Since the year 2000 global clothing production has doubled, driven by colossal consumer spending on ‘fast fashion’. Fashion is widely regarded to be one of the most wasteful industries on the planet. However, leaders across the fashion sector are now starting to think differently as consumers become increasingly conscious of sustainability and the impact their buying habits have on the environment.

Textile waste is a major global challenge that must be addressed. Impacts from the fashion industry include over 92 million tonnes of waste produced per year and 79 trillion liters of water consumed, according to a study by Aalto University in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment journal. This water usage alone equates to 20% of both global water waste and industrial water pollution worldwide

But times are changing. Textile 2030 is a ground-breaking initiative launched by UK sustainability leaders to drive the fashion industry towards systemic change and increased circularity.

But what can retailers do to turn this ambition into a reality? There are several factors to consider.

Understanding the problem

92 million tonnes of waste and 79 trillion litres of water are eye wateringly high numbers, but just how big a problem is fashion really? According to The World Bank 10% of the worlds emissions come from the fashion sector demonstrating the huge impact the sector has. Tackling emissions and reducing waste requires a mindset shift. It will mean rethinking the product lifecycle and every aspect of the supply chain, and in particular raw material selection.

According to a major European study, Britain produces a whopping 206,456 tonnes of textile waste in a year. More worrying still is the fact that from the 3.1kg of textile waste each Briton produces, only 22% is recycled or re-used (Labfresh Fashion Waste Index). In the US, the recycling rate is estimated to be even lower at 15% (EPA Data). Currently, recycled fibers account for a tiny part of global fiber production, although rising.

The current system is broken, and retailers are central to finding a solution.

A regulatory helping hand

Concerns are mounting over the ‘fast fashion’ business model and its role in over-consumption and generating excessive waste. Indeed, many commentators are promoting the exact opposite as the future, coining the phrase ‘slow fashion’. Change cannot be down to consumers, manufacturers, and retailers alone and Governments are starting to get involved. New initiatives pave the way to more sustainable systems by introducing policies to encourage a more transparent, fair, and sustainable system.

In the UK the looming introduction of textiles into the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy, likely by 2025, will mandate businesses to take greater care in the disposal and recycling of materials.  Across the Atlantic, legislation is slowly taking effect. The Fashion Act and the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act (NY State Senate) are two examples where regulators are attempting to shift the industry away from the race to the bottom, introducing stricter due diligence and reporting on environmental and social impact.

This and similar initiatives will help to wean the fashion industry off its addiction to fossil fuels by requiring companies to operate in line with the Paris Agreement. This is a big shift, operationally and economically, and will require retailers to consider how to shift their business model to adapt to these changes.

Radical rethinks are redefining recycling

In the face of consumer demand, organizations are undergoing a radical rethink of how they view waste, recycling, and the circular economy. In an industry that revolves around speed, efficiency, and pushing consumers to purchase the latest trends before they are gone, encouraging them to mend old garments rather than buy new ones can sound like a contradiction. 

However, there are revenue and growth opportunities, principally driven by a new age of, or trend even for recycled and repurposed garments. For example, many are now gathering unwanted clothes collected in stores across the globe to give them a second life by reselling clothing in a good condition, reusing clothing in poor condition to create other items, and recycling leftover materials into textile fibers to be reused. Initiatives here might range from the clever and simple, like H&M offering sewing tips online, to highly complex and transformative solutions such as brands like Adidas, Levi’s, and Target are deploying through a partnership with Evrnu. The Evrnu solution focuses on fiber recycling to enable the production of entirely new garments from discarded clothing on repeat.

New digital tools

Retailers and new entrants also have new tools at their disposal when trying to be more sustainable, underpinning some of the more ambitious initiatives with industry 4.0 style technologies.

Digital passports for clothing, for example, enables retailers to manage re-commerce through the identification and authentication of products. This makes circularity easier to deliver. It also helps customers to easily access networks for product care, resale, and other services. This in turn will fuel marketplaces for recaptured materials (see Circtilogo for instance), such as fiber and dyes, that can be used by retailers as inputs into new products.

A shift to a more circular model, including transforming end-of-life clothing into raw materials for new clothing, will create more value from the same material. Digitally connected clothing will enable entirely new business models for clothing, whereby retailers will be associated with the ongoing value of their assets and can generate value across the entire product lifecycle.

Critically though, manufacturers will need to rethink how they get a share of the spoils if the effect is to reduce demand at the beginning of the chain.

Rethinking procurement

As we transition to a low carbon and sustainable economy, a step-change is required from the fashion industry in the commercial models they adopt. The future already resembles a circular industry that promotes rental, re-sale, and repairs – and consumer habits are accelerating this. What this means for procurement is a rapid reimagining of how they operate and interact across the design, manufacturing, and lifecycle management of products.

This is exciting; initiatives that transform, innovate and drive growth in addition to the ubiquitous need for value for money. Embracing the circular economy is a mindset shift for procurement and supply chain professionals too. A new definition of value is required. Broader ESG measures must be quantified and evaluated. Decision impacts must be considered across the entire value chain.

We now live in a world where all businesses are seeking to change to become more sustainable and play a role in a brighter future. Delivering positive change is a golden opportunity and a challenge that procurement must quickly grasp.

For more retail insights and sustainability thinking see our recent report outlining how retailers can seize post-pandemic opportunities.

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