A New Textiles Economy – More important than ever. Written by Uzair Amir, Econic Apparel
What a difference a week makes. On March 13th, I was invited to be a panelist at the Schulich Futuristic Thinking conference organized by Net Impact. I was to share my perspective on the circular economy and how it is being implemented in the apparel industry. The conference was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but in hindsight I didn’t realize how profoundly our lives were about to change.
As Covid-19 spreads across the world, the global economy is grinding to a halt. This crisis will forever change the way we do business. Events like these can cause irreparable damage, but they also provide ample opportunities. This pandemic is forcing us to reconsider our ‘business as usual’ approach and is accelerating a paradigm shift that was desperately needed. I can’t help but feel that the conversations we were planning to have on that Friday afternoon at Schulich are more relevant now than ever before. To that end, I’d like to share my perspective on the circular economy and illustrate how innovators in my field are ushering in what is being called the ‘New Textiles Economy’.
The global apparel industry is worth $2.4 trillion dollars and employs over 300 million people across its value chain. The industry’s immense size leads to a considerable environmental footprint. The textile industry releases over 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year, an amount more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Over 87% of the material used for clothing production is either landfilled or incinerated, resulting in over $500 billion of value lost every year due to clothing underutilization and an absence of recycling. The take-make-dispose model in clothing is causing irreparable environmental damage and is unsustainable in the long-run.
A New Textiles Economy is being presented as a replacement for the current take-make-dispose system. It has four main ambitions that are consistent with the basic principles of the circular economy:
Since hardly any of the clothing produced today is fully biodegradable, the focus on value creation is through the technical cycles of upcycling and recycling. This helps improve textile utilization, but it doesn’t truly solve the end-of-use problem, as the garment after multiple cycles still ultimately ends up in a landfill. Cellulose-based fibres, such as cotton or hemp are naturally bio-degradable, but garments are rarely made entirely of these fibres. There are usually other materials used in the stitching, labels or buttons of a garment due to which it cannot be composted. This is one area where there is significant room for innovation and improvement. Companies like C & A, with its Cradle to Cradle t-shirts, is a leader in this space, producing eco-conscious garments which are compostable at their end-of-use. Another is Vollebak with its plant & algae t-shirts, made with pulped eucalyptus and dyed with an algae based pigment. These plant-based t-shirts are also compostable, and they claim to decompose within 12 weeks. The future of sustainable apparel will be one in which the garment’s end of life scenario is given as much importance as its production and use. Biodegradable fibres, compostable garments and the use of bio-plastics are all a step in that direction.
At a time when society is being shaken to its core, discussions about an upcycling program or a compostable t-shirt may seem callous and unimportant, but we can’t lose sight of the challenges we have been facing in our respective industries. This pandemic has given us all time to step back, reflect and look at the larger picture. It is allowing us to hit the reset button and truly focus on what matters. Conversations that had been taking place at the periphery are now front and center. Talk of a Universal Basic Income and a stronger social safety net, as well as addressing climate change while building a more robust local supply chain have all taken on added significance. The constant communication with clients, suppliers, and colleagues had us all on a treadmill where we were working ‘in’ the business but were not spending enough time working ‘on’ the business. This is our opportunity to change that – let’s make the most of it.
If you'd like to learn more about these textile programs for your business, please contact Kemp Edwards and let us work with you on a closed loop apparel program.