This article was originally published on World Resources Institute.
The fashion industry could make or break global climate goals. The industry is responsible for between 4 percent to 10 percent of global emissions and is the second biggest consumer of water. This problem could get worse: a continual rise in global GDP has increased income worldwide, leading consumers to purchase new clothes more frequently. The industry must achieve an absolute emissions reduction of 45 percent by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, emissions will grow to 1.588 gigatons by 2030 without immediate action.
The industry will need to address the significant amount of waste it produces to achieve this emissions reduction. Post-production textile waste is one contributor, as up to 20 percent of fabric is lost during clothing production. This waste produces its own emissions through transportation to landfills or those released when clothes are burned.
Challenges in addressing waste are especially pronounced in East Africa. The region produces a large amount of the global share of textiles and, as a result, contributes a lot of post-production waste. In Kenya, garment manufacturers generate an estimated 400,000 tons of cotton waste per year, which often ends up in toxic dumps that pollute soil and put waste pickers at risk. Even when manufacturers can recycle materials, they lack circular waste-to-value solutions that maintain the value of textiles. As a result, textiles are often converted into lower quality materials with reduced functionality such as floor mats, cushion stuffing and insulation material.
The fashion sector, in East Africa and beyond, needs transformative solutions to reduce waste. One partnership in Kenya is successfully showing what these solutions can look like in practice. Their work could provide valuable lessons for other countries around the world as they shift their fashion industries toward more sustainable methods. This shift, in turn, will help achieve global climate goals and economic growth.
A new partnership transforming the fashion system
Reducing waste throughout the supply chain, from manufacturing to recycling, requires an intermediary that can process waste into sustainable raw materials for new clothing production. That is where Closing the Loop on Textile Waste in Kenya comes in. They use a revolutionary chemical recycling technology, developed by U.S.-based company PurFi, which recycles textile waste into high-quality products that can be re-used in new manufacturing.
The fashion sector, in East Africa and beyond, needs transformative solutions to reduce waste.
This technology uses 99 percent less water, up to 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions and 90 percent less energy than typical approaches to textile waste recycling. While chemical use itself isn’t environmentally neutral — more than 15,000 chemicals are associated with garment production, some of which are toxic — PurFi’s innovative rejuvenation technology maintains a closed process that absorbs the recycling chemicals back into the resulting fabric.
In addition to climate benefits, the partnership exemplifies how social equity and environmental impact intertwine. They train previously unemployed women in the community, helping ensure decent and safe jobs that allow them to provide for their families. This all-women sorting team processes 36,000 kg of waste per month and is working to scale that up to 100,000 kg per month. Collectively, the partnership has sold 100,000 kg of textile cotton waste so far.
This multistakeholder initiative — led by non-profit Enviu, alongside PurFi and Upset Sourcing East Africa — is built on a successful 2018 project from India. Kenya’s growing textile production and lack of recycling solutions created the perfect opportunity for the partnership to replicate India’s model.
Each year, Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 (P4G) State-of-the-Art Partnership Awards recognize the world’s most impactful partnerships that are accelerating innovative business models. Closing the Loop on Textile Waste earned the Partnership of the Year for 2021, announced at COP26, for its work to transform textile recycling throughout Africa.
The future of Closing the Loop and Kenya’s fashion industry
Closing the Loop’s work is happening at a critical time, as Kenya is rapidly expanding its prominence in the fashion industry. Rebuilding Kenya’s domestic textile industry is a national priority in Kenya’s Big Four Agenda, which emphasizes job creation in the manufacturing sector and improved living standards. Recent trade agreements and the creation of special economic zones have also incentivized growth in textile manufacturing for export. As a result, Kenya’s textiles and garments export is projected to increase by 25 percent each year over the next five years.
While the expansion of Kenya’s textile industry will lead to important economic growth, post-production waste is already piling up as a result. The partnership is working to expand alongside the industry and embed recycling practices into the supply chain through two critical approaches:
1. Public-private collaboration
Closing the Loop’s waste-to-value solution gives them a unique opportunity to support both government agencies and garment manufacturers in solving the textile waste challenge.
The partnership has engaged Kenya’s Export Processing Zone Authority (EPZA) under the Ministry of Industrialization, Trade and Enterprise Development, which is responsible for promoting export-oriented commercial initiatives. EPZA lacks sustainable and circular solutions to manage the massive amounts of textile waste generated by large garment manufacturers inside their agency. At the same time, 450 new production lines are being developed inside EPZA, which will lead to more post-production waste.
By collaborating with EPZA, Closing the Loop can provide the agency with the circular solutions they currently lack. The partnership will have access to the textile waste generated in both old and new production lines, which will allow them to recycle even more materials.
The partnership has also signed sourcing agreements with waste management companies and manufacturers in Kenya. By building deep integration with suppliers, the partnership can closely trace waste throughout their supply chain. Traceability is often difficult, as a complex web of intermediaries source and manufacture products. By working closely with multiple manufacturers, the partnership will have better insights into where the most waste is produced, and in turn, allow them to better prevent and recycle that waste.
2. Increased scale and efficiency
Closing the Loop’s collaborations will allow the partnership to access and recycle more waste than ever before. On the flip side, being able to process such a large amount of waste will require the partnership to work more efficiently and at a larger scale. Recognizing this, Closing the Loop plans to expand to a larger facility where they can store more post-production materials, hire more staff and access more tools. This will allow the partnership to sort the massive influx of waste they will receive.
Addressing environmental challenges in textile production would not only combat climate change, but also provide a $192 billion overall benefit to the global economy by 2030.
In addition to increased waste reduction, expanding their work will have economic benefits for the partnership and the communities they work in. Larger waste volumes from suppliers and increased sorter output will reduce the cost per sorted kilogram of waste. This will also allow the partnership to continue providing socially fair jobs and contribute to Kenya’s Big Four Agenda.
Ultimately, Closing the Loop plans to expand its technology across Kenya and build a network of local, robust textile waste centers. This network would return recycled post-production waste to the same companies who produced it. In turn, they would facilitate a constant flow of waste material for rejuvenation. If they are successful, the partnership will play a major role to help Kenya’s textile industry transition from existing ineffective informal waste systems to a formal circular system.
Creating a sustainable global fashion industry
The Closing the Loop on Textile Waste initiative shows it is possible to shift to circular textile waste management, foster social equity and create jobs in the communities most impacted by the industry. This inclusive model demonstrates that local solutions can play a larger role toward the transition to sustainable practices. Additionally, these solutions can lead to large-scale benefits: Addressing environmental challenges in textile production would not only combat climate change, but also provide a $192 billion overall benefit to the global economy by 2030.
P4G is developing a cluster of partnerships that, like Closing the Loop, are turning waste into an asset across textiles, plastics and food. Closing the Loop builds on synergies with P4G’s Circular Fashion Partnership, which brings together brands, manufacturers and recyclers to increase the value of waste by repurposing it into new textile products in Bangladesh. Through collaborating and sharing lessons across the globe on textile reuse and recycling, these partnerships have the potential to broaden their impact, improve transparency and trace waste across the global fashion system.
The world needs more innovative business models that rapidly transform traditional systems. Partnerships can advance these models across the supply chain, but only with support from investors and fashion industry stakeholders. If they follow the example of Closing the Loop, they can achieve the collaboration and scale necessary to create a truly sustainable fashion industry.