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The Next Economy
New Collaborations Lay Further Groundwork for Circular Fashion Economy

A new report from Fashion for Good’s Sorting for Circularity maps pathway to scaling fiber-to-fiber recycling within the US, while brands joining the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Fashion Remodel initiative explore ways to make money without making new clothes.

Report: $1.5B opportunity for sorting for fiber-to-fiber recycling in the US

Image credit: Cottonbro Studio

On Wednesday, Fashion for Good launched its Sorting for Circularity USA report — a first-of-its-kind report that delves into consumer disposal behavior, textile-waste composition, and the potential for scaling fiber-to-fiber recycling within the US. It provides crucial insights for making informed decisions for further investments, infrastructure development and the next steps towards circularity.

Understanding the US textile-waste landscape

The United States is a global leader in both textile consumption and waste generation, which positions it as one of the largest sources of secondary raw materials for post-consumer textile feedstock. Despite this, only 15 percent of the textile waste generated in the US is currently recovered — with 85 percent ending up in landfills or incinerators.

With impending policies in the European Union and certain US states — alongside commitments from both the public and private sectors to promote fiber-to-fiber recycling — there is a growing demand for infrastructure related to post-consumer textile collection, sorting and recycling; and Sorting for Circularity USA has set out to identify current gaps and opportunities to fill them.

“The Sorting for Circularity USA Project addresses a key challenge in the textile industry: transforming textile waste into a valuable resource,” said Fashion for Good Managing Director Katrin Ley. “This project investigates the connection between consumer behavior, waste generation, and available recycling technologies. The goal is to establish a system where all textiles are utilized effectively, minimizing waste.”

Launched in January 2023 by Fashion for Good and Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), Sorting for Circularity USA aims to provide crucial insights for strategic decision-making to advance circularity in the fashion value chain.

The project brings together Fashion for Good brand partners adidas, Inditex, Levi Strauss & Co and Target; external partners Eastman, H&M Group, lululemon, the New York State Center for Sustainable Materials Management (NYS CSMM) and Nordstrom; and key project implementation partners including the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) Association, Goodwill Industries International, Helpsy and United Southern Waste.

The Sorting for Circularity framework, introduced by Fashion for Good together with Circle Economy in 2021, forms the basis for the project, utilizing Matoha’s Near Infrared (NIR) technology to assess textile-waste composition and identify the potential for fiber-to-fiber recycling.

Addressing data gaps

In the pursuit of establishing a functional reverse supply chain and the necessary infrastructure, the report identified two critical areas that lack data — consumer disposal behavior and material characteristics of post-consumer textiles. The Sorting for Circularity USA project addressed these gaps through a comprehensive, national consumer survey and waste-composition analysis.

The survey of 1,200 US adults revealed that 60 percent of respondents divert textiles (through donation, resale or passing on to family or friends) while 4 percent discard them — driven primarily by factors such as condition and fit, as well as lack of confidence in knowing what is accepted for donation/reuse/recycling and skepticism as to whether textiles are actually reused or recycled. On the other hand, the waste-composition analysis unveiled that over 56 percent of post-consumer textiles are suitable for fiber-to-fiber recycling — with cotton and polyester being the most prevalent fiber types — indicating a substantial potential for these textiles to be used as feedstock for mechanical- and chemical-recycling processes.

“This research provides defensible insight into two parts of the recovery value chain with little to no existing data: firstly, how consumers decide what to do with textiles they no longer want; and secondly, the fiber composition of post-consumer textiles,” said Marisa Adler, Senior Consultant at RRS. “With these new findings, we can enhance collection systems to capture more textiles; calculate the financial potential for textile recycling; and build supportive, data-driven policy. We are eager to continue building upon this research to advance further opportunities for textile circularity."

The path to a circular textiles future

The project revealed a $1.5 billion opportunity for fiber-to-fiber recycling by redirecting non-rewearable textiles from landfills and incinerators to recycling streams. The report outlines growth strategies for the US textile-recycling industry — emphasizing enhanced financial value through efficiency improvements, increased commodity valuation, and policy mechanisms such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes. Collaboration among stakeholders — including brands, government, retailers, consumers, collectors, sorters, recyclers and financial institutions — is crucial to promote circularity, invest in research and development, and advocate for supportive policies and incentives to drive technological innovation. This redirection of textiles towards recycling underscores the substantial economic potential of embracing circularity in textiles.

Fashion for Good says there is an opportunity to build on these insights and assess the feasibility of different sorting business models and (semi) automated sorting technologies to create a demo facility suitable for closed-loop textile recycling. Ultimately, evaluating the commercial and technical feasibility of a semi-automated sorting process and identifying investment opportunities to scale solutions nationwide.

Apparel brands set out to give fashion a circular ‘remodel’

Image credit: Arc'Teryx

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, some of the world’s leading fashion brands signed on to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF)’s The Fashion ReModel initiative — to explore ways to make money without making new clothes.

Launched at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, The Fashion Remodel unites a group of industry frontrunners from across high-street and high-end names, as well as other industry players, to make circular business models the norm.

Arc'teryx, ARKET, COS, H&M Group, Primark, Reformation, WEEKDAY and Zalando are among the first participants in the project — which will identify solutions and opportunities to begin decoupling revenue from the production of new garments, advancing the long-term goal of making a circular economy for fashion a reality.

“We’re looking forward to working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation again,” said Leyla Ertur, Head of Sustainability at H&M Group. “The opportunity presented by decoupling the fashion industry’s growth from resource use is huge and this project can help us better understand how to further scale these models.”

Despite continually rising consumer engagement in more conscious consumption and efforts such as Fashion for Good’s to scale textile recycling, the fashion industry still largely operates on a take-make-waste model — creating millions of tonnes of clothing that are produced, worn and discarded every year.

Circular business models such as rental, resale, repair and remaking are designed to keep products in use. A recent EMF study estimated that it could claim 23 percent of the global fashion market by 2030, representing a US$700 billion opportunity to transform the future of fashion.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation hopes that The Fashion Remodel will provide the starting point to transform how business is done with the support of policymakers in fashion.

“Through their participation in The Fashion ReModel, this group of organizations are taking the next step on the road towards a circular economy for fashion,” said EMF Fashion Lead Jules Lennon. “In order to challenge conventional, linear models and create a new normal, brands must decouple revenue from production by accelerating efforts to redesign the products of the future, as well as rethinking the services and business models which deliver them to customers and keep them in use.

“The fashion industry is rooted in reinvention; and we welcome business-led action towards a world where, instead of being worn once and discarded, clothes can be used many more times and threaded through the lives of more people.”

The Foundation believes that the shared learnings and experiences from The Fashion Remodel will forge the path towards a more resilient fashion industry. It follows EMF’s Jeans Redesign project, which ran from 2019-2023 and tasked participants to reimagine the wardrobe staple to be fit for a circular economy. Insights from the project showed that building on the redesign of products, more action was needed to transform the systems those products enter and the infrastructure that delivers and keeps them in use.

“Arc’teryx is committed to a circular future, building products to last and equipping our guests with the tools and education to keep their gear in play,” said Dominique Showers, VP of ReBIRD at Arc’teryx. “We’re excited to be one of the first participants to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s demonstration project, The Fashion ReModel, to reimagine circularity for the outdoor industry — rethinking the way we approach design and waste to build a future in which everything we create can be given a second life.”