“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,” enthuses Rien Otto, the charismatic founder of Dutch aWEARness, speaking from an international showcase of corporate clothing in Birmingham, UK. For him, Einstein’s famous quote perfectly describes his journey to helping Dutch aWEARness become the first textile company to establish a circular supply chain.
One of the most resource-intensive industries on the planet, the $1.2T global textile and apparel industry is built on complex linear supplier relationships. Lack of visibility over what’s happening further down the chain has often resulted in massive toxic pollution, unethical labour practices and spiralling waste, with the rise of ‘fast fashion’ sending materials hurtling towards end of life at an ever-increasing rate. Some 13m tonnes of textile waste are generated annually in the US, estimates the US EPA, with just 2m tonnes currently recycled. The majority ends up in landfill, wreaking untold damage on fragile ecosystems.
So how is a small firm in the Netherlands turning this ‘take, make, waste’ model on its head and embracing waste textiles as valuable raw materials?
Championing another way
Established in 2012, Dutch aWEARness creates clothes from 100 percent recyclable polyester — called Returnity® — and sells the ‘performance’ of the clothes to customers including VW and Desso. It’s now working with the European Commission (EC) to examine how this approach can be scaled and adopted across Europe through the EcoProFabrics project.
Having worked in the fashion industry for nearly two decades, Rien Otto was fully conscious of the environmental and social challenges at stake. Determined to find a better way, he quickly embraced Fair Trade, organic cotton and life cycle analysis, and began researching alternative materials. In 2010, he met cradle-to-cradle pioneer Michael Braungart and, inspired by their discussion, set about investigating how the cradle-to-cradle concept could be applied to the textiles industry.
“I wanted to change the world, make new materials,” says Otto. “I knew that an Austrian company, Backhausen, was using recyclable polyester to make C2C-certified furniture, and wanted to understand if the same material could be used for clothing.”
Dutch aWEARness is using highly durable Returnity to make both street clothing and factory uniforms. It uses 95 percent less water and 64 percent less energy, and produces 73 percent fewer carbon emissions per garment during production than standard cotton. The company maintains ownership of the materials and customers pay for the performance of the clothes over an agreed number of years. Once the products reach end of life, they are transformed back into new clothing, with no loss of quality, according to Otto. Even the company’s bio-plastic clothes hangers are 100 percent recyclable.
Collaborating with suppliers to close the loop
“We worked with our suppliers face-to-face to understand how all parties could collaborate and see a commercial return,” explains Otto. “It takes a big leap of faith to change business models, but by working together you learn every day and make progress more quickly. Quite simply, the circular economy offers great opportunities for learning and collaboration.”
And sharing his knowledge is central to Otto’s plans. Through Dutch aWEARness’ sustainable fashion desks in Portugal and Tunisia, the company provides free advice to fashion labels, designers, manufacturers and retailers who commit to adopting circular supply chain models or upscaling the use of innovative, sustainable materials. Companies can pay an annual fee to use its track and trace system.
Scaling up through EcoProFabrics
Launched in January 2014 at Amsterdam Fashion Week, EcoProFabrics is a two-year pilot project within the EC’s Eco Innovation programme. The EC has invested nearly €2m in the project, which is initially targeting the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Portugal, Germany and the UK. Otto is working with a variety of other partners (Royal HaskoningDHV, EcoChain Technologies, Bukk Fashion, Backhausen, Van Schoot Pompcentrum) to introduce the scheme to at least nine new companies.
“Nearly 20 Dutch companies have expressed an interest, including a Dutch refrigerator company that wants us to supply its 4,000 staff with factory wear for five years,” he explains. “And they’ve been so inspired by what we’re doing, they’re looking to apply circular thinking in their own business.”
Mainstreaming circular supply chains
Otto sees transparency and trust as vital to achieving widespread adoption of circular supply chain models. Companies must be willing to make fundamental changes in their supply chains, collaborate with their suppliers and be open about their business practices.
And as material costs continue to rise and the demand for quality increases, waste will become ever more costly, prompting companies to up their game, according to Roy Vercoulen of the Cradle-to-Cradle Product Innovation Institute.
“It’s smarter to work with pure materials, get them back after use, and then upcycle worn goods as inputs for new products,” he says. “We’ve already seen the industry experimenting with take-back systems; however, these are still small-scale initiatives and it’s not often that fashion collections are designed with end of life in mind.”
Reusing materials is one of the major ways that textile and apparel companies can embrace more regenerative practices, the Institute believes. It recommends creating the right infrastructure to collect end-of-life products and return them to the nutrient cycle, and developing technology to disassemble, sort and recycle fibres without loss of quality.
Next steps for Dutch aWEARness
With a closed-loop process already in place for its Returnity fabric, Dutch aWEARness is turning its attention to creating circular supply models for natural materials, including miscanthus grass (also known as elephant grass) to make jeans.
In the long term, Otto wants to step back from the Dutch aWEARness brand, appointing agents and working with partners in different countries to market the concept while he acts as a circular supply chain manager for other companies. For him, creating the brand was all about showing what can be achieved with a healthy dose of creativity, collaboration and courage.