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Has the Apparel Industry Actually Gotten Past Circularity as a Buzzword?

The apparel industry is good at buzzwords. In the past three years it’s gone from omnichannel to disruption to digitalization as the words du jour. Now the word of the moment seems to be circularity, which begs the question: is this just another buzzword or are companies making meaningful strides with this closed loop concept?

The answer, for a handful of companies (and growing), appears to be the latter.

Most companies and consumers now understand that the world is overusing its resources and that the planet likely won’t survive decades more of the status quo.

Opening a panel on the importance of the circular economy at Texworld USA Tuesday, Sourcing Journal senior editor Arthur Friedman referenced a startling fact the European Commission’s Kristine Dorosko shared at Texworld Paris in September.

“We are currently living on 1.6 planets,” Dorosko said, explaining that the products we’re producing, the waste they’re yielding and all of the other resources being used and discarded globally, amount to using upward of half a planet more than the one we currently have. “We are using 10 times more natural resources than 100 years ago.”

That’s one reason brands are embracing ways to be more circular and startups are building themselves up on the basis of closing the loop to begin with.

For global fiber producer Lenzing, which has always had sustainability at the forefront of its efforts, launching its Refibra lyocell fiber was that extra step to really close the loop. The Refibra fiber is made using post-industrial cotton waste that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill, making it into a pulp and blending it with wood pulp. The solvent Lenzing uses in the process is reused at a rate of 99.5%, which closes the loop on the whole process. Inditex was Lenzing’s first partner for Refibra, and the company incorporated the fiber into clothing for its Zara stores.

“We feel this is a first step in a journey of addressing all this textile waste,” said Tricia Carey, Lenzing’s director of global business development for denim. “Our first step is to work with post industrial waste, and we want to do more in developing post-consumer because we feel that’s a direction the market’s going in.”

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Post-consumer textile waste is precisely where Noor Zakka, founder of denim brand Noorism, sources the materials for her line. The brand is entirely based on upcycling old jeans.

“Everything we do is based on post-consumer jeans that have been discarded and are basically deconstructed and used as fabric,” Zakka said.

With the average U.S. citizen throwing away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles each year, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, Noorism hardly hurts for raw materials.

“I don’t see any purpose in using new materials when there’s so much that already exists in the world,” Zakka said. “The fashion industry currently produces more and more materials and clothing than…it did even 10 years ago. With the rise of fast fashion there’s so much product being produced, people wear it once and it ends up in a landfill.”

Landfills are Jessica Schreiber’s biggest competition.

The founder of FabScrap is on a mission to divert textile waste recovered in the design process from landfills. For now, FabScrap is only reclaiming design office textile waste in New York City, but what they collect is either resold at low cost to students and designers, or shredded for insulation. The startup is currently working with more than 100 brands, big and small, and in 2017 FabScrap diverted 70,000 pounds of textile waste from landfills.

What Schreiber has noticed, however, is that the conversation between FabScrap and the companies seeking to participate in the project never happens at the C-level.

It’s “usually a person who is heartbroken that they’re throwing away so much stuff, so it’s really bottom up,” she said.

So what’s it going to take to get that bottom up thinking to permeate more brands? Education at the design stage.

“It’s important to invest in the innovation around sustainability, but more importantly, I think it’s that designers need to design into circularity,” Carey said. “When you’re looking at fibers you have to look at the raw materials. Then you have to look at the processing. Then you have to look at what happens when the consumer is done with it. As designers and product developers, we need to look at that whole picture of what happens to the garment. Now we have to get into a way of thinking of the next life for textiles.”

Adding to that, Celeste Lilore, director of industry engagement for Textile Exchange, an organization working to advance sustainable efforts across the apparel and textile industry, said it’s also about making a business case for sustainability.

If you have reduced water, reduced emissions, reduced chemicals and you can illustrate how much you’re saving and how much those resources actually cost, she said, it will start to register with the C-suite that sustainability is worth more than just a figurative gold star with conscious consumers.

Further, Lilore said, “We think it [circularity] will be accelerated by the Internet and the transparency it affords.”