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The potential for circular textiles to have a positive impact on work and workers

Can unwanted clothes make for happy workers?

The circular economy is taking main stage in the fashion industry. Commitments to circularity are being made by the largest brands and retailers out there. Markets for circular business models are showing significant growth, such as the recommerce market expected to almost double its size by 2023, and the online rental market growing at an 11 percent annual rate.

Both are outpacing traditional retail which remains with an annual growth of about 2 percent.

Textile and clothing manufacturers are also placing attention to other aspects of the circular economy, with a ninefold increase between 2014 and 2019 in the number of facilities certified by the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS), as well as a 360 percent increase in those certified by Global Recycled Standard (GRS).

The European Commission’s recent communication on the Green New Deal (PDF) is based on just transition principles and points to the job-intensive circular activities to this end. Indeed, recent estimates (PDF) have highlighted the potential of the circular economy to generate a net employment increase of about 700,000 jobs in the European Union by 2030. Whereas certain sectors will lose out, the lion’s share of new jobs will be created in the waste and resource management and repair and maintenance sectors.

Wieland Textiles, 2019.

Currently, an estimated 20 jobs are created for every 1,000 metric tons of used textiles collected and sorted for reuse and recycling in social enterprises across Europe (PDF). CE Delft independent research and consultancy estimates that every additional kilo tonne of recycled textiles could create an additional six to seven jobs, making textiles the most job-intensive recycling sector in the Netherlands.

At the same time, the reuse and recycling sector is facing high levels of job uncertainty with rapid robotization of activities. In the case of used textiles, automated sorting technologies are making their entrance to close the business case for recycled textiles. While this is certainly good news for circular business models in the textiles industry, is it good news for workers?

Considering the socio-economic potential of the end-of-use value chain for textiles on the one hand and the introduction of new technologies affecting human work on the other, we are compelled to explore in more depth where changes in employment will take place and which skills are needed for present and future jobs in textiles repair, reuse and recycling.

The circular work that is already being done: collection, sorting and reuse

textile processing graph

Textile collectors and sorters have a long running history of collecting textiles after consumer use and reintroducing them into second-hand textile markets, both locally and globally. These existing jobs in waste management, transportation, logistics, sorting and resale are essential to ensure materials and resources keep cycling at their highest possible value, and safeguarding their business case is paramount to ensure that an end-of-use textiles value chain can be developed while maintaining current jobs.

Further, in-store repair activities such as Nudie Jeans free repair services and remanufacturing at scale, such as The Renewal Workshop with operations in the United States and recently in Amsterdam, while expanding operations to Europe, are entering the market with a fresh outlook, while leveraging on ancient and often relegated skills in the last decades.

The Renewal Workshop, 2020

While volumes of collected textiles are on the rise, their potential for future reuse is decreasing. This is due to a combination of causes: increasing pollution of collected textiles with household waste, extensive use or damage, decreasing material quality or even due to the market saturation (PDF) that second-hand clothing is facing.

With increasing pressure to maximize collection rates, volume-based remunerations required to be paid to regional governments and collected textiles losing their financial value on the markets, the business case for collectors is more difficult to sustain. This also leads to a large portion of used textiles to have no high recover value and be downcycled, incinerated or landfilled. These are known as non-rewearable textiles and a significantly low volume of them are recycled into new ones, reaching estimated figures below 0.1 percent.

The new circular jobs and skills on the block: preparing textiles for recycling

To ensure that sorters can supply accurate and reliable materials for recyclers to make use of the textiles that are not fit for the second-hand market at high productivity rates, automated sorting technologies, such as the FIBERSORT which categorizes textiles based on their fiber composition, their color and/or their structure, are being integrated into the industry. The development and implementation of such technologies could create new job opportunities such as machine technicians and technology developers as well as other supporting business and engineering roles.

recycling process graph

Hardware and label removal is of utter importance for mechanical recyclers. Certain hardware, trims and prints also may create challenges for some chemical recyclers. Therefore, the pre-processing of these textiles, including all contaminant removal, is a job that holds great potential to further growth. This activity can create opportunities for people with a distance to the labor market, provided the right incentives are created. The financial viability of the manual removal of contaminants needs to be further assessed. Even in the future scenario where hardware removal is robotized, new jobs in finer sorting and logistics for pre-processing will remain.

The interconnectedness of sorting, reuse, pre-processing and recycling activities also will have consequences on the specific tasks and knowledge requirements of workers and may call for a need of upskilling the workforce. Here, logistics, educational and coordination jobs may play an important indirect role in enabling this transition.

The missing pieces of the puzzle: researching, monitoring and assessing the effects of circularity on textiles end-of-use jobs and skills

  • Aside from counting job opportunities, it is essential to bear in mind a just transition, where current jobs are secured and at-risk workers guided into new employment.
  • Moreover, the recycling sector needs to tackle issues in relation to quality of work (health and safety, decent wages, representation and social dialogue).
  • Further, the current situation and effects of exported used textiles, both for rewearable and non-rewearable textiles to different economies and geographical contexts, needs to be given visibility.

The development of a circular textiles industry expects to have a positive impact on employment within the end-of-use stages. The areas for further research mentioned above should inform and guide key transition strategies towards a circular textiles value chain to ensure maximizing positive and minimizing adverse effects. We urge market players to create a market pull for increased reuse and recycling presence in the fashion industry. At the same time, governments need to assess their current strategies for used textiles and ensure incentives are created for their collection, regional sorting, reuse or recycling.

Are you eager to join the research and implementation of projects regarding circular jobs and skills in the textiles industry? Contact the CE Jobs & Skills program or the CE Textiles program for more information.

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Circle Economy

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