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How Can Fashion Rethink the End-of-Life of Products?

Lenzing’s VP of global textiles business, Florian Heubrandner, and the Future Fabrics Expo founder, Nina Marenzi, share insights into the moral and financial imperatives of addressing fashion’s waste problem.
A pile of clothes at end-of-life.
A pile of clothes at end-of-life. (Getty Images)
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“The single biggest number that says it all is that less than 1 percent of our clothing is actually being recycled. It says a lot about how linear this industry is,” said global fibre manufacturer Lenzing’s VP of global textiles business, Florian Heubrandner, in his opening remarks during last week’s BoF Live event.

Indeed, fashion is among the most environmentally intensive industries on the planet, responsible for around 3 to 5 percent of global carbon emissions — with material production contributing between 25 and 40 percent of those emissions.

BoF and McKinsey & Co.’s State of Fashion 2023 report states that oil-based polyester accounts for about 50 percent of fibre production, while cotton, which is reliant on large volumes of water, land, fertiliser and pesticides, makes up another 25 percent.

Today, despite some progress, scaling sustainable innovations is proving to be a significant industry challenge. Multiple factors are responsible, from limited processes for collection, to the additional cost of pre-processing and sorting. But innovation is increasingly critical, as both consumer and regulatory pressure increases.

In conversation with BoF’s Alice Gividen, Lenzing’s Heubrandner joined Nina Marenzi, founder and director of The Sustainable Angle and the Future Fabrics Expo, to share their insights on fashion’s waste problem, upcoming legislation, traceability as a key strategy, and the most compelling and scalable materials solutions on the market.

Here, BoF shares key insights from the conversation.

Understand Shifting Legislation Around Extended Producer Responsibility

FH: “The concept behind Extended Producer Responsibility is that the company producing a certain good is also responsible for its afterlife. This is a concept that has been used in other industries such as electronics or white goods — manufacturers have to take ownership and responsibility for whatever happens after product use.

“So, an added cost is [absorbed] somewhere to cover the end-of-life solutions. This could be collection or product recycling and is the kind of incentive we require to reshape our thinking, as an industry, in terms of what materials we want to use and also influence consumer behaviour.”

Manufacturers have to take ownership and responsibility for whatever happens after product use.

NM: “We need to [see] regulators come in and create a level playing field, so that pioneering companies who are [rethinking] their production process see incentivising measures such as tax breaks from the government. Meanwhile, the polluting companies should be penalised for what they are doing. This will, in turn, level out some difference in price.

“We, the taxpayer, are already paying for the increased costs needed to clean up pollution. Whether it is water treatment facilities or other solutions to increased pollution, we are already shouldering the cost in different ways without realising it. It’s high time that was addressed through EPR.”

Consider Traceability a Critical Step in Embracing More Circular Methods

FH: “At Lenzing, our fibres come with a tracker in it that allows it to really identify the fibre all the way through its life. You can track it on a yarn level, if it’s knitted or woven, if it’s dyed, and even as the end-garment. We see that it is important to more brands and retailers because that need for transparency is increasing. Digital traceability is also a growing strategy, whereby Lenzing issues a digital twin called a ‘fibre coin’ that continues its journey alongside the fibre all the way to the end product.

“This technology is crucial in building competitive advantage. If you want to make a claim at the brand end of your business, or want to communicate certain commitments around recycling, or materials used, then you need to know that the garment consumers have in their hands is really made out of recycled material. Transparency and traceability enable the whole discussion of setting targets and meeting them.”

When a company knows that it works with fibres that it can trace through its entire supply chain, it enables that company to actually share that with consumers.

NM: “Traceability is an enabler of circular business models. It actually gives confidence, especially in a time when we have so much greenwashing going on, with so many claims circling about how sustainable something is. Having actual traceability is fundamental.

“[Traceability] also helps for brand storytelling. When a company knows that it works with fibres that it can trace through its entire supply chain, it enables that company to actually share that with consumers. It can create a positive feedback loop, and is critical in building successful and effective resale and rental business models.”

Rebalance Your Materials Portfolio to Futureproof Your Business

FH: “Begin by using natural fibres wherever possible, because even if collection rates are low and product is going to landfill, at least the fibres and microfibres admitted into our environment are biodegradable. The other thing to consider is manufacturing your garments in a way that means they are more likely to be recycled. Once you blend natural fibres with lots of synthetics or colours, it impacts and limits the recycling process. Instead, blending natural fibres together will make this process possible.

“Finally, wherever possible, try to use recycled materials already. And when I say recycled, I mean true fibre-to-fibre circularity. In 2017, we launched Refibra technology that upcycles cotton scraps from garment production and post-consumer use in addition to wood pulp, where the raw material is transformed to produce new virgin Tencel Lyocell fibres as a nascent product. Now, we are producing thousands of tonnes using this method. It’s an [exciting] solution that is really beginning to scale.”

Brands don’t need to deal with entire collections, rather, begin at first by innovating a part of your products.

NM: “The fashion industry has an [over-reliance] on conventional cotton and virtual polyester. At the Future Fabrics Expo, we work to make it as feasible as possible for the industry to find alternatives and diversify the fibre basket, which has been dominated by these two options.

“Now there are so many solutions for brands, from different fibres to more colours, to different materials that simply didn’t exist years ago. Brands are increasingly knowledgeable now — it shouldn’t just be designers and buyers addressing a material portfolio, but the CSR teams, marketing teams, even merchandisers. There should be a collective drive to find solutions.”

Make Small but Significant Investments to Build Competitive Advantage

FH: “Brands must take a leap of faith. If you look back at industry innovations, there are many examples of long-term payoff. Brands don’t need to deal with entire collections, rather, begin at first by innovating a part of your products.

“Looking back at other developments in the past, for instance, the rise of sustainable viscose that happened four or five years ago, we can see that the businesses who acted first had an early edge in the [face of] changing consumer mindsets and regulatory pressure. In relation to materials, the brands that lead the way will also get that recognition in the market and from consumers.”

NM: “While it is definitely good to look at embracing new materials, I would encourage brands to look at circularity, keeping products on the same quality level for as long as possible. This may mean considering reuse, designing for durability or modifying existing products via deadstock.

“I don’t think you can be a new brand today, and aspire to be a pioneering fashion brand, by ignoring the climate and biodiversity crisis. If you are ignoring that, you are not part of the zeitgeist and your brand won’t be a part of the movement that’s coming. Of course, there are always compromises — for certain materials, there are just no sustainable alternatives yet, or maybe the better choice isn’t affordable at scale. But ultimately, I think you cannot be a new brand and ignore this at all. I don’t think it will be successful.”

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Lenzing as part of a BoF partnership.

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