Circular Fashion Today

By Dawn McGregor 18 August, 2016

CWR's McGregor on the latest developments in circular fashion & speaks with leading circular fashion innovators

A circular economy is not a new idea but it will ensure a bright future for fashion & the Chinese govt wants it
Happy to see more action to close to the loop from brands & innovators; algae origin textiles, cotton digestion & more
Also seeing successful circular business models; challenges remain: tech, funding & more; its exciting times

Dr. Walter Stahel, the grandfather of the “cradle-to-cradle” concept, has been working on closed loop approaches since the late 1970s. China in 2009 was the third country to enact a law on Circular economy promotion, after Germany and Japan. Then in 2013 the Chinese government said that the future of ten industries is circular. Textiles is one of the ten.

A circular economy is not a new idea but it will enable a bright future for fashion

A circular economy is not a new idea but it is what will enable a bright future for fashion. And happily, we are seeing the industry stepping up actions to close the loop.

Increasing brand action on closing the loop

For the last two years we have analysed the sustainability of leading brands. The 2016 results show a marked increase in brand action to close the loop, which last year was “distinctly lacking”.  Last year only 2 brands (H&M & Puma) had ticks across the board. This year 7 out of the 11 brands do.  For details see our article, “1 Year On: Where Are The Top Fashion Brands?

Marked increase in brand action to close the loop in the last year

This marked change seen in just one year shows how critical it is for textiles to become a circular economy and that these brands realise this. But some brands are doing more than others.

As our recently published brief, “Today’s Fight for the Future of Fashion – Is there room for fast fashion in a Beautiful China? shows, new business models & new technologies are key to achieving circular fashion. This is particularly true with the Chinese government rethinking how to allocate its limited resources to optimise its economy. Plus, textiles is not of a strategic importance and the industry’s contribution to China’s GDP is decreasing.

Innovation key to achieving a circular fashion: algae fabrics, cotton digestion, apps & more

In 2015 the H&M Foundation launched its Global Change Award – an innovation challenge for ideas that can help close the loop on fashion. The five 2015 winners are:

  • Inocell-F: a new technology that dissolves textile waste and allows for waste cotton to be used as raw material on the production of new textiles without quality loss;
  • Ambercycle: a new type of microbe that eats waste polyester and creates useful ingredients, which in turn can be used to produce new polyester without a loss quality;
  • Reverse Resources: developing an online marketplace that will collect and process textile spill data, in real-time, from manufactures and present it to designers that can use the spill in the design process of new clothes;
  • Orange Fiber: a way to use by-products from citrus juice production to produce a more sustainable textile, using someone else’s waste instead of growing a dedicated crop; and
  • Utilising algae to make a renewable textile.

I was had the pleasure to spent time with the winners who expanded on their innovations and future plans. Highlights from these conversations are below.

Michael Hummel of Ioncell-F  
“Cellulose – a main constituent of wood – can be used for a wide spectrum of products. Amongst others, it can be used to produce so-called man-made cellulosic fibers, that is fibers that have similar properties as cotton and can be used to produce garments and textiles. This is an existing business: viscose and Tencel fibers are part of the textile industry since decades. There is a strong environmental aspect to the production of man-made cellulose fibers: it takes approximately ca. 8000 L of fresh water to grow 1 kg of cotton fibers; for the production of 1 kg of viscose or Tencel fibers, only ca. 450 L and ca. 300 L, respectively, are needed (see Lenzinger Berichte 2011, 89, 12-21).…
…As we believe that this is not the right route to pursue in the future we wanted to develop an environmentally friendly process to produce man-made cellulose fibers. Our process is very similar to the Tencel process but includes no toxic chemicals, generates no waste, and requires less energy.”

Tjeerd Veenhoven of algae fabrics  
There are many advantages of using algae as a commodity for the production of textiles. Of course there is the fact that algae is not oil! A large part of our cloths are still produced from materials that are derived from petroleum. Secondly algae are an important part of the carbon flux and grow on CO2 and sunlight (among other nutrients) and therefor have a low energy footprint. Thirdly it does not use land based nutrients to grow, something that is problematic with cotton and eucalyptus growth.
What’s next for you and Algae Fabrics? “I am super excited to have learned we will touch base in China! In China I want to do the first proof of principle of this value chain, from harvesting the algae from the congested rivers around Naijing to the cellulose extraction in a local mill. Besides supplying us with the actual data we need to complete our LCA it will also be the first time the local people will see those algae as a source of income and a valuable alternative. The project will therefor continue in 2017 and hopefully proof itself to become successful after that.” 

Other fashion brands also have circular innovations, like Adidas’ shoes make from reclaimed ocean waste and Nike’s Grind programme that regenerates scarp material into new projects. For more examples, see here.

New business models showing that a circular-driven business can be successful

Innovation is also being seen with new business models, which are also demonstrating that a circular-driven business can be successful YeeChoo is one of Asia’s biggest online designer dress and accessory rental and sharing platform. YeeChoo was one of the first three start-ups to be selected into Alibaba’s HKD1 billion fund for Hong Kong entrepreneurs.

Another, The Squirrelz in Shanghai, is a building a peer-to-peer free material sharing app. A designer can take any material free from the app and post their unwanted items.  Once the designer-base reaches scale they will move to factory levels. “The sense of what the app can do directly helps the fashion industry go circular”, said Bunny Yan, The Squirellz founder.

