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Supply Chain
Unlocking Manufacturer Innovation Key to Achieving Circular Fashion

With the COVID-19 and climate crises threatening industry’s dominant business model — which is based on continued growth in production — circular models will need to be at the heart of fashion’s growth plans going forward.

In a report released today, Forum for the Future and leading fashion manufacturers Cobalt Fashion, Ramatex Group and Yee Chain International are calling on brands, retailers and other stakeholders to step up efforts to include supply chain voices in the industry’s drive to transform how apparel is designed, made, sold and used.

Making the leap to circular fashion highlights that mass apparel and footwear manufacturers representing the core of today’s high-production, low-cost fast-fashion system are uniquely placed to develop and implement innovative circular solutions at scale. Through their position in the industry — guiding sourcing and supply decisions, and creating products sold in retail — manufacturers have enormous potential to shape the fashion sector up and down the supply chain.

However, the report argues that, while significant progress has been made on the fashion industry’s environmental and social sustainability performance, initiatives continue to be driven by individual actors and a growing number of collective efforts — such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's Make Fashion Circular initiative, which has attracted dozens of major brands and industry players; startup accelerators such as H&M’s Global Change Award and the Fashion for Good-Plug and Play Accelerator; and the 110 small and medium-sized apparel brands that signed on to the 2020 Circular Fashion Pledge earlier this year — and a compliance-focused approach to manufacturing innovation; rather than broad adoption of game-changing textile-recycling technologies; exploring and scaling the circular potential of supply chains for materials such as man-made cellulosic fibers — the second-biggest cellulosic fiber group in use, after cotton; and re-examining design processes to eliminate waste. So, what’s the hold up?

The report identified a number of barriers currently holding the industry back from maximising manufacturers’ full potential to innovate for circularity — including industry practices that prioritise volume, speed and cost, delivered by complex and fragmented supply chains, and distribute value unevenly across supply chain actors; manufacturers carrying significant risk for investments into circular solutions without guaranteed return; and a compliance-driven approach to ensuring supply chain sustainability.

The report lays out a three-step approach for brands and retailers to create the networks vital to ensuring long-term success:

  1. Streamlining engagement: Evaluating points of interaction with supply chain partners that currently inhibit collaboration on circular economy initiatives.
  2. Partnering better: Engaging supply chain partners at the problem-scoping and ideation stage; and investing in trusted, strategic long-term partnerships.
  3. Making learning and innovation central to supply chain partnerships:  Considering how existing programmes can work to align their own teams and supply chain partners on common circular goals, and building capacity in that direction.

The report’s insights are drawn from Circular Leap Asia (CLA) — a Forum for the Future initiative funded by the Laudes Foundation focused on empowering fashion manufacturers in Asia to lead the adoption and scaling of circular solutions. Forum for the Future worked with Ramatex, Cobalt Fashion and Yee Chain — three leading manufacturers focused on challenges such as reducing microfibre shedding, building the reverse supply chain for clothing recycling, and reducing fabric waste in the footwear supply chain.‏

“The COVID-19 crisis serves as a wake-up call for the fashion industry. Moving forward, circular and sustainable solutions will no longer be a “nice-to-have”; they will become core to business survival,” said Cobalt Fashion COO Roger Chan. “Being part of the Circular Leap Asia programme helped to accelerate our thinking around circular textiles, and move from a concept to prototype with identified partners. While the pandemic has hampered plans to get the reverse supply chain pilot up and running in 2020, the crisis has deepened our long-term commitment at Cobalt Fashion to develop circular knitwear solutions for our customers and the wider industry.”‏

To help support manufacturers, Forum for the Future said it will develop a Manufacturers’ Guide to Circular Fashion  this Autumn, which will help industry stakeholders assess where manufacturers are on their circular journey, and the actions they can take to proactively drive the transition.