The European textile sector is struggling to implement an ambitious vision – the closed loop supply chain. The challenge? Fashion demands a range of suppliers and flexible production schedules. A closed-loop or eco-textile system is based on long-term planning to minimize waste, and takes away the flexibility.
Closed-loop systems start with design. Dr. Christina Dean, director of Redress, a Hong Kong based NGO, states that 80% to 90% of a product’s impact on the environment is determined by initial product design. That can include closed-cycle production that designs products around the idea of future use or recycling by, for example, including easy-to-separate materials.
The European Union is pushing ahead on this front as well, with plans from the European Commission to outline new eco-label requirements that are expected to include measures to encourage the re-use of polyester residuals.
One successful firm in the field is Patagonia, which has pushed marketing campaigns that encourage people not to buy their clothes, and has partnered with eBay to help customers re-sell Patagonia items. This keeps goods in circulation, reduces overall consumption, and is still good for the business, because it raises their profile as a retailer.
For an industry that is predicated on quick turns, rapid replacement, and a focus on the newest idea, pushing reuse and recycling can seem counterintuitive. But, as Llyr Roberts of the Sustainable Places Research Institute says, “Ultimately, the fashion industry is going to have to bite the bullet and start reusing clothes.”
In addition to encouraging reuse, Patagonia offers recycling of all its clothing at any store. They have managed to capture value from this process, particularly with underwear and fleece, which can be reprocessed into new garments, reducing input costs. The company struggles with wool and cotton, however, because the value capture when recycling those products is much lower.
Finding new uses for recycled fibers may be the next step the fashion industry takes toward closing its supply loop. Many products lose integrity during the recycling process, prompting manufacturers to choose virgin alternatives.
On the consumer side, the secret lies in motivating recycling. Some firms are considering offering vouchers for recycled products, until the habit is established. H&M is already doing this with used clothing. Espirit and C&A are also considering expanding their policies.
The recycled textiles are converted into insulation material for the construction industry, cushioning and filling material, stuffed toys, insoles or bags. Shoes are turned into floorings, key rings, packaging, pellets, or hard casings.
This “cradle to grave” approach also encourages companies to incorporate sustainable design, because they are taking responsibility for the ultimate reusability of their products.
Within the industry, the challenge is the combined use of natural and synthetic materials. With design modifications, it can be made easier to separate those elements, allowing them to enter their own separate recycling loops.