Resource requirements and reuse challenges for raw materials and manufacturing
- Around 3% of water used in agriculture is for growing cotton
- Cotton accounts for around 48% of textile production
- 1kg of cotton requires 20,000 litres of water; this makes roughly one t-shirt and a pair of jeans
- Cotton does not retain its quality well when recycled therefore it is currently not possible to create products from 100% recycled cotton1
- The leather industry is one of the top 10 most toxic polluters
- In China the leather industry is one of the top 20 wastewater dischargers
- 400 tanneries are within the Ganges river basin in India, and the industry is one of the most polluting with around two thirds of the wastewater not being treated before returning to the river
- Cattle farming is a key driver of deforestation
- Leather can be recycled into lower quality leather however it is difficult for leather to retain its quality during the recycling process2
- Five times more energy intensive to produce than cotton
- Made from petroleum which has a negative environmental impact during the extraction process
- Has a long useful life – retains quality when recycled and can be recycled a number of times
- 90% of rubber comes from India, Vietnam, Southern China and Indonesia in some of the most biodiverse forest habitats, home to many endangered species
- Growing demand for rubber drives deforestation to serve production of this crop
- Rubber can be produced without clearing natural forests, a process that should be encouraged
- Rubber is a recyclable material3
- Water heavily used in production process e.g. during fabric dyeing
- Water pollution from garment manufacturing comprises 20% of industrial water pollution
- Five trillion litres of water used in fabric dyeing a year4
Innovative solutions for apparel companies exist, and there are new technologies and businesses emerging to support apparel companies on their journeys to implementing a circular economy business model. For example, Lenzing is an Austrian, man-made fibre producer that is working on a range of “specialty fibres”, such as Refibra, which is made out of cotton scraps from factories. In addition, Dyecoo has developed and supplied water and chemical free textile dyeing systems to garment manufacturers.
Following research on the challenges associated with key raw materials, we looked to understand what sustainable and innovative materials and processes are being developed. This allowed us to identify a best-practice framework for a circular economy:
Mapping emerging natural resource scarcity in manufacturing processes and the supply chain.
- Raw material scarcity mapping is an important risk assessment for apparel companies in addition to conventional cost mapping exercises.
- Risk mapping is key for companies to have a clear understanding of long-term risks and cost impacts, which in turn can incentivise the development of circular economy solutions.
- Re-designing garments to increase their potential for recyclability, such as creating garments from single materials as these are easier to recycle than garments made from a mix of materials and/or focusing on the research, development and innovation of fabrics.
- Ensuring minimal fabric waste at factories.
- Take-back schemes that re-use and recycle material from garments that have been brought back, into new products.
- Repair services aimed at extending the useful life of garments whilst giving brands the image of quality and durability.
We reached out to 19 apparel companies requesting a dialogue on their approach to developing circular economy models that use the best practice elements we had identified.
Of the 19 companies, we had discussions with 12, written responses from two companies and no response from the remaining five. We classified responsive companies as either front-runners, followers or laggards.
Seven of the 14 companies that responded were classified as front-runners. These companies are already actively working on circular economy initiatives such as pilot schemes using recycled materials to make garments, launching sustainable clothing lines, small scale recycling of waste at manufacturing sites, and research projects. Many companies have also launched or are piloting garment takeback schemes where consumers can bring old and unwanted garments back to the store and these are either re-sold, donated to charity, recycled or disposed of. Nevertheless, these companies are not yet in a position to clearly map-out the scalability of these initiatives. We have specifically chosen to classify these companies as “front-runners” and not “leaders”, as despite being the most advanced of the companies we engaged with in developing circular economy strategies, they still have a long way to go in implementing comprehensive circular business models that would reduce their reliance on natural resources and increase control of volatile raw material prices.
Although the “front runners” showed an understanding of the need to implement circular economy models, we have seen little indication as to the eventual objectives and scope of their efforts to inject circular models into their overall business. Our engagement found that the main driver for companies to implement circular models is due to the customer demand for more sustainable products. Our conversations further revealed that many companies are aware of increasing raw material scarcity but have not developed a risk-assessment for sustainable, long-term material sourcing. Only three of the companies we engaged with have implemented leading risk management practices, including identification of key raw materials, development of a sustainable sourcing policy for these, targets and implementation programmes on sustainable sourcing.
As a result, we found that companies were satisfied with small projects such as a sustainable fashion line, as opposed to working on scalable projects to convert business models from a linear one to a circular one.
Three of the companies that responded were classified as “followers”. These companies have started to work on circular economy initiatives but these are still in an early design phase.
And lastly we classified four of the companies that responded as laggards. These companies are either unwilling to engage on the topic and/or do not show any evidence on working on this through their disclosures.