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What Does Fashion Need to Scale Circular Models? Data—and Partnerships

Moving away from the take, make, waste model is going to require fashion to build a more circular, collaborative supply chain.

During a panel discussion at Texworld USA on July 22, moderated by Tricia Carey, director of global business for apparel at Lenzing, experts stressed the importance of sharing input and information across the production cycle to enable post-consumer garments to have a second life.

“We actually joke about the fact that circularity is a team sport, because you can’t do it alone,” said Karla Magruder, president and founder of Accelerating Circularity. “Not only in your supply network, but really to make this move, I think one of the most important things we could relay today is that everybody has to be involved, because we’re going to need everybody to provide information and data, and we’re missing so much of that that’s going to allow circularity to really commercialize at scale.”

Some of the data that needs to be more accessible includes the exact type of fiber content in a garment, as well as what dyes and chemical finishes were used.

As post-consumer products become inputs, fashion brands should consider how they are manufacturing to support circularity. One of the easiest ways to make clothing more recyclable is by using single-fiber textiles. While blends are popular, they are more difficult to process.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign program is starting from the source by laying out production guidelines for its partner brands and mills to create denim that is ideal for recycling. Among the standards for the initiative are jeans with at least a 98 percent material purity of cellulosic fibers. The nonprofit also outlines qualities such as durability that can reduce the impact of denim.

Similarly, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is an independent nonprofit that certifies products that meet benchmarks for material safety and ability for material reuse, among other factors. To maintain momentum and progress, C2C only enables companies to stay at its lowest bronze tier for two years.

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Accelerating Circularity, meanwhile, is centered on diverting textile waste from landfills. According to Magruder, one of the hurdles in advancing recycling is raising the capacities and technical capabilities of collectors and sorters.

Circulating value

Circularity can actually be an economic driver. According to research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry is missing out on $500 billion due to clothing being underused or discounted too early. This added value can be unlocked through activities including resale and rentals.

Moving away from a linear business model also means more value is spread throughout the supply chain, creating a “supply network.”

Dr. Christina Raab, vice president of strategy and development, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, sees the potential for a redefinition of value via partnerships as well as a greater focus on how the circular economy fits into broader sustainability goals.

“With the circular thinking, in particular in the repositioning now in the reset, many companies are really looking for those innovations that might help them stand apart, or find new interesting partners who are being different in terms of aspects for the consumers,” said Raab. “So we really think that through the circular economy, innovation will come more and more into the spotlight, which will also help to come back better after the pandemic.”

In a poll taken during the session, 60 percent of the audience said their company has initiatives around circularity.

Partnerships can help to ramp up adoption of circularity mandates. For instance, Jeans Redesign found it easier to onboard denim brands and retailers to the project once they saw their suppliers had already signed up.

But outside of joining commitments or pledges, the panelists stressed the importance of action at a corporate level.

“I think what we need is really that aspect of how does it fit within the company strategy. Let’s take short-term action to progress, and let’s not let perfection get in the way of progress,” said Francois Souchet, lead, Make Fashion Circular, at Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “I think there’s also the aspect sometimes that can be a bit daunting when companies are saying to look at topics like the circular economy is that it’s very fast, there’s loads of things to do. And actually, it can have an aspect that paralyzes a little bit, and that shouldn’t be the case. I think progress is better than inaction.”