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Circularity: Sustainable Fashion’s Holy Grail or Greenwashing?

For many fashion brands, circularity begins and ends with marketing campaigns or capsule collections featuring recycled materials, an approach some activists liken to greenwashing.
Source: Shutterstock

NEW YORK, United States — Hundreds of fashion and apparel brands, from Adidas to Zara, have pledged themselves to the cause of circular fashion over the past year, making “circularity” something like the holy grail of sustainable fashion.

But are they actually making the industry less wasteful?

The circular economy, a term that refers to a value “circle” where products and materials are recovered, regenerated and reused — an alternative to traditional linearity (make, use, dispose) — has become a rallying cry for the fashion industry. Some 87 percent of the 53 million tons of clothing produced globally each year is either incinerated or dumped into landfills, according to a 2017 study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

In the year since the Copenhagen Fashion Summit entreated the world's fashion companies to commit to ushering in a circular fashion system by 2020, 93 of them have thrown in their support. Combined, they account for 12 percent of the global apparel market, according to the Global Fashion Agenda, a non-profit pushing for more.

But agreeing to a goal is the easy part. Some of the circular economy's proponents say the fashion industry hasn't demonstrated how it will meet ambitious targets that require technological leaps that are years or even decades away. Neither has it addressed systemic changes some say will be necessary, like reducing consumption. For many brands, circularity begins and ends with marketing campaigns, or capsule collections featuring recycled material, an approach some activists liken to greenwashing.

"The only way we're going to get there is to change business models," said Annie Gullingsrud, who works with brands such as Eileen Fisher, H&M and Stella McCartney at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a non-profit that promotes sustainable manufacturing. "That means keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible, thus cutting down on the use of virgin materials."

That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress; even basic steps like encouraging customers to recycle used clothes rather than throw them away can make a difference when global fashion giants get behind them.

Zara owner Inditex is working with the charity Cáritas to install between 1,500 and 2,000 garment collection bins in Spain’s major cities. It has pledged to invest $3.5 million to upgrade Cáritas’s garment-recycling facilities and is collaborating with Lenzing to create a premium fibre known as Refibra from its cotton scraps.

Gap Inc. says it is identifying the "most promising" recycling technologies for post-consumer materials across multiple product categories, with an eye towards scaling them up by 2020.

Tommy Hilfiger aims to use post-consumer recycled textile fibres in at least 70 percent of its business divisions "with the ambition to increase the recycled content year on year." Hugo Boss will apply circular principles in every design brief, beginning with its Spring/Summer 2020 collection. Target says it will invest $1 million in post-consumer textile recycling technologies.

H&M’s foundation plans by 2020 to provide roughly €5.8 million (about $6.8 million) to bolster the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel’s research into methods for recycling cotton-polyester blends. Today, the materials are difficult to tease apart without sacrificing quality, so apparel made from these fabrics is typically thrown away.

H&M was an early adopter of the concept and in 2012 was among the first chain stores to launch a global clothing collection initiative.  Two years later, it debuted a collection of denim products made from fibres it recaptured from that programme. And since 2015, H&M has been offering an annual $1 million bounty to the best ideas for innovative closed-loop textiles, which to date include fabrics made from orange peels, fungi and even the dregs of wine-making.

Americans throw away about 26 billion pounds of apparel and textiles every year.

“One hundred percent circular for us means we will take a holistic approach to circularity covering our whole value chain, from how we design, our quality and durability, the materials we choose, the productions processes, different ways of prolonging the lifespan of our products through better use, care and repair, reuse and finally recycle,” said Cecilia Tiblad Berntsson, social sustainability manager H&M.

Still, many environmental activists blame the growth of fast fashion for soaring volumes of clothing waste. Americans throw away about 26 billion pounds of apparel and textiles every year, according to Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. For groups like Greenpeace, overconsumption of clothing is the larger problem that must be tackled.

Berntsson said H&M looks to grow by gaining market share, rather than encouraging customers to consume more. Promoting recycling and other circular initiatives is part of that. “From a business perspective we don’t want to encourage a throwaway or overconsumption attitude,” she explained. “We want our customers to come to our stores to buy the garments they really love and will keep in use and care for a long time, and we want to offer an easy solution when the garments are no longer wanted.”

