Why is a circular economy for textiles important?
Textiles have long been an integral part of our daily lives and society, with diverse products ranging from fashion and apparel to healthcare items, industrial fabrics, and car upholstery. Today’s fashion industry is valued at US$1.3 trillion dollars, employing more than 300 million people globally.
But the sector’s significant use of finite resources and toxic chemicals, as well as issues such as conditions for garment workers producing fast fashion, are under increasing scrutiny. Meanwhile, billions of products go to waste: unsold in warehouses or stores, left unused in wardrobes, or discarded while still in good condition. There is urgent need for transformation.
Each year people throw away apparel worth an estimated $460 billion that they could continue to wear. Trends such as fast fashion heighten the issue, producing high volumes of low-quality fashion items that are difficult to recycle. If the average number of times a garment is worn were doubled, greenhouse gas emissions from textiles would be 44% lower.
A circular economy for textiles, fashion, and apparel is important because it aims to eliminate waste in the textiles industry, championing resource reuse and bringing clear benefits for natural resources, economic wellbeing, and the health and safety of the people who produce and dispose of our textiles.
What could circularity for the textiles and fashion look like?
In a circular economy for textiles:
Inputs for textiles are safe, recycled, or renewableThe textiles industry consumes some 215 trillion liters of water per year, polluting the water system with chemicals, detergents, and microfibers. Using safe, recycled, or renewable materials reduces demand for finite natural resources, decreases greenhouse gas emissions, and removes exposure to toxic substances for workers and communities.
Textiles are kept in use for longerEach year people throw away clothes worth an estimated $460 billion that they could continue to wear. Using textiles for longer means fewer new items are needed, reducing use of fossil fuels and chemicals, as well as reducing the pressure on water and land use for cotton farming. Keeping textiles in use for longer benefits both human health and biodiversity.;
Textiles are recyclable and recycled at end-of-useWhen textiles cannot be used or reused any longer, they should be collected and recycled. Recycling textile waste materials is expected to unlock a potential $100 billion value a year, as well as reducing natural resource and chemical use.
Where is action most needed for a transition to a circular economy for textiles?
Companies, governments, civil society organizations all have a role to play in creating a circular economy. These ten calls-to-action can help us accelerate the transition to a circular economy for textiles, and make it as impactful as possible.
1. Incentivize and Support Design for Longevity and Recyclability
Textile products can be designed to last a long time by using high-quality fibers, making them easy to repair, and designing ‘timeless’ styles. Recyclability can be built in by using safe materials that are easy to disassemble, as well as focusing on homogenous fibers rather than complicated blends. Incentives and support are needed to encourage this approach in the design stage.
2. Produce Virgin Natural Fibers Sustainably, Including Land Use
Even with large-scale recycling, it will be unrealistic for the textiles industry to use only recycled materials in the foreseeable future. Action should therefore focus on working to produce virgin plant-based fibers such as cotton in a more sustainable way.
3. Encourage the Market to Use Less Clothing, and for Longer
Rethinking consumption means buying less, buying second-hand, supporting sustainable fashion, and keeping clothes in use for longer.
4. Guide and Support New Business Models for Environmental, Financial, and Social Triple-Win
New business models such as subscription, rental, and re-commerce need to be designed with environmental, social and financial impacts in mind, so that they can grow and contribute in a meaningful way to the wellbeing of people and planet.
5. Where Used Textiles Trade Occurs, Ensure Environmental and Socio-Economic Benefits
Around 70% of textiles collected for reuse is sent overseas, but much of it is likely to end up as waste rather than actually being repurposed or recycled. The used textiles trade should be managed to ensure environmental benefits and help preserve local industries.
6. Strategically Plan Collection, Sorting, and Recycling Operations
Collection and sorting of used textiles is very labor-intensive, and recycling facilities are large-scale projects requiring long-term investment. All need to be planned carefully to ensure they are in the right place and offering the right services.
7. Increase Efficiency and Quality in Textiles Sorting
Textiles sorting is currently labor intensive, costly, and inaccurate. Improving the efficiency and quality of sorting is crucial for textiles recycling, since the quality and safety of recycled textiles strongly depends on what goes into them.
8. Make the Recycled Fibers Market Competitive
Only when recycled fibers are market competitive can businesses adopt them on a significant scale, and in turn further stimulate the development of recycled material supply chains.
9. Integrate and Advance Decent Work in the Transition to a Circular Economy for Textiles
A circular economy for textiles will have a complex effect on decent work, shifting employment from farming and manufacturing to later stages of the value chain such as repair, resale, sorting and recycling. It provides the potential for higher quality jobs, especially for informal workers, improving working conditions and safety, as well as wages and social security. It will not happen automatically though—targeted efforts are needed from governments, companies, and civil society organizations.
10. Investigate the Socio-Economic Impacts of a Circular Economy for Textiles
There is a lack of quantitative research to understand the potential socio-economic effects of increased circularity in textiles, so we need more research to bridge this critical knowledge gap.