Fashion is primarily produced in a linear system of “take, make, dispose”, with 73% of the world’s clothing eventually ending up in landfills.38 If textile collection rates were tripled by 2030, it could be worth more than €4 billion for the world economy.39 This figure merely represents the value of those products that would not end up in landfills. If the industry were to find a way to collect and recycle all fibres, the value could be up to €80 billion.40
While some brands have initiated the process of redesigning their product lifecycles, complexities around changing the linear model have slowed down the movement towards circularity.41 Unless the whole industry acts now, the linear model risks pushing past planetary boundaries.42 According to current forecasts, the world population will exceed 8.5 billion people by 2030,43 and to meet the Paris Agreement, one in five garments need to be traded through circular business models by 2030,44 demanding that industry players rapidly increase the pace of transformation to a circular fashion system.
Shifting to a more circular fashion system has the potential to promote improved working conditions for garment workers by conferring greater value to the garments produced, requiring partly new skillsets and production methods for repair and repurpose, while reducing the use of harmful inputs. The majority of garment workers lack access to upskilling opportunities and training, limiting their ability to respond to change and take advantage of new opportunities.45
For the first time, European policy requires Member States to organise the separate collection of post-consumer textile waste by 2025.46 Yet, many of today’s products are designed with neither durability nor recyclability in mind. Innovations in chemical recycling at large scale are underway and technological advances in textile-to-textile recycling offer commercial potential, while the use of mono-materials can ease recycling processes
Although companies are increasingly exploring circular models, progress is slow due to regulatory, logistical, technical and economic complexities regarding textile collection, recycling and the quality and safety of input materials. In addition, implications for worker incomes and job opportunities along the value chain have to be considered as shifts in job functions and types is likely as circular practices scale.47
As result of COVID-19 and a significant drop in demand, it is estimated that around 60 billion pieces of excess fashion products will be in circulation, representing a 140-200% increase.48 Once the obligation introduced by the EU’s 2018 Waste Directive49 enters into force at the end of 2024,50 leaders will be expected to swiftly find value-capturing alternatives to potential incineration or landfill for such excess stock, combined with an expected increase in the total volume of textile waste separately collected.
As a foundation, relevant teams need to understand the full impact of choices made in product creation. This includes, but is not limited to, designing for durability, disassembly and recycling and increasing the share of recycled fibres in products. Industry players should increase their efforts to set up well-functioning collection infrastructures to collect used garments and encourage consumers to engage in circular initiatives.
Frontrunners should explore circular business models that consider the lifetime value of garments to be circulated more often and for longer and enable recycling of post-consumer textiles at scale. Brands are also encouraged to explore new approaches to creating value in existing material streams.
In response to COVID-19, frontrunners are encouraged to work with value chain partners to identify pathways to reskill garment workers in remaking products or to expand the capacity of facilities to upcycle and recycle products. To restructure linear ways of conducting business, we encourage industry leaders to take concerted action on overstock and deadstock. Brands will need to conduct a thorough analysis of their deadstock, overstock and inventory levels to identify possible solutions. These can span from the re-evaluation of the lifespan of current collections, shifting collections to future seasons, pushing forward upcoming drops and exploring new ways to remake, reuse or recycle into raw materials.
Leaders are encouraged to collaborate with their peers, industry organisations, governments and consumers to develop a more comprehensive picture of the challenges and solutions involved in a circular system, given the widespread collection of used clothes and footwear, while investments in innovation and technological advances are of special importance for stages after the point of collection.
Business and policymakers must understand the impacts on jobs to equip, support and protect workers in this transition.51 Engaging with policymakers to develop collection, sorting and recycling infrastructures as well as enhancing and incentivising mechanisms to scale circular fashion systems, including the transboundary movement of waste at global scale, will be crucial. Significant and continued investment in the research and development of innovative and scalable technologies will allow the industry to turn waste into high-quality materials.
European policymakers are seemingly aware of the need to boost the sustainability performance of the sector and to address the challenges brought about by COVID-19. In turn, they are expected to come forward with measures in the framework of a comprehensive EU strategy for textiles. This is expected to include measures on eco-design to ensure that textile products are fit for the application of circularity; measures to ensure the uptake of secondary raw materials incentives and support to product-as-service models, circular materials and production processes; measures to boost the sorting, re-use and recycling of textiles, both through innovation and extended producer responsibility and guidance for Member States to achieve the required separation of collected textile waste target by 2025.52