a program called “Blue Jeans Go Green,” which lets customers donate old pairs of denim to be recycled as housing insulation for partners such as Habitat for Humanity. And last year, the retailer began a partnership with ThredUp to offer a curated selection of gentlyworn pieces for resale.

When it comes to incorporating recycled material into its products, Madewell has had “a lot of trial and error.” To date, the brand has created a packable puffer, a raincoat and swimwear from recycled plastic. Hershfield said Madewell hasn’t made the strides it would like to in this area because it’s “a constant challenge on our end, with our team, to find the right materials that we can fit into our collection, that we know are going to be great products that are made from post consumer.”

COVID-19 slows circularity adoption

Madewell’s decisions are a good example of circularity done right, but the industry doesn’t collectively see more of these changes happening in the near term. According to the Sourcing Journal/Cotton Incorporated survey, 60 percent of apparel companies say that it will take more than five years for the industry to adopt circular practices.

COVID-19 certainly takes its share of the blame for this, said Hoffman.

“The vast majority of apparel, whether its brands, retailers, wholesalers or others in the supply chain are struggling with their own top lines as well as cash,” Hoffman said. “That’s putting strains on the breadth and depth of the level of investments they’re willing to stand behind right now.”

Watch the webinar, sponsored by Cotton Incorporated, to learn:

  • How Madewell thinks about designing in circularity
  • Specific circularity efforts the industry is collectively focused on
  • The complexities that exist in chemical fiber sorting
  • How local and federal governments can become “waste managers” to assist the apparel industry
  • Where investors see the most opportunity to fund new technologies that push recycling initiatives
  • Where consumers show concerns on sustainability across the industry, and how they have been affected by COVID-19

Click here to watch this webinar now. And check out our other webinars on Sustainable Sourcing Post-COVID-19 and Denim Re-Fashioned.