Challenges mean sometimes going in circles rather than circular

A fully functioning circular fashion economy is still a dream mainly due to challenges from technological constraints, the heterogeneity of textile waste to funding and substantial time requirements.

Here are the biggest challenges according circular fashion voices:

Raising awareness of new value chains   
“Big challenges!! …. Some of them require time, money or specialists, all of which are obtainable in my experience. The biggest challenge in awareness among people in this new value chain”, said Tjeerd Veenhoven of algae fabrics.”

Tjeerd Veenhoven of algae fabrics

Changing existing infrastructure takes time   
Of course you want everything to move efficiently right.  But the truth is nothing can happen overnight because there’s a lot of infrastructure already in place that needs to change from the core. So a lot of things will be little by little.”

Bunny Yan, The Squirrelz Founder


Separating difficulties & time requirements   
“Textile waste is a big mess. It contains a plethora of different materials and chemicals. This is difficult to handle because it has to be separated first. And it is even more difficult because typically we don’t know what we get and which materials are inside. Labels – if there are any – give only very limited information. So the biggest challenge is actually to characterize and identify the components in the textile waste and then separate and/or purify it…Getting there is time, chemical and energy consuming and can turn the recycling of waste textiles a lot less green than it might seem!”
“Finding the right solvent took us 4 years of intense research”

Michael Hummel of Ioncell-F

Recent conversations show that those not in the innovation field seem to be waiting for a tech-solve all solution. Not encouraging.

What is though is that despite the mammoth task to close the loop these circular voices remain positive, which should give us all confidence.

“I believe strongly fashion is the next vehicle of the sustainability message….Fashion is and needs to be the next big change.”

Tjeerd Veenhoven of algae fabrics

There is a lot going on in this space. We’ve also seen Levi’s open source it’s previously proprietary “Water<Less” techniques. Also, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition recently opened up its proprietary suite of Higg Index tools to non-member small and medium-sized (SMEs) brands and retailers – the SME Access program.

There is a lot going on in this space, stay tuned

In short we are on our way but with current demands and new global development paths we need to step a gear or five. In the meantime, applications for the 2016 award are open (see here) and for those who want to see how brands are performing on sustainability see here. China Water Risk is currently delving into circular fashion and will be sharing our results, so stay tuned.

Further Reading
CWR - Today's Fight for the Future of Fashion.jpgIn our new brief, “Today’s Fight for the Future of Fashion – Is there room for fast fashion in a Beautiful China?”,  we look at the pre-existing but now more robust risks as well as new ones, with the backdrop of China’s aim of building a “Beautiful China”; “where the sky is blue, the land is green and the water runs clear”. Risks and opportunities are covered in the brief through:
-Dirty thirsty fashion: a clear target in ‘Beautiful China’;
-Short-term risks: Water Ten Plan;
-Stricter enforcement: new environmental law & policies;
-Long-term risks: high raw material exposure, soil clean-up & ‘Made In China 2025’;
-High reputational risk: continued NGO pressure & the new Chinese consumer;
-Brand rankings on sustainability: leaders & laggards; and
-The future of fashion: closing the loop & who can help.

  • Future Fashion & ‘Beautiful China’ – Together Forever? – With fast changing regulatory landscape moving against pollution from the textile industry, is there really room for fast fashion in a ‘Beautiful China’? China Water Risk’s McGregor on why it’s time for fashion to become beautiful inside and out
  • 1 Year On: Where Are The Top Fashion Brands? -It’s one year on but have brands upped their sustainability actions? We take a closer look at who’s not going circular and who’s leading the pack with more initiatives and engagement with NGOs
  • Clean Fashion: 3 Reasons To Feel Positive – Fashion is on a clean-up & go-circular mission. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor shares 3 reasons why she’s feeling positive from trade secrets revealed to awards for closing the loop
  • China’s Economy: Linear to Circular – China is the 3rd country globally to enact polices to move towards a circular economy. See how & why China needs to make this transition; which industries are affected, what is the role of industrial parks?
  • Water Ten & Fashion: 8 Reasons to Leap or Fall – China Water Risks’ Hu shares 8 reasons why China’s Water Ten is actually an ultimatum for textiles to leap or fall. They need to decide which soon, as there is only two to three years before the paradigm shift
Dawn McGregor
Author: Dawn McGregor
Dawn leads CWR’s work to help corporates navigate increasingly disruptive & material risks from water & climate threats, as well as transitional risks in the supply chain arising from new regulations in China. Here, Dawn engages extensively with the global fashion industry delivering on-ground workshops in China to keynotes and strategic input at European HQs. She has written at length on the end of dirty and thirsty fast fashion and her report to overcome gaps between brands and manufacturers for a clean and circular future inspired the industry to create a new wastewater tool. Dawn also works closely with the property and tourism sectors where she not only conducts strategic assessments of their exposure but builds collective action toward resilience via closed door working groups and invite-only events. Having helped build CWR, Dawn is a frequent keynote, panellist & moderator at events, including being twice selected as the lead-rapporteur at World Water Week. Her articles are cited in various industry publications including the UN’s ‘World Without Water’. Dawn previously worked in a global investment bank assessing geo-political risk, crisis management and business resiliency. She was born and bred in Hong Kong and has lived in France, England, Singapore and Beijing.
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