Fighting Fast Fashion: Innovation for a Circular Economy

Josh Gilbert

Today’s fashion industry causes considerable environmental damage. According to a 2018 UN report, it is responsible for around 10% of global carbon emissions. Energy-intensive raw inputs like polyester and cotton are predominant, the industry is responsible for 2% of global freshwater extraction, and the US alone sends over ten billion tons of textiles waste to landfill every year.

Solving the fast fashion problem

Innovation is helping the industry shift towards a more circular model of textiles manufacturing and providing new value creation opportunities for corporates and investors. Manufacturing process innovation, new business models and end-of-life recycling services all play a key role in this shift.

clothing the potential for recycling in a chard
Global materials flow of clothing in 2015. Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Textiles-to-textiles and waste-to-textiles recycling are key areas of innovation where start-ups have begun to partner with large brands and retailers to help shift manufacturing processes toward a circular model. Several new technologies are being developed to enable waste textiles to be broken down and turned into new raw inputs for clothing manufacture.

Textile-to-textile and waste-to-textile innovation

An example of a textiles-to-textiles company is Re:newcell, a Swedish developer of a process to recycle cellulosic textiles to produce a dissolving pulp – which is a feedstock for making man-made cellulosic fibers for new clothes. We spoke to Harald Cavalli-Björkman, Head of Communications at Re:newcell, who highlights the attractiveness of recycled fibers for manufacturers and brands – the inputs are recycled, easily sourced and are already cost-competitive with existing materials. The company is currently working with large fiber producing customers based in Asia and Europe to validate their product, and have recently made their first sales from commercial-scale production at the existing industrial facility in Kristinehamn, Sweden. They are currently seeking investors to ensure sufficient capital to further develop and optimize current operations and prepare for planned expansion.

Although textiles innovation is an important step towards a circular economy, there are issues to resolve that are very similar to plastics recycling. Composite blends of different materials are difficult to break down into component parts, and buttons and often zips must be manually removed. Further, collection of used textiles is largely dependent on recycling services that are beyond the control of startups. In the US this problem is particularly an issue, where 80% of material in the US collected is collected by the two largest landfill owners.

Novel raw inputs are also being grown by innovators to create more sustainable fibers. Algae is being developed by Berlin-based Algalife, which is then turned into fibers and dyes which are zero waste and only require sunlight and water as inputs. Algalife aims to reach mass production by 2020, with the first products focused on home and sportswear.

Banana- and fungi-based materials are also in development as textile materials. Green Whisper is converting agricultural residue into new inputs – banana paper, disposable cutlery and textile fibers for clothing. Netherlands-based NEFFA is developing a fabric out of mycelia mushrooms, which are grown in discs and then patched together to create seamless clothing. After the clothes have been worn, they can be buried in the ground, where they will decompose.

textiles in the circular economy

Business model innovation

Subscription, membership and rental models allow a closed-loop clothing cycle where the customers are incentivized to send back used clothes to brands, and the brands can then incorporate these used textiles into new fibers and clothes.

For Days, an LA-based t-shirt membership service, allows customers to send back used clothes and receive a significant discount on new items. Undergarments like t-shirts and bras are a prime target for this kind of recycling, as higher quality versions of these garments still have a short life-cycle. Initially focused on t-shirts, For Days recently signed a partnership with Harper Wilde for recycling used bras.

Cloud-based platform services can also play an important role in shifting brands towards a more circular model of production. For example, inventory optimization through repurposing returned or not fit-for-sale items. Optoro, a Global Cleantech 100 company and provider of asset recovery solutions for the distressed inventory of online retailers, has raised $190 million in venture funding, and has signed a partnership with UPS to optimize merchandise returns. Another example is Renewal Workshop, an Oregon-based startup helping brands and retailers to recover value from unsellable inventory. The company has partnered with North Face and Mara Hoffman to reuse clothes and materials, and Renewal Workshop is looking to expand into the Netherlands in 2019.

I’m leading a session titled, Changing Clothes: the Circular Fashion Economy at Cleantech Forum Europe on 21-23 May in Stockholm.