PARIS — Something to chew over: As consumers rethink the eco-impact of apparel, demand in the U.S. for resale could outgrow demand for fast fashion by 2027. That’s one of the predictions of ThredUp, which alongside platforms like The Real Real and Poshmark continues to capture market share as just one layer of fashion’s evolution towards a circular economy. The company has processed 60 million unique items to date and runs what it claims is the largest garment-on-hangar facility in the world, based in Pennsylvania.
With an estimated 53 million tons of clothing thrown away every year; apparel consumption expected to double by 2025, and demand for an ever faster and slicker supply chain putting pressure all the way along the links, the heat is on to develop solutions for reducing reliance on virgin materials, experts say.
As fashion lags behind other industries, projects like Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Fibres Initiative are bringing together all of the players — from technology solutions to brands and governments — to help send out the message that change is needed.
“All of the existing recycling we do in other materials, it just hasn’t happened with textiles, and there’s a growing awareness that we need solutions. The challenge is that gap between where the world is at today and when the technologies will be scaled,” said Cyndi Rhoades, founder of Worn Again Technologies, which is part of a crop of regenerative raw materials technology firms spearheading solutions for making new clothes from non-rewearable clothing and textiles in lieu of virgin resources. Peers include Re:newcell in Sweden and Evrnu in the U.S. Each has its own specialty, with Worn Again the only company capable of extracting both polyester polymers and cellulose from cotton, from non-reusable textiles, PET bottles and packaging which are then turned back into new textile raw materials as part of a continual cycle.
H&M figures among its backers and Kering was one of the earliest supporters of the company which is on its way to opening its first industrial plant.
“We are replacing virgin, and those two markets — cellulose and PET — are massive. Even if we built plants as quickly as we could, we’d still have a hard time denting that market,” Rhoades said. “As and when the technologies that can enable circular recycling of raw materials go to market, the demand is going to majorly outstrip supply.”
Though the major PET producers for polyester are all looking at their own recycling technologies or are partnering with circular economy pioneers, the shift is not expected to happen overnight. Challenges include the general perception that more sustainable outputs come with a higher cost, Rhoades explained.
“For circular materials to go mainstream, producers have to compete on price divergence. That’s what we’re trying to overcome, and that’s what the industry is crying out for,” added Rhoades who predicts the major raw material suppliers will start upgrading to the new sustainable processes within the next 10 years.
Instead, she is seeing a lot of interest from the smaller, more agile firms “who want to be ahead of the game and recognize there’s a competitive advantage to getting involved now.” Whereas the large-scale giants might be a bit later to the game due to investments in machinery for virgin production, “they all are absolutely looking now and understanding that the market is calling out for it, and that they will be required to change,” Rhoades said. “What that change looks like will be interesting to follow over the coming years.”
Francois Souchet, who leads the Circular Fibers Initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, agreed that manufacturers and brands have no choice but to adapt.
The picture of current manufacturing processes “calls for significant improvements,” he said, citing among circular economy pioneers Lenzing, which recently introduced its breakthrough Refibra technology. Billed as the first cellulose fiber featuring recycled material on a commercial scale, the fiber is based on cotton scraps and wood.
Other pioneering initiatives include Novetex’s partnering with H&M and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel on upcycling pilot plants in Hong Kong with the goal of including at scale recycled fibers in their manufacturing processes.
“But that doesn’t mean that the people who are currently working in those industries will be out of a job. It’s more about a change of practices,” he noted. “What we are seeing is often the companies that are making those virgin materials are the ones who have the most interest in innovating so they can be leading the supply for secondary materials.”
The appetite for secondhand goods, meanwhile, fueled by a “dramatic change in behavior toward ownership from younger generations happy to access product they want when they want,” will also impact all the different parts of the value chain for the better, he predicts.
A move toward an industry where there’s an interest in using products more, as one of the facets of circularity, “implies the quality of the product needs to be higher and as such you want to make it in a good way, rather than as fast and as cheaply as possible.
“We believe that by transitioning to a circular economy, where clothes are made from safe and renewal materials and are worn longer because they are better made and never become waste, also generates the opportunity to improve the conditions within the supply chain,” he said.
“Something has to give. Ultimately, where everything will shake out is there will be winners and losers in this,” commented James Reinhart, cofounder and chief executive officer of ThredUp. Citing his own company’s collaboration with Reformation, and The Real Real’s recent hook-up with Stella McCartney, Reinhart predicts the next decade will see deeper integration between the second-hand arena and retailers.
“If you look at the auto market, there was a time when used car vendors were something off the parking lot, something done on the side. Now it’s very clear that manufacturers and car dealers sell just as many used cars — certified pre-owned — as they do new cars, both of these things work together. The same thing is true in electronics. If you wanted to find something used, you went to these obscure secondary markets, but now you can walk into any mobile phone store and find refurbished phones or tablets,” he said. “[For the fashion industry], this kind of disruption will play out over time, and it will be interesting to watch.”