Moving closer to closed loop clothing
There's a lot of talk about the potential benefits of developing a closed loop or circular economy as a long-term solution to the environmental impacts of the fashion industry and its supply chain – yet delivering real change is proving to be slow. Here are some of the challenges of closing the loop, and potential solutions for moving from hype to action
Current initiatives to improve sustainability within the fashion industry include everything from encouraging lower consumption, moving to more environmentally responsible production, recycling used fabrics, and even new business models offering rental and repair services.
But the biggest impact would undoubtedly come from a complete shift to a 'circular' or no-waste economy, changing the way garments are designed and produced, shipped, bought, used and recycled in order to recirculate raw materials, eliminate waste and reduce the use of valuable resources.
Indeed, many projects are already underway looking at different ways to close the loop in clothing supply chains through the use of disruptive technology, new fibres and fabrics, and business models – although achieving a complete end-to-end model is proving elusive.
The main challenge seems to be in coordinating, aligning and deepening the impact of existing initiatives and scaling them up.
“We are entering the fourth industrial revolution. We're having a convergence of the physical, the digital, and the biological – and this is exciting because it is actually going to be one of the ways that helps us close the loop.”
– Dr Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer of Future Tech Lab
"We are entering the fourth industrial revolution," says Dr Amanda Parkes, chief innovation officer of Future Tech Lab, a disruptive platform that is part investment fund, accelerator and experimental laboratory and was set up to commercialise new technologies and sustainable innovation for the fashion industry.
"We're having a convergence of the physical, the digital, and the biological – and this is exciting because it is actually going to be one of the ways that helps us close the loop.
"Right now we're somewhere between a linear economy and a recycling economy and we're trying to push ourselves into a circular economy, where we no longer have waste.
"There are lots of ways that we can start to think about how we close this loop. The first is technology and material development. But there are other ways, like new business models and changing consumer patterns.
"There's also the back end, which is looking at things like how to create partnerships across industries so people who may be considered competitors, different brands, manufacturers, actually need to start working together to have radical transparency."
It might sound very simple, she says, "but in reality, it's very complex. And this is why we're not here yet. It's going to take time and it's going to take commitment, and it's going to take coordination to make all these parts work together."
Vision and leadership
Perhaps the first and foremost challenge is for the industry to take leadership on the issue.
"We need to develop strong visions," says Joel Ankarberg, head of business development and production at the H&M Group, "and strong visions don't come from the sustainability department; they come from everywhere within a company."
Taking matters into its own hands, the non-profit H&M Foundation's Global Change Award invests in early stage ideas for new circular fashion models. And its ongoing collaboration with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) has already found a way to recycle the most common blend textiles into new fabrics and yarns without loss of quality – a development hailed as a major breakthrough on the road to a circular economy.
This takes the fashion retailer closer to its goal of using 100% recyclable or sustainably sourced materials by 2030. "Last year, we managed to reach 36% of our total material buy as recycled or sustainably sourced fabrics. This year, we're on our way to pass almost 50%, which is a great achievement. But we still need innovation."
“H&M suppliers will not receive one single order that is not 100% recycled or sustainably sourced fabric by 2030.”
– Joel Ankarberg, head of business development and production at the H&M Group
It also means H&M suppliers "will not receive one single order that is not 100% recycled or sustainably sourced fabric by 2030. That is quite a bold statement, and I know from discussions it is generating momentum toward those goals."
A key piece of the jigsaw is also ensuring there is no disconnect between the sustainability targets of brands and retailers, and their buying practices, according to Dr Marsha Dickson, co-founder of the Better Buying initiative and Professor in the Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.
"For us it's really about the supplier. Because as a supplier, you are an implementer, and none of this can happen without them fully on board. So we look at making sure their wisdom and knowledge is fully brought to the table – and that we co-design, co-create, sustainability programmes that can be implemented by the entire supply chain."
The ultimate goal is to create a circular fashion system that recirculates raw materials, eliminates waste and reduces the use of valuable resources
There's also investment to contend with. "We have to change the funding structure for people to actually commit to longer-term returns and to have more fundamental change,” says Dr Parkes. “There is so much innovation and research out there; it's about doing the work to convert it into commercialisation. And that's less sexy as an investment, but it's where we need the money."
Ensuring resources are set aside also supports a longer-term outlook. "The initial research phases of science are expensive and take a long time. We have to have investments in order for us to move these processes forward, to get them off the lab bench and into a real manufacturing cycle.
"But so much of the industry is just focused on getting things to market tomorrow or the next day or three months from now. And those same companies are staffed so thin that if you come along with an idea they can't handle it.”
“None of this can happen without suppliers fully on board. So we look at making sure we co-design, co-create sustainability programmes that can be implemented by the entire supply chain.”
– Dr Marsha Dickson, co-founder of the Better Buying initiative
Risk and tradeoffs
Reaching the end goal of a closed-loop system is a combination of risk and tradeoffs, the executives say, with steps likely to be both incremental and imperfect.
"Everything in sustainability is measuring tradeoffs,” Dr Parkes explains. “Is it better to reclaim polyester, to bring it back into the circular economy, even if you are using some form of chemicals? We don't have perfect metrics for what is better in terms of long-term sustainability, so we have to try out all the solutions – and this takes time."
Risk management and the communication of that risk is also "one of the biggest struggles that we encounter. But I also believe the first rule of product design is 'fail fast, fail quickly, fail often,' and then you'll get somewhere much more quickly. And I think fashion companies are inherently risk-averse because their margins are so low...that's so shocking to me."
Fast fashion model
Other challenges are whether to engage and educate consumers so they create the pull and the demand for the next level of innovation – “or should we just be creating a better product that nobody even knows is sustainable?"
And of course there's the elephant in the room: How does closing the loop co-exist with the problem of fashion over-consumption and fast fashion? Is there a need to tackle fast fashion first, before moving to talk about closed loop?
"It's not a question about choosing that or something else; it's about finding a solution so that we can address both," is Ankarberg's response.
"I don't think we're ever going to change this idea that people want new things," adds Dr Parkes. "That's the point about new business models like Rent the Runway," the online service that provides designer dress and accessory rentals, like a clothing library.
"That's one model. But then there's also the material appropriateness. If we're going to have fast fashion, things that we know we're not going to want after a while, why don't we make them out of material that's actually going to disintegrate after three months? Why doesn't fast fashion work like Snapchat or Instagram? You know it's going away, catch it while you can...and you sell it like that. It could be a marketing ploy."
The executives were speaking with just-style editor Leonie Barrie during a panel discussion in the Innovation and Technology Symposium at the Fashion Summit (Hong Kong).
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