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Circularising the textile industry: the challenge begins with product design

Translated by
Nicola Mira
Published
today Nov 14, 2018
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The French National Institute for the Circular Economy (INEC) has made an assessment of the circular economy’s status in the textile/apparel industry, underlining the existing limitations to textile recycling, and the need to anticipate the possibility of reusing materials from the initial design stage.


The environmental impact of textile products, from breeding and crops to production and distribution, according to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) - Ademe


According to the INEC’s findings, the re-use of textile products is still constrained by technical issues. Mechanical recycling of cotton is now a well-established process, but it degrades the fibre’s quality, so that new clothes can only incorporate 20% of recycled fibres. The situation is very different for wool, which can be re-utilised several times, while polyester polymers can be re-transformed into new fibres. Polyester fabric is a special case though, as it is mostly transformed into insulating material, while recycled polyester clothes are instead chiefly made from plastic bottles, a transformation process which is extremely energy-intensive.  However, the industry’s main challenge is that of blended fabrics, very widely used in fast fashion, which make recycling difficult since the various fabric components need to be separated.

“Extensive investment is necessary, to develop recycling technologies enabling recycled materials to become as profitable as new ones,” said INEC, in whose opinion a new approach must be adopted right from the beginning of the process. “Design choices could greatly reduce the environmental impact of clothes, and improve their circularity,” added the Institute, notably underlining that each garment is likely to generate between 20% and 30% of fabric offcuts. Something which the Institute reckons could be “optimised”, like the choice of materials themselves.


The carbon footprint, water usage and waste generation for the clothes placed on the market in the EU in 2015 - Institut national de l’économie circulaire


The Institute took the denim industry as an example, indicating that only 30% of a pair of jeans can be recycled, due to the stitching and rivets. While single-material fabrics would make recycling easier. Using sustainable materials right from the start of the process would also go in the same direction.

Unsurprisingly, the Institute urges to prioritise the use of bio cotton instead of conventional one, or of lyocell (eucalyptus cellulose) rather than viscose, not to mention that of more virtuous fibres like linen. The role of dyes wasn’t overlooked, and INEC endorsed the position of Greenpeace, according to which economising on the use of toxic chemicals is a prerequisite to the realisation of a circular economy in the industry.

But textile and garment manufacturers aren’t the only subjects needing to make a move towards circularity. The Institute’s report underlined how consumers must play a part too, reminding that the number of clothes purchases has grown significantly since the 2000s, while the garments’ duration of use has shortened. Besides calling for a more sensible level of consumption, the report emphasised the opportunities afforded by alternative solutions. “Customisation services, as well as garment-making and upcycling workshops are all complementary services which fashion labels could offer,” wrote INEC. “These downstream marketing strategies engage end consumers, allowing them to co-design products that meet their tastes and expectations and increase their loyalty, and actually extend the life cycle of garments,” added the Institute.


As shown by the chart detailing clothing sales and use, the rise in purchases and decrease in utilisation is one of the main challenges to the circularisation of the textile industry - Institut national de l’économie circulaire


In 2015, the EU placed on the market 6.4 million tonnes of clothing. In France, 9.5 kg of apparel, home linen and footwear products per inhabitant are placed on the market each year. In 2017, 3.4 kg of the same were collected, i.e. 36% of the potential volume, underlined INEC, indicating that 80% of fabrics currently used in the EU are not recycled.

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