A Movement Towards Circularity in Fashion & Textiles

That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first.”

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

On the 22nd of November, a group of 50 professionals, eager to make the fashion and textile industry brighter and cleaner, gathered in Zurich for our Circular Stories event. They came to listen to leaders from pioneering organisations that, for the sake of protecting our planet’s resources, have taken courageous steps to develop and launch ‘circular’ products and systems. From early-stage recycling technology company Phoenxt to celebrated Patagonia, the speakers shared their stories of venturing into the Circular Economy, and their outlook for the future. There’s a lot to be excited about.  

Innovative products reveal what is already possible today: fully compostable & 100% recyclable clothes

Stefan Kehrer, Calida; “We started with a plain white t-shirt so we could get everything right.”

It was initially difficult to get internal support for developing a cradle-to-cradle product (one that can decompose entirely without harming the environment), but Stefan Kehrer from Calida, together with their production partner, E. Schellenberg Textildruck, persisted. “We started with a plain white t-shirt so we could get everything right.” Following a lot of research on every detail of the t-shirt, from sourcing to tags, and a strong marketing push, the first compostable t-shirts became an unexpected hit among 18-25 year-olds who eagerly asked for more. New colors were added to the collection, followed by different products. And what started as a resource-thirsty experiment into circularity, soon became the company hero that could rejuvenate the brand. 

Andreas Röhrich, Wolford: “Less bad is not good enough.”

Less bad is not good enough.” In 2013, driven by the realization that every company needs to play a role in addressing the environmental impact of the fashion industry, Andreas Röhrich from Wolford had ambitious plans to dive into circularity. At the time, the brand’s luxurious underwear and hosiery products were manufactured with 90% man-made fibers, of which 40% were oil-based. It seemed like an almost impossible task to make a recyclable or compostable piece. Yet five years later, after having worked with a consortium of companies, academic experts and legislators, Wolford introduced its first compostable leggings and tops, followed by 100% recyclable socks, a compostable dress and even a cradle-to-cradle certified packaging. It became the first company globally to be able to close both the biological loop (100% return to nature) and the technical loop (100% recyclable fibers), and has set itself an ambitious target of having 50% of its collection be circular by 2025.

New systems are redefining relationships with customers and partners 

Napapijri posed itself the question: “What if waste was part of the solution and not the problem?

Driven by the same desire to reduce waste in the industry, Napapijri posed itself the question: “What if waste was part of the solution and not the problem?” Serena Bonomi and her team embarked on a journey to develop an innovative piece of clothing, the Infinity Jacket, made from partly regenerated nylon yarn that can be recycled forever. Key to the success of the recycling process, however, is that the consumers play the game. The ‘take back enablers’ include tags in the jacket explaining the concept behind the jacket, a request for the jacket to be returned if not used anymore and a QR code link to register the jacket and receive more information. Rather than looking away after selling a product, Napapijri is building a longer-term relationship with its consumers and taking responsibility for the resources they have used. 

Patagonia launched Recrafted;  new articles remanufactured out of returned products.

In the industry, Patagonia is probably the most fervent protector of the environment with its mission: “We are in business to save our home planet”. Their products are made from organic cotton, recycled materials and are all fair-trade certified. Beyond the products, however, Vanessa Rueber elaborated on the services that they have put in place to prolong the life of their apparel; in-house repair services (with a factory in Portugal), repair trucks (where they repair any product from any brand), a take-back-and-sell-second-hand programme (Wornwear) and since recently, a recraft service with a Recrafted line whereby new articles are remanufactured out of several returned products. Each of these services allows for new touchpoints with their consumers who become more loyal customers. Rather than being production employees somewhere along the supply chain, the providers of each of the services become respected partners with a common goal to keep products alive as long as possible.  

Lesser known among consumers, but not less commendable, Nudie Jeans also offers a ‘take-back and sell second-hand’ programme, as well as repair services. In 2018 alone, they repaired more than 50’000 jeans. As Manuel Kellner noted, this meant 40’000kg of textiles that weren’t thrown away, and some 350million liter of water saved. But it also indicates 50’000 moments where customers eagerly entered their stores and interacted with the brand. 

We are entering an era of openness and collaboration

 “I’m happy to share with you the names of all our partners,” declared Andreas, from Wolford. Indeed, he openly shared the list of partners they worked with to work on their cradle-to-cradle line. Among the participants in the room and the speakers on stage, it was clear that openness and collaboration are key to bring about change in the industry. Firstly, because we have a shared goal to make the industry more responsible, and the faster the better. Secondly, because we need to feed demand for new technologies, fibers and processes that can be used to make more circular products, allowing the innovative companies in the market to scale and develop more solutions. And finally, because collaboration allows for putting in place of better systems, such as efficient take-back schemes for recycling or composting facilities for textiles. 

Edwina Huang from fabric and textile waste recycling company, Phoenxt, described the type of technologies that they are developing, allowing the separation of fibers as was previously not possible. For her company to be able to work, and the technologies to be adopted, it is important to work in collaboration with fashion and textile manufacturers from the start. To get an understanding of the needs, as well as to put in place systems to collect discarded items. 

As Good Brand Guru co-founder, Martine, noted: “In the fashion world, being unique used to be a claim to fame and designers abhorred being replicated. In today’s world, however, being copied for taking bold steps to develop better fashion, is what leading companies should be striving for.”

Just the beginning of a movement

The linear practices of most of today’s fashion and textile industry have been ingrained through decades of technological and market developments. There is still a long way to go to move towards a truly circular fashion system. As Elisabetta Baronio from the VF Corporation said, more technological innovation is needed to be able to produce better fibers, fabrics, and processes. Governments need to be involved to help put in place take-back streams and composting facilities. In moving forward, the industry needs to stay on its toes to ensure that social fairness is also designed into circular business models and that potential unintended negative externalities are avoided. And there are still important awareness and knowledge gaps, both among consumers and companies.

But after years of sustainability being the domain of environmental ‘extremists’, today the principles underlying the Circular Economy might, as Megan McGill, from the C&A Foundation, put it “be able to create business motivation for sustainability”.  The companies on stage in Zurich, as well as others around the world, are showing that new products, services and models are possible, and can make business sense too. On Friday, as the speakers stepped down the stage to mingle with brand owners, buyers from established retailers, innovative service providers and other participants in the room, the air was ripe with contagious excitement about the possibilities of a movement to a better future for the fashion industry. 

The Circular Stories event held on the 22nd of November 2019 in Zurich, Switzerland, was organised in partnership with sustainability consulting firm, ecos, and Maxtex association bringing together textile companies seeking to become more sustainable. The programme of the event can be downloaded here