Environmentalists, sustainable fashion purveyors, COP26 protesters — they all keep saying the same thing over and over again: Fashion is weighing too heavily on the environment and not doing enough to lighten the load.
While their cries have been somewhat heeded in recent years with more companies setting new sustainability goals and others surpassing and stepping up existing ones, a report from Global Fashion Agenda in partnership with McKinsey & Co. says “change is nowhere near the pace it needs to be.”
Though obvious for some, consistent reality checks may be key for others.
“Although the fashion industry is setting many sustainability targets, systemic transformation is a hard nut to crack with many actors involved,” Holly Syrett, impact programs and sustainability director for Global Fashion Agenda, told WWD.
Hitting with the hard facts first, the report says the industry produced 2.1 billion tons of CO2 equivalent, roughly 4 percent of the global CO2 equivalent emissions. That’s equivalent to the entire economies of France, Germany and the U.K. combined.
Fashion also accounts for roughly 20 percent of global wastewater and 4 percent of fresh-water withdrawals, according to the report, meaning it’s contributing in no small part to water — and clean water — scarcity.
Continuing the not-so-good news, the industry is on track to exceed the 1.5-degree pathway for mitigating climate change (as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement) by almost double. To remain within that critical pathway, fashion would have to curb its emissions from the 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents projected for 2030, to just 1.1 billion.
The way to do it? Moving much further away from virgin raw materials, moving closer to resale and reuse and (which also reduces demand for virgin materials), of course, more investment money for circularity at scale.
“Circular business models, including fashion rentals, re-commerce, repair and refurbishment could enable the industry to cut around 143 million tons of GHG emissions in 2030. Consumers are vital to realizing this abatement potential and the industry must now act to realize this opportunity,” Syrett said. “In order for the industry to align with the 1.5-degree pathway by 2030, we know that we need to live in a world in which one in five garments are traded through circular business models.”
Material production, according to the report, is responsible for 40 percent of fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to the report, “Roughly 25 percent of emissions could be reduced through circular models.”
One critical component in that effort will be greatly improving textile-to-textile recycling and not leaning so heavily on already scarce recycled polyester as an industry cure-all.
As of now, according to the report, less than 1 percent of textile waste gets recycled into fibers for new clothing and “there is no evidence of a sharp change in growth rate.”
“In 2020, the overall uptake of recycled fibers compared to the total fiber production was only around 8.1 percent, with 7.6 percent recycled polyester from plastic bottles, i.e., not from recycled textiles,” the report’s authors noted.
Recycling technologies are there, albeit in “adolescent” stages, but their progression into adulthood has to happen at a quicker clip — and if it does, it could mean a lot for fashion reining in its impact.
“The fashion industry has the potential to become 80 percent circular by 2030 with scaling of today’s recycling technologies,” according to the report. “Current technologies have the potential to deliver 75 percent textile-to-textile recycling into the system, and a further 5 percent recycled feedstock from other industries.”
For that to happen, it will take a jump in global average collection rates from 25 percent today to 80 percent, and infrastructure investment at scale.
“It is not unfeasible, given collection rates for textiles in Germany, and paper, glass and metallic packaging across the EU are in or above this range,” the report noted. The U.S. would have the longest way to go. “Those in the industry will know these assumptions are highly ambitious. They would require an increasingly favorable regulatory environment, laser focus from industry players and mobilization of capital to build new industries across recycling technologies, sorting and collecting infrastructure for waste across all parts of the value chain. Yet industry transformation at this ambition level is required to meet climate agreements and safeguard our planet and people on it.”
The four key technologies that could finally drive fashion’s circularity forward in a big way, according to the report, are mechanical fiber-to-fiber recycling for cotton and viscose; thermos-mechanical recycling; chemical cellulosic recycling, and chemical synthetic mono recycling for polyester, nylon, and chemical blended recycling. All of these recycling technologies “have the potential to be more cost effective than using corresponding virgin materials.”
To get the investments for advancement will mean convincing potential financiers that demand is really there for the recycled materials and the feedstock is really there to provide it.
But as Syrett noted, “scaling recycling technologies alone is only one piece of the puzzle and which will not achieve the 80 percent [circularity] goal alone.”
“Circularity is all about moving away from a model which is less extractive, therefore we must also consider the recycling and use of resources in pre-consumer stages of the supply chain such as the implementation of water recycling technologies and robust chemical and wastewater management,” she said.
Looking at the pre-consumer stage as a source for textiles to recycle is one thing GFA is working on with its Circular Fashion Partnership, a project to scale recycling of factory waste in Bangladesh.
“The Circular Fashion Partnership brings together brands, manufacturers and recyclers to reduce dependency on virgin materials by establishing a long-term, scalable transition to a circular fashion system in garment manufacturing countries,” according to the report. “The CFP partnership facilitates circular commercial collaborations between 43 textile and garment manufacturers, 17 recyclers, one buying agent and 20 major global fashion brands operating in Bangladesh to capture and direct post-industrial textile waste back into the production of new fashion products.”
Already, the partnership — which counts H&M, Primark and Target among its brand participants — has been able to capture 1,013 tons of waste in Bangladesh and expects to reach more than 200 tons per month by the end of the year. And that’s just 0.2 percent of the existing textile waste in Bangladesh. The model, according to GFA, has the potential to capture up to 20 percent of textile waste in the country. McKinsey expects this could be a $4.5 billion opportunity if a similar partnership is rolled out in other key manufacturing countries, including Vietnam, Turkey, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Of course, something like that will take pre-competitive collaboration, which fashion has long been resistant to.
“The fashion industry is inherently competitive, constantly competing for relevance,” Syrett said. “However, increasingly we see the industry engaging in more pre-competitive collaborations for issues that are of a systemic nature. It simply isn’t possible to create solutions, for instance, for post-industrial or post-consumer waste streams independently. It requires collaboration across brands, but also with other key value cycle partners such as manufacturers and innovators. We remain optimistic to see more players join forces as the industry comes to realize its value and importance.”