But recycling is only one way to "close the loop," critics say. fabric recycling often means reconstituting clothes into upholstery stuffing, building insulation and other low-value products. Those materials, in turn, end up in the landfill at the end of their life cycles — not quite an infinitely recyclable fashion utopia.

“Circularity is three things: keeping resources in use for as long as possible, getting the most value from those resources while in use, and, finally, recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life,” said Maxine Bédat, co-founder of Zady, an online sustainable apparel brand that produces built-to-last elevated basics based on a system of transparency, which lays bare every node of the supply chain. “We can't forget the first two components of this concept.”

Ideally, apparel companies will adopt strategies to prolong the life of clothes, rather than making their disposal more efficient, organisations like Greenpeace and Circle Economy say. For example, the industry could produce higher-quality garments that last longer or promote clothing repairs. Brands and retailers could partner with outlets like Poshmark, The RealReal and ThredUp, which have helped make secondhand clothing an attractive and viable option.

These approaches are also feasible using today’s technologies, where many recycling initiatives would require the development of new fabrics and more efficient manufacturing techniques to scale up. At present, less than 1 percent of the materials used to create clothing is recycled into new clothing, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

If the apparel and footwear industry attains its goal of recycling 40 percent of fibres by 2030, it will cut emissions by only 3 to 6 percent.

“You don't need technology to repair your jeans or your jersey,” said Jade Wilting, the membership and business development lead at Circle Economy, an Amsterdam-based non-profit that helps companies adopt circular strategies.

For fast-fashion businesses that live or die by how often their customers’ flex their spending muscle, recycling, with its implicit promise of guilt-free consumption, is attractive. Balancing profitability with strategies that aim to reduce consumption is a trickier proposition.

“The current discourse about circularity depicts a society that can continue to make, buy and discard as much fashion as it likes,” said Kirsten Brodde, a Detox My Fashion campaigner at Greenpeace. “We need to stop thinking about growth and speed and start thinking about extending the lifespan of clothing to slow down and limit our excessive wasting of precious natural resources.”

There are questions about so-called recycled materials, such as polyester derived from castoff PET bottles. Although de rigueur for brands touting circularity, recycled polyester, like its virgin counterpart, can contribute to microplastic pollution in our waterways. Liquefying the polymers at high temperatures — a necessary step in the recycling process — can also release off-gas antimony, a plastic catalyst and suspected carcinogen, Gullingsrud from Cradle to Cradle said.

A study by ClimateWorks Foundation and metrics firm Quantis, released in February, casts doubt on how much fibre recapture and reuse alone can whittle down fashion’s sizeable carbon footprint, which currently accounts for 8.1 percent of global greenhouse-gas emission — or as much as the total climate impact of the entire European Union.

Even if the apparel and footwear industry attains its ambitious goal of recycling 40 percent of fibers by 2030, it will cut emissions by only 3 to 6 percent, ClimateWorks and Quantis said.

Make Fashion Circular, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to “radically redesign” a textiles economy for the 21st century, operates under the assumption that we can’t “recycle our way out of this situation,” said Francois Souchet, who helms the organisation.

Funded by C&A Foundation and Walmart Foundation, Make Fashion Circular looks at how to create materials that are renewable and safe, as well as business models that extend the use of clothing.

At the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in May, Burberry, H&M, Nike and Stella McCartney announced they are collaborating with Make Fashion Circular to make the take-make-dispose model of apparel obsolete. (Specific targets have yet to be announced.)

As the industry susses out what circularity is or isn’t, Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at Global Fashion Agenda, prefers to use the carrot over the stick.

While a common misconception is that one singular thing — whether recycling or not — can embody circularity, it’s enough for now that companies are trying to do better, he said.

“Don't let perfection be the enemy of good enough,” Lehmann explained. “It takes time to develop things, especially things that are as all-encompassing as circularity, which needs the whole ecosystem to work.”

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