Technology isn’t going to solve the world’s textile waste problem.  Wearing clothes longer will.

The fashion industry is the world’s second largest industrial polluter, second only to oil. In fact, 20% of global production waste comes from the textile and apparel sectors.

Plus, the rise of fast fashion means that we’re throwing out our clothes at an alarming rate. The average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. Another survey found that women in the UK only wore their clothes an average of 7 times before disposing of them. As a result, over 90 million items of clothing end up in landfills around the world.

And apparel spending worldwide is only projected to grow, intensifying the impacts of both production and post-consumer waste.

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Why Isn’t Technology the Answer?

Many see textile recycling technology as a panacea to the world’s growing apparel waste. A handful of companies, such as Econyl, Evernu, Worn Again and HK Research Institute are developing mechanical or chemical processes to recycle textiles.

The allure of technology is understandable—it represents creativity, innovation and the future. These days, it’s seen as the answer to every problem. If it hasn’t already provided the solution, our unyielding faith in its potential leads us to believe that it will.

This may present a problem though —particularly when it comes to the fashion industry. 

At this point, there are many limitations to textile recycling technologies such as:

  • Unable to separate clothes with more than two fiber types
  • Unable to recycle clothes with more than 5% elastane (elastic)
  • Unable to ensure that the recycled natural fibers are long and strong enough to produce an entire garment out of
  • Energy and/ or chemical intensive

As a result, it’d be naïve of us to expect that they’ll be able to process any significant amount of discarded textiles in the near future. It’ll be a while before textile recycling technology can catch up to the pace at which we’re currently throwing clothes away - if ever.  

Extending Clothing Life Will Allow Technology to Catch Up

There’s immense value loss in disposing of clothes so frequently. A recent study conducted by Fibersort and the European Regional Development Fund found that approximately 64% of post-consumer textiles are rewearable, meaning that we’re throwing out clothes well before the end of their useful life.  To give you a sense of the scale of the loss (and the size of the potential), less than 15% of the 15 million tons of used textile waste is recycled in the United States annually! 

Even if textile recycling technologies were to be commercialized, that wouldn’t solve for the number of used garments lost to downcycling and landfills each year through inefficient collection.

So what’s the answer?  Purchasing fewer, higher quality clothes and wearing them longer.

As consumers, we have tremendous power to reverse these destructive trends of the fashion industry.  According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), extending the life of clothing by an extra nine months of active use would reduce carbon, waste and water footprints by around 20-30% each and cut resource costs by 20%.

Clothes should not have a similar lifespan as the food and beverage industry. Small changes in our behavior can change that and allow textile recycling technology to eventually catch up.

Circularity Roadmap for Apparel Brands

Our team is creating a Textile Circularity Roadmap for Apparel Brands, including a systems/stakeholder map and guidance for brands on the circular practices of Collections/Sorting, Utilization, and Regeneration. These practices form the basis of three modules, each providing concrete recommendations for engaging with that practice. Modules are organized around the action areas of Design, Business Model, and Customer Engagement. Each module action area includes a guiding vision, first steps, next level engagement, systems dynamics, and common pitfalls.

Because the road to circularity may be different for each brand, our format allows the user to create a customized pathway. Users choose a starting point based on the brand's strengths and existing initiatives, or the user's function or interest within their organization. They can then build capacity by moving through adjacent module action areas.

While there are several existing circular design tools, our work differs in addressing the entire business model, and taking a systems dynamic approach. This approach enables brand contribution to industry level shifts, while supporting their development of competitive advantage and differentiation. We complement rather than duplicate existing resources, linking to external sources from the recommendations where the user will find them most useful.

The project was initiated by apparel brand Outerknown, but is intended to be open source and benefit the entire industry. Our systems map and draft module content is complete, and we'll deliver the final content in April. Our team and client are currently exploring potential partnerships for hosting, building upon, and more widely disseminating the work going forward.

FWD Impact members Cory Skuldt, Sam Brundrett, Lauren Hill, and Catherine Tedrow have developed the roadmap as a component of their Capstone Projects for the Bard Sustainability MBA, and intend to continue our work driving sustainable innovation in the textile/apparel industry after graduation. We've received invaluable support from Shelly Gottschamer, Supply Chain and Sustainability at Outerknown, along with a variety of industry stakeholders in other brands, brand partners, consultancies, and institutions. 

Check back here for project updates, and please feel free to contact Cory at cory@coryskuldt.com if your organization would like to get involved!

Summer 2018 update: project details are available here: http://www.fwdimpact.com/circularity-roadmap/

Cory's conversation with Okabashi is published on GreenBiz

 Kim Falkenhayn, left, and Sara Irvani, president and CEO, respectively, of Okabashi.

Kim Falkenhayn, left, and Sara Irvani, president and CEO, respectively, of Okabashi.

Cory's conversation with Okabashi president Kim Falkenhayn was recently published on GreenBiz. Okabashi has been making their shoes in the US for over three decades while continually improving efficiency to become a near zero-waste manufacturer. Read an excerpt  here and listen to the extended conversation on the Bard MBA Impact Report

Simon & Mariana interview Saskia Van Gendt of Method Home

Mariana and Simon interviewed Saskia, head "greenskeeper" at Method, as part of the Bard MBA Sustainable Business Friday series. We learned about Method's wildly sustainable manufacturing plant in Chicago, affectionately called the South Side Soap Box. Here's an excerpt from the conversation...

Bard MBA: It is unusual for a cleaning company, especially of your size, to do its own manufacturing. What were the benefits for Method to move away from contract manufacturing and build your own facility?

Van GendtWe did have some amazing contract partners, but we have found that the main advantages of owning our facility is the flexibility that it brings. The inherent condition of contract manufacturing is that your product is being made right alongside your competitors’. We have a lot of unusual packaging formats, product formulations and different innovations that we want to bring to the category. Now we have more control and can be more nimble in those innovations.

 

LINK: Read the rest of the article on GreenBiz

Martin & Mariana interview Catherine Sheehy of UL Environment

We interviewed Catherine Sheehy, program manager for UL Environment's advisory services, as part of the Bard MBA Sustainable Business Friday series. Our interview was featured in GreenBiz in December. Here's an excerpt... 

Bard MBA: There are so many environmental claims on the market, of varying legitimacy. UL is offering a far more rigorous approach for your clients. What is the conversation like with a big brand about a UL engagement on claims, standards and sustainability?

Sheehy: A conversation around eco-labels is often around marketing tools: They are great ways to short-cut thinking about very complex sustainability issues. Sometimes the conversation is around risk. A product might claim that it’s "green," but any uncertainty about that claim can undermine the whole market. Companies want to avoid those situations.

LINK: Check out the article on GreenBiz

FWDImpact Launches

FWD Impact is a Capstone project developed by three MBA students.

The Bard MBA in Sustainability is one of a select few graduate programs globally that fully integrates sustainability into a core business curriculum. At Bard, students work in collaborative teams learning how to build businesses and not-for-profit organizations that combine economic, environmental, and social objectives into an integrated bottom line that creates not only healthier businesses, but also a more sustainable world.