A stitch in time

Written by: Alan Wheeler, | Published:

We need to shake up the clothing supply chain, address issues at the re-use and recycling end, and create a new business model for the fashion industry, reports Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association

Two recent surveys from opposite sides of the Atlantic have painted depressing pictures about our wasteful attitude towards clothing.

Research published by Sainsbury’s estimates that around 680 million items of clothing will be thrown out by the public in the UK this season alone, with an estimated 235 million items going to landfill. And research in the USA, commissioned by NGO Savers and undertaken by Edelman Intelligence, suggests that more than half of Americans throw out old clothing rather than donating it.

Of course, it is not all bad news. Taking the Sainsbury’s figures alone, if 235 million items are going to landfill, presumably the rest of the items being “thrown out” (i.e. 445 million) are going elsewhere, and hopefully for re-use and recycling, rather than other disposal routes.
In fact, per head of population, the UK sends more clothing and textiles for re-use and recycling through charity, local authority
and other collections than any other developed country.

However, the American researchers hit the nail on the head by citing that 46% of respondents simply have “way too much stuff”. We have the same problem here. Some estimates suggest that our consumption of new clothing has doubled since the turn of the century and risen five times since the 1980s. And when I think about it, when I was a teenager in the 1980s, clothes shops had four distinct fashion seasons only – but not anymore.

Some retailers replace their fashion lines every few weeks and may now have 16 or 18 ‘fast fashion’ seasons each year. I ventured into a local branch of one well-known international retailer not so long ago on a Saturday afternoon, and the scene that greeted me resembled something more akin to a 1970s village jumble sale, except that the marauding masses were not sharp-elbowed 50-year-old women wearing crimplene pinnies, but people of all ages wearing all fashions. And, of course, the clothes strewn everywhere, apart from where they should be, were new but poor quality, instead of used and made to last.

Questionable success

The fashion industry has transformed itself in the past 30 years or so, and in terms of economic turnover it is a huge global success. It accounts for something like 10% of the entire global economy. But its success is not shared equitably. A few successful business people have got exceptionally rich, tens of thousands of people in the West have reasonably well paid jobs, and the public are able to pick up bargains. But at what cost?

The huge environmental impacts of the apparel industry are well-documented, as are the social impacts in producing countries (often because of poor working conditions). The fact is that the current global clothing supply chain is unsustainable and we need
to do a lot better.

So where do we start? If we were in a truly circular economy, we could start anywhere because there would be no beginning or end point, but at the moment this is eluding us. The production side is still largely linear, with some important circles in the re-use and recycling phase.

We need to start at the point of production. But where is that? An item flagged up by the BBC recently highlighted that while a piece of clothing bought from Zara might say ‘Made in Morocco’ on the label, it has probably travelled to several countries before being sewn in North Africa. In the case of the example highlighted by the BBC, the lyocell fibres were probably produced in Europe before being spun into yarn in Egypt, then being woven into a fabric in China, dyed in Spain and then, finally, stitched in Morocco.

This type of journey makes it very difficult for retailers to find out where their products have originated from and how sustainable they are. It is even more difficult for the public to know. This lack of transparency in the production phase of a garment is a major barrier to achieving circularity, which is made even more difficult by supply chain stakeholders using sub-contractors.

At the risk of sounding naïve, surely in an ideal world, retailers and brands that wish to improve their traceability could strive to take more ownership of their supply chain?

There also needs to be a concerted effort to switch to more sustainable fibres with an emphasis on developing technologies and techniques to enable more fibre recycling to take place. A recent announcement by Levi’s that it intends to source all its cotton from recycled fibres within eight years is welcome.

However, this will need to be accompanied by more research that will enable it to source most of the recycled fibres from post-consumer used textiles. This is the big headache. It is much more difficult to deal with than pre-consumer cotton offcuts which Levi’s may have to resort to if it is to uphold its pledge.

A similar commitment has also been made by H&M to source all its fibres from recycled or sustainable sources by 2030. Again, the same issues apply.

Improving retailer supply chains

In addition, both the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan in the UK and the global Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) have been undertaking important work in trying to improve the sustainability of retailer supply chains. The SAC’s Higg Index provides a number which indicates how sustainable a fibre or garment is. Let’s get that information either onto clothing labels or at least onto the swing tags that show garment price, so that consumers can get an idea of sustainability. This might start driving behaviour change and, I hope, push up demand for recycled and other sustainable fibres.

Driving improvements at the supply chain end is vital if we are to achieve a circular economy, but there are also big issues that
need to be addressed at the re-use and recycling end.

More new clothing on the market means that eventually more used clothing finding its way into the re-use and recycling system, and more used clothing/textiles having to be recycled in the existing low-value markets – where the fibres might be used for mattress or duvet fillings, heat or sound insulation or other important but nevertheless single-use applications that are still part of a linear economy. Slowing down fashion consumption at the front end may help address some of the over-supply problem (and it is up to the retailers/producers to decide how they can do this and maintain their profits), but there is a bigger problem looming that needs to be addressed now.

China only started collecting and exporting used clothing a few years back. In a very short period of time they have already risen to be the fifth-largest exporter in the world. With its huge population and its increasing prosperity, its relevance in this market is only set to grow.

If the Chinese end up exporting half as much per head of population as we do in the UK, their dominance will become total. If China were already at that level, its exports would be equal to that of the rest of the world put together. And it is not just China. India, with its increasing population and prosperity, could also become a key player in the used clothing global market.

Currently 70% of the entire global exports of used clothing come from only 10 countries, with very little in the way of formal recycling taking place elsewhere. If we want a global circular economy, this has to change and collection and processing rates will have to improve.

While an increase in the global population should increase the total demand for used clothing, it will also increase the supply.

It is inevitable that we will have to reduce our reliability on the used clothing market in the years and decades to come.

Markets will become more crowded and some may close. We will need to rethink fashion and promote more domestic re-use, but we also need new markets.

There is interesting R&D work going on around developing new techniques to recycle post-consumer polyester and cotton waste, and it is already possible to produce a wool yarn from recycled fibres that performs as well as one made from virgin fibres. But ultimately what we need is a new business model for the apparel industry; one which supports innovation and improved sustainability further up the supply chain, helps to promote and deliver new markets for re-use recycling at the other end and establishes business-to-business opportunities that will deliver a new circular supply chain.

The current system places no responsibility on those in the clothing/textile supply chain, which have had huge environmental and social impacts, for addressing the problems they are creating (despite the big profits that they can generate), and this needs to change.

At the same time, those that help to deliver this required change
will need to be supported.

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