Apparel industry insiders agree on the need for circularity. But to truly move the needle, firms must transition from individual efforts to collaboration to share costs and change the fashion system.
A report from Sourcing Journal, based on a survey of soft goods professionals, found that 52 percent of respondents’ companies are already focusing on circularity. An additional 36 percent do not currently have a plan in place, but are working to develop strategies in this area.
While environmental concerns topped the reasons for chasing circularity for 75 percent of respondents, 54 percent cited wanting to be a better corporate citizen and 38 percent noted the benefit of being able to market their green commitments.
“[For] the average brand out there, the DNA is all about looking good, feeling good, but it’s not about doing good for society at large. And that needs to change,” Aditya Awtani, CEO of the garment division at Dubai-based manufacturer Neelkamal International, said in the report.
Making circularity a reality will require a complete overhaul of the current business model that chases profit through cost-cutting measures. The constant need for quarterly, short-term growth makes long-term investment in sustainability more of a stretch.
One-third of respondents believe that brands hold the most responsibility for creating circular momentum. But reducing waste in the fashion system is going to take more than efforts by individual companies, since no one firm has the necessary capital to back the research and development needed.
The majority of firms might be moving towards circularity, but they are aiming at different aspects of waste reduction. Some are homing in on recycling goods into new salable products or creating inputs using recycled materials. Meanwhile, about half are committed to reducing the resources used in the manufacturing process.
This lack of unity in their approaches, priorities and goals is hampering sustainable development.
There is also an untapped opportunity to enact change on a policy level, with 14 percent of respondents pointing to governing bodies as those with the greatest obligation when it comes to circularity.
“The first thing that companies can do actually is lobbying governments to enact policies that redefine waste. We need to be looking at waste as a raw material,” said Matthew Guenther, corporate sustainability manager for an apparel manufacturer. “If we can redefine that, that opens up a lot more incentive for companies to make material that isn’t meant to be just disposed of.”
After brands, those surveyed place the responsibility for circularity on consumers’ shoulders, with 17 percent naming the end user as the driving force for change.
Sustainable development is up against ingrained consumer behavior. More than half of respondents believe consumers are extremely or very interested in recycled and upcycled products. Yet they still see shoppers reaching for inexpensive fast fashion, making it more difficult to justify or calculate demand for higher-priced, sustainably produced garments.
One potential solution is heightened transparency, which could enable consumers to more easily differentiate between products’ ecological impact.
Additionally, while labels can do everything in their power to reduce waste, they ultimately have limited say in what happens to products after consumers have purchased them. Educating shoppers about alternatives to discarding clothing, such as secondhand sales and repairs, could save more textiles from landfills.
Aside from changing consumer behavior, scaling up post-consumer recycling is a challenge. Respondents cite issues in both collecting and processing used goods. One-fifth of executives noted that their firms have no plans to use recycled inputs, with some attributing this decision to a lack of reliable supply chain infrastructure for these materials.
Additionally, among the 67 percent of companies that are incorporating recycled materials into new goods, a plurality (40 percent) say that reused inputs represent 20 percent or less of their lines, compared to just 19 percent who use them in 60 percent or more of their collections. This is partly because of the challenge of sourcing certain inputs, such as recycled trims.
Quality comes first
Even before recycling, unlocking circularity begins with producing quality goods. In light of this, six in 10 of those surveyed are developing products with reuse in mind.
Creating durable designs means that consumers can hold onto them for longer. Then, at the end of their lifespan, these garments are better positioned to be repurposed to minimize waste.
Given the challenges and development still needed within other areas of circularity, raw material quality is also something that brands can more easily work toward today.
“In order for something to be recycled, refurbished, remanufactured, reused, redistributed, maintained and prolonged [or] regenerated, you have to have good materials and good design—simple design and quality materials,” said Andrea Price, manager of fabric R&D for knits at Gap.
Learn more about the report findings, the perspective of Awtani, Guenther and Price, as well as possible solutions that could move the industry forward. Download Sourcing Journal’s 2020 Circularity Survey Report here.