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How to make the textiles sector fit for the future

Earth in Yarn
Roman Samokhin / Shutterstock

In nearly every way imaginable, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world order. It has tested global leaders, disrupted global supply chains and deeply affected individual lives in ways big and small. 

But amidst tragedy and chaos, this pandemic also has demonstrated the deep interconnectedness that exists between people and planetary systems. It shows the turmoil that can result when one element of the system is out of balance — a situation certain to repeat itself many times over if we ignore long-term risks such as climate change. 

This interconnectedness is particularly evident in the textiles industry, with its complex — and increasingly fragile — global supply chains. We have the opportunity to rethink our sector to make it fit for the future. But where do we begin?

As a nonprofit specializing in the sustainability of raw materials in the textile industry, Textile Exchange believes that it is impossible to know where we need to go in future until we know where we are now. 

In this spirit, today we are pleased to publish our latest Material Change Insights Report, which offers valuable insights into the state of fiber and materials sourcing in the textiles sector in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Material Change Report

The report draws on exclusive data provided through Textile Exchange’s Corporate Fiber & Materials Benchmark program, the largest peer-to-peer comparison initiative in the textiles sector, with more than 170 brand participants. It provides one of the most data-backed and comprehensive analyses of how the industry is progressing in its shift to preferred materials, as well as alignment with global efforts such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the transition to a circular economy. The report builds on Textile Exchange’s Material Change Index — a family of indices, published earlier in the year, that tracks individual company progress.

Here are a few takeaways from this year’s analysis: 

Climate change and raw materials sourcing are inextricably linked — and sourcing preferred materials is a powerful way for a company to reduce its climate impacts. The choices a company makes when sourcing raw materials either can damage or improve the health of the planet — and sourcing preferred materials is a way to make sure it’s the latter. In 2018, reporting companies collectively converted 1.7 million metric tons of materials to preferred, resulting in a saving of 1 million metric tons greenhouse gases. 

Companies are increasingly sourcing their raw materials from preferred sources. Reporting companies sourced nearly 40 percent of their materials from preferred sources in 2018. This includes cotton, polyester, nylon, manmade cellulosics, wool and down. Textile Exchange defines a preferred material as one which results in improved environmental and/or social sustainability outcomes and impacts in comparison to conventional production.

More companies are incorporating circularity into their strategies, but a deeper rethinking of systems change is still lacking. Companies are recognizing the urgent need to reduce dependency on virgin material inputs and eliminate waste by shifting towards a circular value chain. Eighty-six percent of companies responding to our circularity module have a circularity strategy in place, up from just 29 percent of the same companies two years before. However, most are focusing on one or a few circularity activities. Circularity leaders are moving in the right direction, with design strategies, post-consumer collection, use of recycled content and other circularity-enabling practices — efforts that must be connected, accelerated and scaled to achieve the transformative shift we need.

The SDGs are a useful framework for global action, although the majority of companies have not yet set measurable targets. The way we produce, (re)use and dispose of or recycle our materials has an impact on nearly every one of the 17 SDGs. The textile industry has a powerful opportunity to shift the needle in both producer and consumer contexts. Our study shows that 66 percent of companies said they have started aligning their business strategy with the SDGs. However, 71 percent have not set measurable targets within their goal alignment, which is needed for these commitments to be meaningful.

The time for urgent action is now. We are encouraged by the progress we are seeing. But we realize that meaningful change requires an even deeper commitment to a sourcing model that regenerates instead of extracts, that benefits instead of exploits, that prioritizes the health of the planet and all of us people on it.

Now is the time to double down on this commitment. Let’s embrace fairness and kindness. Let’s accelerate innovation, rather than stall it. We may not have been able to prevent the current pandemic, but we do have it within our power to learn from it and build back with a more resilient future in mind.

Textile Exchange will host a webinar series to dive deeper into the Material Change Insights Report’s findings. We also invite brands, retailers and manufacturers to participate in the 2020 CFMB survey, which launches in June. Interested companies can learn more and register here

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