Nike and H&M try reused threads on for size

Just as people cannot continue to wear the same clothing through every decade of their lives, industries must eschew outmoded manufacturing models to keep up with evolving business practices.

And the fashion industry has grown too big to be resource-efficient: Clothing production has doubled between 2000 to 2014, reported McKinsey, as consumers increase purchases of garments by 60 percent annually, yet keep their clothing for half the time they did 15 years ago. Up to 85 percent of those textiles go to landfill, where they emit methane while they degrade — if they decompose at all.

The Circular Fibres Initiative, launched Thursday at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, brings together leading businesses, NGOs, philanthropic organizations and public bodies to create a "vision for a new global textiles system" that will replace the linear, "take-make-dispose" model dominating the industry, starting with clothing companies.

Nike and H&M are the first corporate partners to publicly announce their engagement in the initiative, led by circular economy think tank Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with participation from the C&A Foundation, the Danish Fashion Institute, Fashion for Good, Cradle to Cradle and Mistra Future Fashion.

The effort builds on the success of the New Plastics Economy (NPEC) Initiative, launched in 2016, which has brought together nearly 40 companies, including Coca-Cola, Danone and P&G, to increase plastics recycling to 70 percent per year. The NPEC has raised $10 million, according to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation spokesperson.

"From this experience, we identified that a key success factor has been a precompetitive, collaborative mindset amongst participants," said the spokesperson.

A 2013 Ellen MacArthur report analyzed the challenges and opportunities presented by increased recycling in the textiles industry. Producer profits are under pressure from rising input costs while clothing prices decreased 2 percent from 2006 to 2011, leading to "price wars in a race to the bottom."

The retail market wants solutions to the waste and the price squeeze: Nearly 3,000 bio-based, biodegradable materials, including fabrics, are on the market. The market is also innovating to meet dwindling resources through the circular economy, in which what’s old becomes new again, and the Circular Fibres Initiative will investigate material solutions to scale textile reuse.

First, the initiative will produce an analysis of the textiles industry, mapping how textiles flow around the global economy and its externalities. The report is due to be published in autumn.

Already, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has found that the size of the clothing market makes it a good industry to test the viability of a circular business model in consumer products. The total annual global consumption of clothing amounted to $1.4 trillion per year, or about 91 billion garments sold, in 2013. Across Europe and North America, 15 million tons annually of clothing is discarded and ends up in landfills.

Earlier this week, the Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published a report, which debuted at the fashion summit, that scored the fashion industry a low 32 out of 100 points for sustainability. As apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63 percent in 2030, the need to address its footprint now is essential.

The report addressed fashion's systemic issues, including the volume of water consumed by the industry, which today is nearly 79 billion meters (enough to fill nearly 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools) and will double by 2030. Its carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase to nearly 2.8 billion tons per year by 2030 — the year that fashion waste will top off at 148 million tons.

Tapping into unwanted threads provides a profitable circular business model. According to WRAP UK, an organization accelerating resource efficiency, the circular economy helps companies capture up to $1,975 per ton of end-of-life clothing collected. Net operating profit from clothing and processing end-of-life clothing (in the U.K. alone) is $1,295 per ton, even after accounting for collection, sorting and treatment.

Clothing can be repurposed several ways: It can be collected for reuse domestically or abroad; reused for cleaning rags (wipers); shredded for new yarn; or turned into stuffing for furniture and insulation for cars and homes. By raising end-of-use textile collection rates in North America and Europe to about 65 percent, the industry would save about $71 billion, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. 

A circular economy for textiles also would be good for the environment. The EPA estimates that recycling the clothing that Americans currently toss would be the equivalent of taking the emissions 1.2 million cars off the road (which will inflate to 230 million cars by 2030, according to the Global Fashion Agenda and BCG). The Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggested that nutrients embodied in biological materials can be returned to the food and farming systems to regenerate soil. And recovering nutrients in cotton lint from textile wastewater or end-of-use fabrics uses just 0.5 percent of current chemical fertilizer consumption (cotton currently accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of global sales of insecticides, respectively).

Dame Ellen MacArthur stated that the initiative is bringing various stakeholders in the textile industry together to catalyze change by "creating an ambitious, fact-based vision for a new global textiles system, underpinned by circular economy principles, that has economic, environmental and social benefits."

Noted Anna Gedde, head of sustainability for H&M Group: "Our 100 percent circular vision and our goal to only use recycled or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030 plays a key role in our sustainability agenda. We are aware that our vision means a big change on [sic] how fashion is made and enjoyed today and if we want to take the lead on this challenge, collaboration and accelerating innovation and circular systems together with the industry is crucial."

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