Zero-waste textile industry possible

A new life-cycle assessment by the European Recycling Industries' Confederation (EuRIC) and a report by Zero Waste Europe (ZWE) – both released this month – are showing the potential for circularity within the textile industry.

The textile industryThe EuRIC study (LCA-based assessment of the management of European used textiles) found that the reuse of textiles leads 40 to 70 times less impact than the production of new clothing, with this figure accounting for the global export costs of reuse including transport emissions. The European Parliament states that the global textile industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Mariska Boer, President of EuRIC textiles, notes that currently, 62 per cent of used clothing and textiles in Europe end up being incinerated or landfilled due to improper disposal. She added that the European textiles reuse and recycling industry hopes for a ‘circular textile value chain where every piece of clothing is reused in an optimal way and/or recycled’.

The ZWE report (Beyond Circular Fashion – a new business model for the fashion industry), although unaffiliated with the EuRIC study, also advocates for reuse as an essential criterion for zero-waste fashion business models – with particular emphasis on increasing the lifespan of items in the design phase.

Both studies are intended to complement the EU’s ‘Strategy for Sustainable Textiles’ which was launched in March 2022 and requires Member States to start collecting textiles separately by 2025. The reports show that there is real potential for securing a zero-waste, circular economy for the textiles industry.

EuRIC life-cycle assessment of textile industry

The life-cycle assessment, commissioned by the European textile reuse and recycling industry, found that the reuse of textiles leads to significant CO2 and water savings compared to the production of new textiles. 3kg of CO2 is saved for each high- to medium-quality piece of clothing that is reused. Only 0.01 per cent of the water used to produce new clothing is required for reuse.

For example, a new t-shirt analysed in the study emitted 3.38kg CO2e, or almost 60 times more than a reused t-shirt of the same quality which only emitted 0.06 kg CO2e. For water, a reused t-shirt uses 0,0003 m3 of water, while a new t-shirt had a water use of 30,77 m3.

The Confederation says the findings also confirm waste hierarchy assumptions on the benefits of reuse over recycling but says that recycling also has a place in the case of low-quality textiles. Items composed of materials such as polyester have comparative environmental benefits when recycled as long as they are unlikely to find a place on the second-hand market.

In the textile industry, reuse refers to processes which prolong the practical service life of textile products such as buying secondhand, renting, trading, swapping and more. It can be done with our without modification such as mending. Recycling refers to the reprocessing of textile waste for new textile or non-textile products.

The study concludes with several recommendations to policymakers, including for investment into textile recycling facilities globally. It states that innovation in fibre-to-fibre recycling will be a major part of developing circularity for the industry as volumes of non-reusable clothing are set for major increase.

It also highlights the need for ‘eco-design criteria’ that will increase the lifespan of clothing and offset the need for recycling. These criteria should include rules that mandate member states to sort high- to medium-quality textiles from low-quality.

President Boer concluded: “This study endorses the environmental benefits of a global market for textile reuse and recycling’s potential to tackle the rising amounts of low-quality and non-reusable clothing.”

ZWE report on textile industry business models

ZWE last week (17 January) released a report showing four essential criteria to allow zero-waste fashion business models. Titled ‘Beyond Circular Fashion – a new business model for the fashion industry’, it urges policymakers to ‘look beyond circularity and ecodesign’.

The report labels the current fast fashion business model as being based on ‘overconsumption, resource depletion, social exploitation, fossil-based fibres, and greenwashing’. Like the EuRIC study, it highlights the overuse of ‘cheap synthetic fibres’ as fuelling current business models of production.

It offers steps to reverse current business model trends – labelling current steps ‘insufficient’.

The four essential criteria identified to be incorporated into fashion business models are:

  1. Design for physical and emotional durability;
  2. Demand-driven production to phase out ‘unsolds’ and discounts;
  3. Full supply chain transparency and traceability post-sale;
  4. Extending the use-phase after first ownership.

ZWE states that all four criteria must be met simultaneously.

The study notes that textiles are a relatively new area for policy intervention and this is the first study to look at business models over sustainable production. It advises the need for more research and action in several areas:

  • Gains, costs, and externalities associated with a radical change of current business models to one that is fair, sustainable, and zero waste;
  • Fashion and climate – in particular, looking at the carbon budget available for the sector as a way to inform future legislative steps;
  • Fashion and biodiversity – studying the impact of fast fashion on current biodiversity decline;
  • Identification of existing best practices from a business model perspective;
  • Design policies to encourage the transition to, or/and creation of, new businesses following the aforementioned criteria.

Theresa Morsen, Waste Policy Officer at ZWE, commented: “With this report we are establishing guidance for businesses to become truly sustainable, ending overproduction and consumption to respect planetary boundaries. This will help scale up sustainable business models and ZWE intends to empower pioneers in this field.”