BRINGING CLOTHING INTO CIRCULAR ECONOMY

How does one go about creating a circular economy for the apparel industry?

This was a question Nicole Bassett from Renewal Workshop asked herself for years before getting around to sitting down, asking others their thoughts and putting it down on paper.

Read her blog below to find out how circular economy can be achieved.

The apparel industry today has been built on a linear model and a model where raw materials are plentiful and cheap. While some of those raw materials might still be cheap, the plentiful part is now challenged.

The other part of a linear economy is that it gets captured by this magical idea of a landfill being a good solution for where things go when we are done with them. I’m guessing that just like me, you think that makes no sense.

Once you realise buying and simply sending to landfill makes no sense, it becomes an opportunity to shift to a more circular way of thinking. In order to do that, you need to build a system to allow for the change in behaviour. Circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

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Let me share with you some of my background. Most of my career, I have worked for apparel brands and retailers. I understand what it means to manufacture things, lots of things. In fact, I vividly remember standing in hundreds of small, medium and massive factories all over the world watching hundreds of thousands of garments getting made and always thought to myself – who is going to buy these clothes and where are they going to go at the end of their use?

 

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If the apparel industry was going to become circular we would need to inspire the main players and change the apparel brand themselves. We would have to quietly change the system these brands operate in, so that they can start changing their behaviour.

The Renewal Workshop is a lot of things, and its primary purpose is to enable a circular economy for apparel. If we want to get to circular we need to incentivise the right things, measure the right metrics and work towards a collective vision.

The first step we took towards a new system was to understand the pain point for an apparel brand or retailer. These companies have a product problem because their product comes back to them in the form of returns, warranty, damages, and even more recently with the interest in consumer take back programmes. Now that this material is returned, where does it go next?

We knew that if we could get brands to look at this product not as waste, but as new raw materials then they have an opportunity on their hands.

So, we built a factory to do just that, to manage that product on their behalf. We look at apparel through the lens of a circular economy, which means we are trying to capture the most value for the longest period. So, we start by renewing apparel – cleaning it and repairing it to the standards of the brand partners – think of your certified pre-owned fancy car.  Then we start looking at upcycling, downcycling and recycling the textiles that cannot remain as full apparel.

This model works to solve a problem for today as well as sets us up to solve problems for the future. The future is exciting because this is where the opportunity for recycling is. Technologies today vary between historical mechanical recycling to labs tinkering with breaking down textiles into molecules. To get there, we need a supply chain designed to close the loop.

Once the system exists the behaviour can start to change. The system that connects “waste” materials into new raw materials will allow for the behaviour change for brands to start designing and selling differently. There is the opportunity to create products that fit better into the circular economy. There are two approaches here, using raw materials that are safe and are even able to be recycled. This means a stronger investment into understanding the material make up and chemistry of textiles to be sure they can be recycled with existing recycling technologies. The second is create a sourcing model where a brand can source and develop new products from their old materials.

In this new model, apparel brands still design and create the latest and greatest styles, they are now able to do so in a new system that rewards their decisions throughout the supply chain. Not only are these designers choosing cleaner textiles, but they are designing them for recapture at the end of their use.

With a new system we are able to see new behaviour. A behaviour that is now contributing to a circular system instead of a linear one.

 

Nicole Bassett, Co-founder of “The Renewal Workshop”

www.renewalworkshop.com