While the statistics behind apparel and textile production seem disheartening — every second one entire garbage truck full of textiles is thrown away while 73 percent of all apparel ends up in landfills — progress toward creating a more circular industry is making headway.

Earlier this month, the Global Fashion Agenda released its latest status report, which revealed that “fashion brands have met 21 percent of their ambitious circularity targets that they committed to achieve by 2020.” And as the GFA said retailers and brands still have a long way to go to reach full sustainability, researchers in a separate report said rental, re-commerce and subscription business models are worthwhile options to create a circular economy, with the re-commerce segment being the most financially viable.

The GFA status report is part of an annual assessment of the progress fashion retailers and brands are making in reaching goals set in the “2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment,” which was launched in 2017. The GFA said the 2020 commitment “urges brands and retailers to take action on circularity to accelerate the industry’s transition to a circular fashion system.” It was signed by 90 fashion companies and brands, which represent 12.5 percent of the total, global fashion market.

Of those firms that made the commitment, 45, or 21 percent, of the 213 targets that were set were achieved, which the GFA said highlights the “ambitious nature” of the targets. “Although significant progress has been made, some targets take longer to implement,” the GFA said in a statement. “Brands must urgently accelerate their efforts and seek further collaboration if they are to achieve their remaining targets by June 2020.”

Eva Kruse, chief executive officer and president of the GFA, said it is “promising to see that the 2020 commitment has triggered many brands to take action on circularity. However, we need to move faster; if we don’t work together to establish a strong ecosystem of collaboration, we will not achieve all of the 2020 commitment targets and the impact of the fashion industry on the planet will continue to grow.”

The targets are varied and fall across four “action points.” For example, with “implementing design strategies for cyclability,” 87 targets were set and 24 were reached. With increasing the volume of used apparel collected, 52 were set and 12 were reached, while increasing the volume of apparel resold had 27 targets set, with four reached so far. In regard to increasing the share of apparel made from recycled post-consumer textile fibers, 47 targets were set and five have been reached.

The GFA said the progress made on implementing cyclability design strategies “notes the importance of creative departments and designers in influencing the environmental impact of a product and ultimately how sustainable it is. For example, signatories such as Asos, Nike and Target set their focus on training employees in various departments in circular design and on integrating circularity in design briefs.”

The GFA said 79 percent of the initial targets set in the 2020 commitment were still outstanding. And the most challenging goal was increasing the use of recycled postconsumer waste. “To achieve the remaining targets, signatories emphasize the need for industry-wide standards, best practices, legislation and supportive regulatory frameworks,” authors of the GFA report noted, adding that despite the progress, “the fashion industry is still far from being sustainable and circular.”

“Governments and policymakers must play a strong role in creating a supportive regulatory framework,” the GFA added.

In some cases, governments and related agencies have stepped up efforts to partner with brands and nonprofits to help achieve 2020 commitment goals. For example, this past spring, Make Fashion Circular, which was launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in May 2018, rolled out its #WearNext campaign — which was a four-month campaign to divert apparel from ending up in New York City landfills.

The collaboration involved brands working with the New York City Department of Sanitation and the New York City Economic Development Corp. as well as collectors and resale companies. “Every year, New York City landfills 200 million pounds of clothing (equivalent to more than 440 Statues of Liberty),” Make Fashion Circular said in a statement. “Globally, 73 percent of the materials used to produce clothing are land-filled or burned at the end of their life, while less than 1 percent of old clothing goes on to be used to make new clothing.”

The campaign ran from March and ended last month, and while results have not been released, the goal was to “make sure the city’s old clothes find a new life.” There were 1,100 drop-off points throughout the city. Aside from diverting textile waste from landfills and recycling the fibers, circular economy experts also see retail models such as subscriptions, rental and re-commerce as ways that can stretch out the product life cycle of apparel, footwear and accessories — and keep it out of landfills.

Tricia Carey, “There is currently a sustainability revolution in the apparel market and the pace is escalating. Many brands and retailers have progressed from strategy into goal setting. Recently there have been announcements from Gap, Levi’s, Target and Ralph Lauren about sustainability goals. I see more goals set around circularity, which connects to our Tencel x Refibra lyocell, derived from wood pulp and from cotton scraps. In the supply chain, especially in the denim market, there are many initiatives for reduction in water and chemical use.”

“Another area intensifying is transparency and traceability linked to sustainability. The certification space is getting more crowded and confusing, making it challenging for the supply chain and brands to keep up. New solution providers, like Textile Genesis, are bringing block chain technology to the value chain for real-time transparency. Very exciting times to see the changes that sustainability is bringing to the market.”

Richard Gerstein, executive vice president, Unifi, told WWD, “The importance of sustainable solutions in textiles continues to grow as consumers become increasingly aware of the challenges our environment faces in the future and are increasingly demanding companies and brands offer eco-friendly solutions. Brands are now seeing the positive impact of sustainable products on sales and profitability, leading to an increased demand for Repreve yarn, which is produced from recycled PET bottles. Looking forward, we are seeing leading companies increasingly focus on circular economy solutions. In a circular economy, products are made of reused components, and after a product is discarded, the materials and parts are reused, repaired or recycled.”

Gerstein continued, “Importantly, though consumers want sustainability, they are not willing to sacrifice performance. Also trending are sustainable fibers that have a variety of performance options, including moisture-wicking, thermal comfort and anti-microbial protection.”

In Fashion for Good’s most recent report, “The Future of Circular Fashion,” done in partnership with Accenture, researchers said “meaningful progress has been made and disruptive start-ups are implementing a wide range of circular models. However, established brands and retailers have been slower to act with hurdles inhibiting large-scale adoption. These include the perceived risk of cannibalization, operational complexity of new models and uncertainty on the financial viability.”


Rebecca Taylor RNTD. 

To address these concerns, the researchers laid out benchmarks and financial metrics that revealed the viability of these models, which “will have a big role to play in ensuring the sustainable transformation of the fashion industry.” They noted that understanding the impact of re-commerce, rental and subscription models is “an imperative for incumbent retailers seeking to future-proof their businesses and remain competitive. Some innovative retailers have started this transformation.”

Established retailers that are adopting circular business models include Filippa K and Tchibo in the rental business and American Eagle, Ann Taylor, Express, Gwynnie Bee, New York & Co. (NY & Company Closet), Rebecca Taylor (RTND), Vince and Y Closet in the rental-subscription segment. With re-commerce, Eileen Fisher, Filippa K, Icebreaker, North Face, Patagonia, Prana, REI and Zalando are the established brands who have entered the segment.

“Re-commerce appears to be the most financially viable circular business model, with profitability exceeding the baseline in midmarket, premium and luxury segments,” the authors of the report said. “This is intuitive given the relative operational simplicity of a re-commerce model in comparison to the other models explored. However, retailers will have to work hard to attract customers who have other outlets for resale — the direct sale of unwanted garments, through channels such as Depop or eBay, is easier than ever before. Retailers will, therefore, have to ensure that customers are sufficiently motivated and incentivized to return garments to build the requisite inventory.”