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Designing for Circularity Turns Fashion Waste into a Viable Resource

As we continue to weather a pandemic, and the industry and brands rethink longer-term existential strategies, we face a rare opportunity for change — to future-proof the entire fashion industry for the long run.

While the recycling process can often be laborious, expensive and time-consuming, with a new generation of conscious consumers emerging, a top-down approach requiring the collaboration of organisations across the supply chain is required for textile circularity to become standard.

Stronger calls for environmental protection and rising demand for supply chain transparency have been accelerating the speed for fast fashion giants and high fashion ateliers to rethink and revamp their production practices. Coupled with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, such trends toward environmental responsibility have repositioned a circular economy from the fringes of fashion to being an inseparable part of the industry. Sustainable, renewable and ethically sourced clothing has become a need, not a want.

However, significant problems remain. Scalable “circular” fashion is still in the minority, resulting in challenges around stable supply of eco-friendly textiles amidst a needlessly complex supply chain. In order to fully achieve a circular economy in the long run, the textile industry need to work together to find ways to adhere to the three main pillars: repair, reuse and recycle.

Simply put, fashion has a disastrous waste problem. Retailers and high fashion houses need to get serious about recycling at every stage of the supply chain, and COVID-19 may be just the excuse we need to act so quickly and extensively.

Fashion’s waste problem

Recycling, as a major facet of a circular economy, has been making significant strides of late. Still, only 10 percent of clothing materials are recycled today and US consumers on average bin around 37kg of textile waste annually. Globally, a whopping 92 million tons of clothing is thrown away each year. If we continue on this course, we will discard over 134 million tons of textiles in 2030 — equivalent to the weight of 95 million cars. Fashion’s supply chain also relies heavily on large swathes of other scarce resources such as fuel and water. In total, our industry produces a staggering 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year!

In addition to the troubling figures, significant challenges exist for recycling in this industry. Garments are made from a complex array of fibers and chemicals — often decorated with accessories — making them notoriously challenging to recycle. While the recycling process can often be laborious, expensive and time-consuming, with a new generation of conscious consumers emerging, a top-down approach requiring the collaboration of organisations across the supply chain is required for textile circularity to become standard.

As trendsetters, brands and designers possess tremendous power to lead this eco-evolution, Lenzing’s role is twofold — by providing immediate materials innovations; and by facilitating long-term evolution to ensure producers, designers and recyclers themselves are prepared for a sustainable and circular future.

Scalable circularity is no longer a dream

To address dire challenges in the industry, the textile supply chain — consisting of fiber manufacturers, such as Lenzing; as well as yarn makers, spinners and fabric mills — will need to change the way they work and embrace a circular economy. Similarly, designers will also play a crucial role in driving circularity through designing products for recycling at the end of life.

With a focus on enhancing industry transparency, it is essential to educate the industry. Fiber classification services and product labelling — for garments made of organic cotton, organic linen, lyocell or modal fibers, for example — are key starting points. Innovation in the production of sustainable raw materials, such as the award-winning close-loop production process used to produce TENCEL™ branded lyocell fiber with REFIBRA™ technology, is a good example. By upcycling pre- and post-consumer cotton scraps with wood pulp to produce virgin lyocell fibers at scale, conventional textile waste is being turned into viable resources that can be leveraged for textile production.

Several internationally renowned brands — including Wolford, Patagonia, GUESS and H&M — have already incorporated circularity into their clothing collections. By combining long-lasting designs with quality, sustainable raw materials, garments become more timeless and durable — achieving longer product life cycles and less fashion waste in the long run.

Leading mills across the world, for example, are noting current fashion trends are moving towards cellulose-dominant fabrics — which is a prime opportunity for brands to seize the momentum to better educate consumers on the ecological cost of products. Mills are investing in circularity by applying lyocell fibers produced via REFIBRA technology in different blends, recycling water, advancing production processes to ensure maximum efficiency and more.

Bigger strides towards a more sustainable future

The promise of circular practices is already evident. For example, at Lenzing, by setting concrete and ambitious goals, we have witnessed various improvements in sustainable development. Just last year, Lenzing:

  • Saved 1.9 percent of specific primary energy consumption and 8 percent in specific greenhouse gas emissions

  • Reduced 30 percent of sulfur and sulfur dioxide emissions, respectively, from energy production

  • Reduced 7 percent of specific water consumption

  • Increased up to 30 percent of recycled raw material content in TENCEL Lyocell fibers with REFIBRA technology, where some post-consumer cotton waste can be mixed with pre-consumer cotton waste.

However, many challenges remain before long-lasting, biodegradable and recyclable clothing become industry norm. As we continue to weather a pandemic, and the industry and brands rethink longer-term existential strategies, we face a rare opportunity for change — to future-proof the entire fashion industry for the long run.

Many practitioners engage in this industry because they admire great designs and have a passion for quality and beauty; yet on top of all the glamour, the industry also has a crucial role to safeguard our environment for the future of fashion and our planet. The time has come for fashion brands and the rest of the industry to address fashion’s waste problem right at its core, and engage in scaled textile waste recycling.

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