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Report: The Industry Has the Circularity Concept All Wrong—And What Companies Can Do to Get It Right

Circularity has been among the latest of the industry’s buzzwords, the thing that’s expected to save the environment from the apparel industry, but many companies are only making short-term efforts when it comes to waste management in particular.

According to a recent Greenpeace report, the over consumption of textiles is the industry’s biggest problem. The solution, according to the report, is for companies to slow the flow of materials and implement long-term waste prevention solutions to minimize waste altogether.

What’s wrong with circularity right now

While only focusing on circularity from the downstream up, some companies are convinced that clothes could be “infinitely recycled” and that their “sustainable materials mix” could be a saving grace for the industry’s greater pollution problem. However, according to Greenpeace, the industry aims to double its use of polyester by 2030—without ensuring that these recycled materials will lead to complete circularity in the future.

Turning recycled materials, like plastic bottles, into “eco-friendly” materials only partially solves the world’s waste problems. What Greenpeace found was that this “closed loop” system fails to hold the beverage and food industry accountable for its single use plastic and consider the potential for recycling textile waste. Textile pollution, including polyester’s reliance on fossil fuels and its effect on wildlife, is not being fully addressed in current circularity models.

What’s more, little is so far solving the problem of overconsumption. Many garments today are designed as fast fashion items that don’t last long and are very often discarded in landfills. A recent Greenpeace report found that 80 percent of clothes are thrown out in the EU, namely because of unsustainable consumer habits. The industry has contributed to consumers buying clothes, wearing them a few times and throwing them away when seasons or trends change. The only way to reduce the amount of textile waste in landfills worldwide, according to Greenpeace, is for the whole notion of circularity to involve consumers and help affect a change in their purchasing decisions, like urging them to buy less and pursue more sustainable alternatives for what they wear.

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[Read more on fashion sustainability initiatives: Can Performance and Sustainability Coexist in Apparel?]

Creating a new direction for fashion circularity

Focusing on the whole life cycle of clothing and textiles, rather than tackling individual parts, could be a better move for the industry, Greenpeace said.

Designing for longer life and promoting extended use of clothing could slow down the material flow by minimizing purchases and tackling fashion’s environmental challenges. Companies can issue longer warranties, make higher quality clothes that are more durable and repairable, and create services that promote more re-use.

Smaller fashion brands are serving as an example of how this shift could be beneficial. Unlike larger retailers, these brands foster the emotional durability of apparel and create a culture that prolongs garments’ use through style, function and fit.

Changes in business models could also support a better circularity system for apparel. Business concepts could shift to focus on how garments are produced, sold, shared, repaired and reused. This could help facilitate traceability of materials and waste collected from apparel, and it would involve consumers in closing the loop. Greenpeace said greater experimentation is required by larger brands, so circularity can be embraced throughout the entire supply chain.

Setting universal standards on reducing environmental impacts could also be a step for remedying fashion circularity. By involving all stages of the life cycle—including collectively using more sustainable materials and reducing energy use, companies can work together to promote more sustainable processes. Greenpeace suggested that companies also implement across-the-board guidelines for traceability, monitoring and reporting on apparel production processes worldwide.

While take-back initiatives remain essential, Greenpeace said resources for end-of-life logistics and technologies for recycling should be made mandatory and not depend on corporate generosity. Countries can adopt laws like France’s EcoTLC system, which hold national companies accountable for the proper management, recycling and reuse of recycling synthetic materials, including polyester.