Patagonia sells refurbished garments online and in select stores.

In a fast fashion world, it’s not easy being green. And as consumer-led demand for sustainable products and practices continues to flourish, brands and retailers are adopting greener methods to appease shoppers and influence change, often partnering with nonprofits, NGOs, think tanks and their ilk to engage and stay competitive.

And organizations such as the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), a nonprofit based in Boston, center its focus on reducing unfavorable environmental, health and safety impacts that derive from consumer products throughout the entire lifecycle, zeroing in on minimizing waste management. Through its “stewardship approach,” the firm works to improve products’ designs and stimulates dialogue among key leaders and stakeholders to help influence policy change industry-wide. PSI works with 47 state environmental agency members, local government members coast-to-coast and partners in corporate, business, academic, non-U.S. government, as well as various organizational partners.

Here, Scott Cassel, chief executive officer and founder at the Product Stewardship Institute, discusses how policy aids in mitigating the effects of waste in the textile industry.

WWD: The textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world after gasoline. In what ways has the industry succeeded in living up to producer responsibility? In what ways has it failed?

Scott Cassel: Many brands have undertaken voluntary measures to improve their sustainability upstream, and a select number of leaders (such as Patagonia, H&M, and Eileen Fisher) address issues such as repair, reuse, or recycling. Sadly, compared to the millions of tons of textiles produced each year, these voluntary programs collect a tiny fraction of used material, while the vast majority is disposed in the garbage. The cost and competitive nature of the “fast fashion” movement has far outpaced the sustainability leadership demonstrated by a small handful. In fact, “fast fashion” is one of the most visible examples of the failure of textile manufacturers to take responsibility for the products they sell into the market.

WWD: What role(s) can policy play in revitalizing the manufacturing sector and the textiles industry as a whole?

S.C.: The options are endless, but textile manufacturers will need to bring the materials they use to make garments back into productive use after consumers no longer want their products. They need to track the source of cotton or chemicals through to the end of life for those materials. Currently, 85 percent of textiles no longer wanted each year (13.6 million tons) are thrown in the garbage, although there are reuse markets for people in financial need and recycling markets such as rags and insulation, which create thousands of jobs. This resource waste is a symptom of deep gaps in social cooperation and communication. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies that require all textile manufacturers to finance and manage the post-consumer textiles they sell into the market can efficiently reuse and recycle a high percentage of scrap textiles. EPR policies create an organized structure for cooperation and communication that is based on financial incentives and social responsibility. These systems create a level playing field among producers so that all compete equally within a context of sustainability.

To develop effective policy, there needs to be a facilitator that can develop a consensus on the extent of the problem, the goals sought by those with an interest in the outcome, the barriers to achieving those goals, and the solutions to overcoming those barriers. The policy developed should account for as many stakeholder interests as possible so that the policy will result in an effective, efficient, and sustainable solution. By now, there are many models developed for effective EPR policies, so there is a roadmap for success that just needs to be followed.

Scott Cassel, chief executive officer and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute. Photo courtesy of the Product Stewardship Institute. 

WWD: Would you say that brands and retailers have been willing participants in take-back pilot programs and recycling?

S.C.: Brands and retailers desperately want to be perceived as caring for the environment. Some make clothing for use in the wide open wilderness. Others are part of the fast fashion movement but feel responsible for excess consumerism. While these companies want to be willing participants in taking back their products, they either don’t know how to do so, have not done so at a scale that has made any real difference, or are focused on other priorities. There is definitely fear of the unknown, but remember, brands and retailers are experts on distribution and reverse distribution. They use “outlets” to extract value from unsold clothing. They will need to move forward with the next step and set up systems for taking back their own clothing. There are many organizations, including ours, that can guide the industry through best practices and use a clear process for developing effective policies, programs and communication channels.

WWD: What are the biggest challenges the textile industry faces in implementing policy for sustainability?

S.C.: The consumption of “fast fashion” is projected to jump 63 percent by 2030. In New York State alone, residents dispose of 1.4 billion pounds of clothing and textiles each year, worth over $130 million. Reusing and recycling these products would create up to 1,000 new jobs.

Overcoming consumer perception of “second-hand” as inferior is another critical issue to address. There are 3.8 billion pounds of used textiles that enter the North American market each year, and only 1-2 percent of these clothes are high-end brands for resale. Although existing markets exist for 95 percent of used textiles, most is disposed. Another challenge is that secondary textile materials compete globally with low-cost new products produced in China and India.

Another major challenge is that, even though retail locations are often the most convenient place for consumer return of used products, clothing brands have not yet embraced this approach. In addition, citizens don’t always know what or where to donate. To educate consumers, one company suggested that all clothing labels include a unified message: “wear-donate-recycle.” To develop standard messaging, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), New York Product Stewardship Council (NYPSC), New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling (NYSAR3), and New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I) developed unified Standards for Coalition Participation among nonprofit and for-profit textiles collectors.

Finally, since waste is created at all stages of the textile manufacturing process, even starting with pattern-making, it is critical to bring designers and recyclers together to explore ways to reduce waste at the source, increase product durability, and increase the value of post-consumer textiles.

The 2017 New York Textiles Summit convened by PSI, NYPSC, NYSAR3, and NYSP2I at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City discussed many of these key challenges for the textile industry to overcome. The event brought together more than 200 textile designers, brand owners, used clothing collectors, recyclers and government officials to discuss how to bring used textiles back into the circular economy.

WWD: Larger legacy brands have experienced difficulty in pivoting toward a more sustainable business model. How can well-established legacy brands adopt and implement product stewardship policies?

S.C.: Most larger brands take longer to make changes than smaller brands. Small companies are nimble and can pivot more quickly. But one small move by a large company can have a huge positive impact regarding product stewardship. Companies that pay attention to trends in sustainability will have the greatest likelihood of maintaining market share. There is a worldwide move toward greater resource sustainability. The more we rely on others for materials, the less independent we are. The U.S. is a huge international market for goods. As a result, we have a great advantage in having used materials that can more easily be turned back into new products than starting from scratch. A sustainability leader would seize upon this growing opportunity.

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