Is Closed-Loop Production a Good Fit for the Global Fashion Industry?

Is Closed-Loop Production a Good Fit for the Global Fashion Industry?

When it comes to waste and recycling, fashion is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. As clothing and textile makers across the globe are looking at the sustainability and environmental footprint of their products, especially those including denim and cotton, waste and recycling are entering the minds of fashion leaders.

The H&M Conscious Foundation, a non-profit foundation led by the owners of the Swedish fashion company H&M, recently launched the inaugural Global Change Award. The award, by encouraging green, ground-breaking ideas, aims to protect the earth’s natural resources by closing the loop for fashion.

The vast majority of discarded textiles—last year’s shoes, those worn-out blue jeans, sheets, and countless fashion dos and don’ts—end up in landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that shoes, clothing and textiles made up approximately 5 percent of total municipal solid waste (MSW) generation, or 12.4 million tons.

The US generates 25 billion pounds of textiles per year, according to the Maryland-based Council for Textile Recycling. That’s 82 pounds per person. Overall 15 percent, or 12 pounds per person, is recycled or donated. That leaves 70 pounds per person, or 21 billion pounds total, in landfills. There, textiles, even biodegradable fibers, do not easily degrade thanks to a lack of oxygen and sunlight.

Thus, H&M's expert jury of academics, fashion and science leaders soon will choose five winners to share in a grant of $1.14 million. The winners, to be announced in February, will have access to a tailor-made innovation accelerator—a collaboration with Accenture and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm—which will give life to those ground-breaking ideas.

“The question for fashion is no longer, ‘What is the new black?’ but rather, ‘What innovative ideas can close the loop?’ The Global Change Award is looking for ideas that will protect the earth’s natural resources, and I am excited to be part of it,” said Rebecca Earley, professor in Sustainable Textile and Fashion Design at University of the Arts London, director of its Textile Futures Research Centre and member of the Global Change Award Jury.

One part of the multifaceted problem is that it’s not as simple as recycling old garments into new ones. In fact, to make a new piece of clothing, the old clothing is shredded and chopped into raw materials. That process lowers the quality, strength and softness of cotton, which the industry says is what’s keeping it from using more recycled cotton in production. H&M’s award aims to improve production, while taking on another facet of the cotton recycling quandary: How can today's fashion industry create fashion for a growing population while reducing its impact on the environment?

“Ground-breaking, game-changing ideas can come from anywhere, so the challenge is open to anyone. Each year the Global Change Award aims to find the truly brave and bold ideas that make change. I’m also eager to see how the fashion industry as a whole will embrace the challenge of closing the loop,” said H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson in a press release.

H&M is not alone in its quest for a solution. Last month, Levi Strauss & Co. of San Francisco, announced it's expanding its clothing recycling program to all of its U.S. mainline and outlet stores, making it easier for consumers to recycle clothing and shoes. The firm is trying to underscore its commitment to sustainability by reducing the volume of waste sent to landfills and creating an infrastructure that supports a “circular economy” by 2020.

Like H&M, Levi is partnering with Switzerland-based I:Collect AG, (I:CO), part of the SOEX Group, a firm that specializes in used textiles marketing and recycling. I:CO provides the infrastructure to make certain valuable raw materials from used textiles enter a closed loop production cycle and remain there. From collection to recycling, consumer goods are recycled and put to a new use.

I:CO has collection points all over the world, and its parent company, SOEX Group, has more than 2,000 employees worldwide and currently processes around 700 tons of used items every day in more than 90 countries.

Back at Levi stores, besides doing something good for the environment, consumers dropping off their discarded clothing and shoes also receive a voucher for 20 percent off of a single item in store.

PUMA, too, is encouraging recycling and re-usability through its “Bring Me Back” program in cooperation with I:CO. Consumers bring used shoes, clothing and accessories from any manufacturer to PUMA stores and deposit them in designated bins. The company sends the used items to be re-used or recycled by I:CO, where they are either broken down and re-used to create raw materials, re-used (if still in suitable condition) or recycled into new products. 

With the “Bring Me Back” initiative PUMA says it is aspiring to eliminate waste by recycling used products to create new ones, and the effort is one more step forward toward the goal of transitioning to a closed cycle loop for materials usage. 

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