A Look at Fashion’s Waste Crisis and How to Solve It

HEY FASHION! has released a report on “Fashion’s Waste Crisis and How to Solve It,” which looks at the issue of textile waste and how circularity can be leveraged to effectively address it.

The report was commissioned by HEY FASHION!’s parent organization, The Eileen Fisher Foundation, and authored by Pentatonic (a design and technology consultancy focused on sustainability). The associated research and end product were designed to help support the apparel industry in confronting the climate crisis, by “bringing together a diverse set of stakeholder voices actively working on the issue [and] translating these findings into tangible recommendations to propel the movement forward.”

The research phase of the project was framed around the question: What are the most tangible ways to increase global recycling from fashion industry waste? The researchers conducted a comprehensive literature review supplemented by a meta-analysis of brands’ sustainability data and pledges. They also performed a supply-chain analysis and deployed a questionnaire among key stakeholders within the circular fashion supply chain. Finally, they conducted more than 50 interviews with individuals representing nonprofits, businesses, investors, policymakers, academia, and other actors from across the fashion ecosystem.

In quantifying the scope of the textile-waste crisis, the report calls out key data including the following:

  • Clothing production and consumption are at an all-time high, resulting in significant environmental damage evident throughout the complex global supply chain
  • ~80% of all secondhand clothing is downcycled, exported or landfilled
  • The average consumer now buys 60% more pieces of clothing than 15 years ago and keeps each item for half as long
  • $500b of value is lost every year due to lack of recycling and clothes thrown into landfills before ever being sold
  • It is estimated that clothing sales will total 160m tons in 2050 — more than three times the amount today
  • The fashion industry’s 2030 emissions reduction targets will be missed by 50% on the current trajectory
  • The fashion industry needs to increase the market share of mechanically recycled (or equivalent) polyester fiber or filament from 14% to 90% by 2030, to achieve the 1.5 ̊C global warming pathway

The report is centered around eight points that represent “the most important overarching actions to promote a systemic transformation in the fashion industry to tackle the growing problem of textile waste.”

The authors note that the eight priority actions “must be pursued simultaneously in order to achieve the monumental change required to pivot the industry from linear business models to circular systems and collectively reach net-zero emissions in time.”

The eight priority actions, and a few details of each, are as follows:

  1. Scale collection and sorting infrastructure

To unlock the huge potential of textile-to-textile recycling, large-scale investment is needed globally throughout the value chain, but particularly in collection and sorting. Funding and optimizing these operations enables all other technologies to scale at the necessary rate and benefits all levels of a functioning circular economy from resale, repair, and recycling.

  1. Invest in recycling infrastructure

Enabling textile recyclers to rapidly scale proven technologies from pilot stage to commercial scale will help minimize global textile waste from entering the landfill or becoming a product of lesser value.

  1. Reduce production and consumption

The next decade will define the fashion industry as brands decide if they will take action and uphold their commitments to a circular transition to mitigate their impact or if they will fail to meet the new global expectations. Brands need to scrutinize their current global footprint or risk financial and reputational decline.

  1. Establish comprehensive cross-sector collaboration

Achieving circularity will be beyond any one stakeholder — rather, it will require fashion businesses, suppliers, investors, governments, citizens, and all other participants to work together to deliver well-functioning systems.

  1. Design for durability and recycling

Quality garments built to last as long as possible need to be produced with materials capable of longer life spans, constructed in ways suited to repair if appropriate and ultimately in ways that make recycling or composting viable when the garment reaches its end-of-life. Encouraging a new generation of designers to work with these considerations front of mind offers an opportunity for collectors, sorters and recyclers to transform textile waste into new revenue streams or valuable materials.

  1. Promote industry standardization and universal definitions

Without universal definitions and standards, brand commitments remain unchecked — proving to be misleading to the public. For brands leading the way in circular initiatives, standardization will provide a unique opportunity to publicly demonstrate their encouraging progress.

  1. Divest from fossil fuels

Divesting from fossil fuel is essential for the fashion industry to achieve net-zero emissions and a net positive circular economy. Brands that do so will have a competitive advantage in the mid and long term, and positively impact many of the other critical aspects of circularity.

  1. Change the metrics of success

By valuing waste as a resource, calculating materials’ true environmental and social costs and decoupling growth from resource consumption, companies should expect a complete overhaul of their business operations.

The report goes on to take a close look at each of the above areas, as well as the role of financing and governmental policies in helping to foster circularity. It also looks at how digital innovation can help foster circularity and reviews brand-led circularity initiatives of note.

Of particular note is the report’s section on recycled fibers. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that, currently, less than 1% of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. And, while the demand for recycled fibers is on the rise, the increase can be mainly attributed to recycled PET bottles, which—the authors note—“is a problematic and short-term solution.” Taking PET bottles away from the plastic industry to make textiles, they note, “does not solve the growing problem of textile waste. It also allows the fashion industry to promote sustainability without taking responsibility for its own waste.” Brands have a “significant opportunity” to differentiate themselves by sourcing textile-to-textile recycled polyester.

These sentiments are echoed by Pailak Mzikian, Founder of Recuprenda: “The way that textile waste management generally works is not a basis for a circular economy. We need to reinvent the whole textile waste management business model.”

The report also looks at emerging fiber technologies and the next-generation materials being developed and commercialized, “with lower environmental impacts, utilizing different waste streams or renewable sources, and optimized for circularity from the outset.”

“New technology, coupled with systematic change,” the authors note, “can help pave the way to achieve the necessary changes needed to overcome the growing problem of textile waste.”

In conclusion, the report observes that, “It is undeniable that textile waste presents one of the most complex challenges facing the fashion industry to date.” But, on a hopeful note, “The solutions are out there. Viewed as an opportunity, textile waste represents a valuable commodity that when fully utilized will future proof fashion businesses against resource scarcity and changing consumer demands, while significantly reducing environmental harm.” Additionally, “Companies committed to embracing circularity will become leaders in the industry and demonstrate that sustainability can be more than just a marketing buzzword.”

View the full report here: https://www.heyfashion.org/report