Environmentalists, suppliers of sustainable fashion, COP26 protesters, they all repeat the same thing: fashion weighs too much on the environment and does not do enough to lighten the load.
While their cries have been somewhat heard in recent years, with more and more companies setting new sustainability goals and others exceeding and stepping up existing goals, a report from Global Fashion Agenda in partnership with McKinsey & Co . indicates that “the change is far from the pace it needs to be.”
While obvious to some, consistent reality checks may be essential for others.
“While the fashion industry has many sustainability goals for itself, systemic transformation is a difficult problem to solve with many players involved,” said Holly Syrett, Director of Impact and Sustainability Programs for Global Fashion Agenda, at WWD.
Based first on concrete facts, the report indicates that the industry produced 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or about 4% of global CO2 equivalent emissions. This equates to all the economies of France, Germany and the UK combined.
According to the report, fashion also accounts for around 20% of global wastewater and 4% of freshwater withdrawals, meaning that it largely contributes to the scarcity of water and drinking water.
Continuing the bad news, the industry is on track to nearly double the 1.5-degree trajectory to mitigate climate change (as outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement). To stay on this critical path, fashion should reduce its emissions from 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalents forecast for 2030, to just 1.1 billion.
The way to do it? Move much further away from virgin raw materials, move closer to resale and reuse, and (which also reduces demand for virgin materials), of course, more investment money for large-scale circularity.
“Circular business models, including clothing rental, re-commerce, repair and renovation, could enable the industry to reduce approximately 143 million tonnes of GHG emissions by 2030. Consumers are critical to realizing this reduction potential and industry must now act to seize this opportunity, “said Syrett.” In order for the industry to align on the 1.5 degree trajectory by 2030, we know that we have to live in a world in which one in five garments is marketed through circular business models. ”
The production of materials, according to the report, is responsible for 40 percent of fashion’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to the report, “around 25% of emissions could be reduced through circular models. “
A critical part of this effort will be to dramatically improve textile-to-textile recycling and not rely so much on the already scarce recycled polyester as a panacea for the industry.
At present, according to the report, less than 1% of textile waste is recycled into fibers for new garments and “there is no evidence of a sharp change in the growth rate.”
“In 2020, the overall absorption of recycled fibers relative to total fiber production was only around 8.1%, with 7.6% recycled polyester coming from plastic bottles, that is – say no recycled textiles, ”noted the report’s authors.
Recycling technologies are here, albeit in ‘adolescent’ stages, but their progression into adulthood must happen more quickly – and if so, it could mean a lot to fashion by limiting its impact.
“The fashion industry has the potential to become 80% circular by 2030 with the scaling up of today’s recycling technologies,” according to the report. “Current technologies have the potential to provide 75% textile-to-textile recycling in the system and 5% recycled raw materials from other industries. “
For that to happen will require a jump in global average collection rates from 25% today to 80%, and investment in large-scale infrastructure.
“This is not impossible, given that the collection rates for textiles in Germany and paper, glass and metal packaging in the EU are in or above this range,” the report notes. The United States would have the longest way to go. “Those in the industry will know that these assumptions are very ambitious. They would require an increasingly favorable regulatory environment, laser focus on the part of industry players and the mobilization of capital to build new industries through recycling technologies, sorting and waste collection infrastructures at all levels of the value chain. However, a transformation of the industry at this level of ambition is necessary to respect climate agreements and protect our planet and its inhabitants. “
According to the report, the four key technologies that could finally advance fashion circularity are mechanical fiber-to-fiber recycling for cotton and viscose; thermos-mechanical recycling; cellulosic chemical recycling and synthetic chemical mono recycling for the recycling of polyester, nylon and chemical mixtures. All of these recycling technologies “have the potential to be more cost effective than using the corresponding virgin materials”.
To obtain the investments necessary for advancement, it will be necessary to convince the potential financiers that the demand is really there for the recycled materials and that the raw material is really there to supply it.
But as Syrett noted, “Scaling up recycling technologies alone is just one piece of the puzzle and will not reach 80%. [circularity] goal alone.
“Circularity is about moving away from a less extractive model, so we must also consider recycling and resource use in the pre-consumption stages of the supply chain such as the implementation of water recycling and robust management of chemicals and wastewater, “she said.
Viewing the pre-consumer stage as a source of textiles for recycling is something GFA is working on with its Circular Fashion Partnership, a project to expand recycling of factory waste in Bangladesh.
“The Circular Fashion Partnership brings together brands, manufacturers and recyclers to reduce reliance on virgin materials by establishing a long-term and scalable transition to a circular fashion system in garment manufacturing countries,” according to the report. “The CFP partnership facilitates circular business collaborations between 43 textile and clothing manufacturers, 17 recyclers, a purchasing agent and 20 leading global fashion brands operating in Bangladesh to capture and redirect post-industrial textile waste into the production of new fashion products.
Already, the partnership – which counts H&M, Primark and Target among its participating brands – has successfully captured 1,013 tonnes of waste in Bangladesh and is expected to reach over 200 tonnes per month by the end of the year. And this only represents 0.2% of the existing textile waste in Bangladesh. The model, according to GFA, has the potential to capture up to 20 percent of the textile waste in the country. McKinsey expects this to be a $ 4.5 billion opportunity if a similar partnership is established in other key industrial countries including Vietnam, Turkey, India, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Of course, something like this will require a pre-competitive collaboration, which fashion has long resisted.
“The fashion industry is inherently competitive, constantly competing for relevance,” Syrett said. “However, we are increasingly seeing the industry engage in precompetitive collaborations on issues of a systemic nature. It is simply not possible to create solutions, for example, for post-industrial or post-consumer waste streams independently. This requires collaboration between brands, but also with other key partners in the value cycle such as manufacturers and innovators. We remain optimistic that more players will join forces as the industry realizes its value and importance. “
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