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Beyond recycling: Redesigning the business of fashion with circularity

Sponsored: Why fashion brands should care about circularity — and how to avoid being seen as greenwashing.

This article is sponsored by Lenzing.

The recent United Nations Climate Action Summit recorded an unprecedented level of commitment from the private sector, from finance to fashion. As the discussion on climate change takes center stage, the environmental credentials of the fashion business once again have been brought to light. The fashion industry, with its complex supply chains and energy-intensive production processes, contributes 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Skin-deep and short-term promises are no longer sufficient to put the sector back on track. It is time for brands to make fundamental and long-term commitments to redesign and rethink their textile value chain: substituting the linear "take-make-waste" operations with circularity initiatives. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy, as opposite to linear economy, is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems.

Why care about circularity?

Sustainability is becoming the next major battlefield for the fashion industry and disregarding this fact may cost the brand’s reputation, businesses and relevance. According to the 2018 State of Fashion report by McKinsey and the Business of Fashion, 66 percent of millennials globally are willing to spend more on brands they consider sustainable. Embracing and investing in circularity is a key aspect of what makes a brand’s sustainability commitment more convincing to consumers, as it offers transparency and identification on how well-managed your supply chain is and ultimately how ethically sourced your products are.   

As the impact of the fashion industry to the environment becomes more apparent, consumers are exploring using more second-hand or recycled products. Currently valued at $24 billion, the global secondhand market is predicted to grow to $64 billion by 2028 (automatic PDF download), 1.5 times larger than the predicted value of the fast fashion market — $44 billion — for the same period. International brands such as Zara and H&M are offering collection and recycling programs, allowing shoppers to drop off garments that they no longer use. These programs are also useful communication channels between consumers and brands to showcase purchase preferences, which provide valuable insights for brands to design future fashion collections.

Sustainability is becoming the next major battlefield for the fashion industry and disregarding this fact may cost the brand’s reputation, businesses and relevance.
With an emphasis on innovation, the circular economy also offers opportunities that can help the fashion industry across all segments to respond to new customer demands while pursuing new growth opportunities. 

What else beyond recycling?

When it comes to sustainable initiatives from brands, many still focus largely on one-off campaigns, such as recycling programs or sustainable capsule collections for a certain period of time. While these efforts are encouraging and worth celebrating, they are by no means enough. What the industry needs is a fundamental redesign: shifting from a linear model towards a reuse-based model.

The most important element for circularity comes down to product end-of-life. Other than simply engaging in recycling, brands should seek to optimize the circularity of the raw materials in their products and be careful in examining the level of sustainability of the recycling process itself. This involves a clear understanding on the materials you use in the supply chain and how are they sourced and produced. 

The process of switching to a restorative and regenerative supply chain starts at the very beginning of garment production by understanding your supply-chain partners. For example, when adopting recycled materials, it is important to know how sustainable the fiber-recycling process is and compare that to the energy consumption level for taking on new raw materials. Water usage and energy consumption are other important indicators to decide whether the recycling process is sustainable.

After getting hold of the environmental credentials of individual suppliers, it will be easier to shift away from polluting operators to eco-friendlier ones. Ideally, a closed-loop production process can ensure that materials are not a burden to the environment. For instance, Lenzing’s Refibra technology, operated based on the award-winning closed-loop production process which recycles textile waste into Tencel-branded lyocell fiber, offers a trustworthy option for brands interested in sourcing recycled fibers.

Fiber transparency is another important benchmark in determining circularity, allowing brands and consumers to examine the level of circularity and sustainability in supply chains. This means that in addition to betting on the most sustainable fiber, brands should look for fibers with clear identifications on sourcing and production, which are reliable proofs of environmental credentials. With more brands committing to circularity, new sustainability standards can be set, producing better economic, environmental and societal outcomes.

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