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A New Circularity Roadmap Charts a More Sustainable Path Forward for Apparel

Apparel is taking a toll on the planet—and a recent report launched by Ellen MacArthur and Stella McCartney calls for collaboration on fashion circularity and offers a plan for a more sustainable industry.

The report, “A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future,” created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Fibres Initiative, said the fashion industry’s current take-make-dispose model and fast fashion approach are to blame for its negative carbon footprint.

While critiquing the fashion industry’s environmental stance, the report also outlines a circular vision expected to curb apparel pollution and harness the power of industry members. Core partners of the report, including the C&A Foundation, H&M, Lenzing and Nike, along with more than 40 influential fashion parties, contributed to the report’s fashion circularity vision. By working together on fashion circularity, brands and designers can design clothes that will last longer, be easily recycled or resold and manufactured without harmful substances and pollutants.

“What really excites me about ‘A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ is that it provides solutions to an industry that is incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment,” Stella McCartney said. “The report presents a roadmap for us to create better businesses and a better environment. It opens up the conversation that will allow us to find a way to work together to better our industry, for the future of fashion and for the future of the planet.”

Fixing what’s broken

Clothes are an everyday necessity, but, as the report argues, the fashion industry’s current quick to dispose ethos is highly toxic to the environment.

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According to the report, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned or dumped into a landfill every second—and roughly $500 billion is lost annually due to clothing that’s hardly used and not recycled back into the system. What’s more, clothes, which represent more than 60 percent of textiles used globally, release half a million tons of microfibers into bodies of water each year—potentially harming marine animals and human food chains.

The report said the average number of times a garment is worn before being discarded or reused has decreased 36 percent compared to 15 years ago, while worldwide, consumers waste $460 billion each year by discarding clothes they could have continued to use.

Fashion’s linear system also uses large amounts of resources—and the lack of conserving resources is harming people and the planet. According to the report, less than 1 percent of material used to manufacture clothing is recycled into new apparel—demonstrating a loss of more than $100 billion in materials each year. Since the industry mostly uses non-renewable resources—98 million tons in total each year—this waste puts pressure on available resources and results in mass pollution. The report argues that if the industry continues this path, it will use up to a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

[Read more on circularity: Report: The Industry Has the Circularity Concept All Wrong—And What Companies Can Do to Get It Right]

Getting to a circular economy

Despite fashion’s unsustainable presence, industry members and consumers have recognized that a more circular business model is necessary to improve the environment. The report suggests a new vision for fashion—one that embraces circular textiles and complements ongoing environmental efforts to curb apparel pollution.

The report’s circular textiles economy is based on four ambitions—phasing out substances of concern and microfiber release, transforming the way clothes are designed, sold and used to minimize disposal, radically improving recycling by transforming apparel clothing, design, collection and reprocessing, and making effective use of resources while moving to renewable inputs.

Phasing out substances of concern and microfiber release would ensure that apparel production and after-use phases are not harming people or the environment. The report suggests this is possible in two ways—by aligning industry efforts and coordinating innovations to eliminate hazardous substances and minimizing plastic microfiber release shed by clothing.

Fast fashion could be hindering the industry’s sustainability progress, but brands and designers can transform the way clothes are designed, sold and used to reduce disposal. Scaling up short-term clothing rental and providing consumers with the option to change up their outfits without buying new ones could boost apparel circularity. Increasing the appeal of durability could also curb apparel waste and encourage consumers to purchase more higher quality garments. Tailoring brand commitments and policy to promote clothing utilization provides another solution to apparel waste and encourages industry members to practice universal sustainability guidelines.

Radically improving clothing recycling could also serve to speed up fashion circularity. According to the report, four demand and supply-side measures will foster innovation in clothing recycling, including aligning clothing design and recycling processes, pursuing technology innovations to improve the economics of apparel recycling, heightening demand for recycled materials in the supply chain and boosting clothing collection on a global scale.

In addition to these measures, moving to renewable inputs and effectively using resources could support a more sustainable fashion path. If virgin material inputs are required, the report suggested that they come from renewable resources—including plastic-based fibers and regenerative agriculture. While supporting renewable inputs, the industry can also transition to a more effective manufacturing process that requires less waste, reduced inputs of resources and minimized water use.

Fashion circularity requires major collaborative efforts by industry members to move forward. With a system-based approach, industry members can act together to prototype and scale apparel sustainability practices on a global level. Large scale, cross-value chain demonstrator projects, including city-wide recycling collection efforts and joint implementation of design and material selection could advance fashion circularity over the next few years.

“This ground-breaking report lays the foundation for a new mindset and creates a shared vision for a circular fashion industry,” H&M Group CEO Karl-Johan Persson, said. “It’s a call for action for systemic collaborations and is aligned with our efforts in making sure that economic and social development can happen in a way that the planet can afford.”