How to transition to a circular economy for textiles

circular-fashionTextiles have been an important part of our lives and culture for a long time now, with a range of items varying from apparel and machinery and medical equipment. The fashion industry today is estimated at US$1.3 trillion, hiring over 300 million people worldwide.

But the industry is constantly scrutinized by the considerable use of end materials and hazardous chemicals and by such concerns as conditions for fast-mode garment workers. Millions of items are being wastefully disposed of: unselected in factories or shops, left untouched in wardrobes, or dumped in good standing. Transformation is desperately needed.

Each year people throw away apparel worth an estimated $460 billion that they could continue to wear. Trends such as fast fashion heighten the issue, producing high volumes of low-quality fashion items that are difficult to recycle. If the average number of times a garment is worn were doubled, greenhouse gas emissions from textiles would be 44% lower.  

A circular economy for textiles, fashion, and apparel is important because it aims to eliminate waste in the textiles industry, championing resource reuse and bringing clear benefits for natural resources, economic wellbeing, and the health and safety of the people who produce and dispose of our textiles. 

According to the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) circular economy action agenda, 10 action items for the transition is mentioned below:

  1. Incentivize and Support Design for Longevity and Recyclability

Textile products can be designed to last a long time by using high-quality fibers, making them easy to repair, and designing ‘timeless’ styles. Recyclability can be built in by using safe materials that are easy to disassemble, as well as focusing on homogenous fibers rather than complicated blends. Incentives and support are needed to encourage this approach in the design stage.

  1. Produce Virgin Natural Fibers Sustainably, Including Land Use

Even with large-scale recycling, it will be unrealistic for the textiles industry to use only recycled materials in the foreseeable future. Action should therefore focus on working to produce virgin plant-based fibers such as cotton in a more sustainable way.

  1. Encourage the Market to Use Less Clothing, and for Longer

Rethinking consumption means buying less, buying second-hand, supporting sustainable fashion, and keeping clothes in use for longer.

  1. Guide and Support New Business Models for Environmental, Financial, and Social Triple-Win

New business models such as subscription, rental, and re-commerce need to be designed with environmental, social and financial impacts in mind, so that they can grow and contribute in a meaningful way to the wellbeing of people and planet.

  1. Where Used Textiles Trade Occurs, Ensure Environmental and Socio-Economic Benefits

Around 70% of textiles collected for reuse is sent overseas, but much of it is likely to end up as waste rather than actually being repurposed or recycled. The used textiles trade should be managed to ensure environmental benefits and help preserve local industries.

  1. Strategically Plan Collection, Sorting, and Recycling Operations

Collection and sorting of used textiles is very labor-intensive, and recycling facilities are large-scale projects requiring long-term investment. All need to be planned carefully to ensure they are in the right place and offering the right services.

  1. Increase Efficiency and Quality in Textiles Sorting

Textiles sorting is currently labor intensive, costly, and inaccurate. Improving the efficiency and quality of sorting is crucial for textiles recycling, since the quality and safety of recycled textiles strongly depends on what goes into them.

  1. Make the Recycled Fibers Market Competitive

Only when recycled fibers are market competitive can businesses adopt them on a significant scale, and in turn further stimulate the development of recycled material supply chains.

  1. Integrate and Advance Decent Work in the Transition to a Circular Economy for Textiles

A circular economy for textiles will have a complex effect on decent work, shifting employment from farming and manufacturing to later stages of the value chain such as repair, resale, sorting and recycling. It provides the potential for higher quality jobs, especially for informal workers, improving working conditions and safety, as well as wages and social security. It will not happen automatically though—targeted efforts are needed from governments, companies, and civil society organizations.

  1. Investigate the Socio-Economic Impacts of a Circular Economy for Textiles

There is a lack of quantitative research to understand the potential socio-economic effects of increased circularity in textiles, so we need more research to bridge this critical knowledge gap