Let’s face it, our traditional production processes are wreaking havoc on our environment. The fashion industry is just beginning to wake up and see the damage that’s been done. We’ve exhausted our linear systems that rely on finite resources and are now looking to models that could turn things around.
This month Textile Exchange, in collaboration with Forum for the Future, released a new report outlining an optimistic future for renewing the fashion industry. This can only be achieved if the benefits of man-made cellulosic fibers are actualized and stakeholders at every stage of the products life-cycle buy in. The proposed circular model relies heavily not just on designers, suppliers and retail giants but on the consumers to follow through with what is arguably one of the most critical steps: end-of-life recycling.
For it to work, consumers need to pull their weight
Man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCF) have been around, and progressing for decades, so why haven’t we capitalized on their full potential? The key is successfully implementing a circular model. And we aren’t quite there yet. Without consumer participation, the circular economy has been falling flat. The only way to see this through is for consumers to start showing up and taking their role in a product’s life-cycle seriously. As we come out of the COVID-19 era and Gen-Z have more money in their pockets, will we see consumers following through at the end of life stage?
The report, MMCF 2030: Envisioning the Future of Man-made Cellulosic Fibers, provides an in-depth look at how collaborative action can be taken across the value chain in order to deliver the desired positive outcomes.
Here are 5 key takeaways from it
The potential for these fibers to reach those positive benchmarks and make an impact within the sustainable fashion space is huge, if the right fibers are honed in on and widely adopted. For most of us within this space, we know that there is a solution amongst the innovative technologies and a glimmer of a circular economy on the horizon. But, this hasn’t always been the case for MMCF. In the past, there has been controversy surrounding certain MMCF and the damages that they can inflict when exploited. For example, Viscose, a man-made cellulosic fiber made from bleached wood pulp, has been known to be the cause of clear-cutting forests and the use of harmful chemicals (caustic soda, ammonia, and sulphuric acid).
In recent years, new technologies and innovative manufacturers like Lenzing have led the way to an improved process for MMCFs. Most notably through their Tencel line, a branded version of lyocell. The process involves the use of sustainably sourced raw materials (responsibly managed forests) and uses an environmentally responsible closed-loop process that recycles 99% of the chemical solvent required. With all that being said, this seems like progress, and like the MMCF that have some positive benefits are paving the way for their use in the mainstream and could continue to gain market share. Great, right?
Well, there’s a catch
Although closed-loop production systems are a step in the right direction, textile waste is still rampant. The report estimates that 500 billion USD is lost every year from clothing being barely worn or recycled improperly. As a result, the report highlights that a key to the major benefits of integrating these fibers into the value chain is implementing a circular model. A circular model relies heavily on participation from stakeholders at every stage of a product’s life-cycle, from designing for recyclability to product care, and end-of-life. Recycling unwanted clothes becomes the most important step – You can’t create recycled fibers unless you have clothes to recycle.
While manufacturing technology is advancing rapidly and reducing the environmental impact of MMCFs, these advancements could be derailed without proper recycling of clothing at the end of life. So really begs the question; why aren’t consumers playing along? We know recycling empty cans and bottles seems so easy. Well, unfortunately that’s not the case for clothing.
The infrastructure just isn’t there
Options for discarding clothing are limited, either you take it to the charity donation bin, try to resell it, or add it to a pile of hand-me-downs. However, that extra step isn’t always easy to facilitate and typically there’s one common place that those garments end up more often than not, landfills. As a result, the circular economy that the industry has been raving about, and has been working towards while innovating fibers and processes to maintain integrity throughout the recycling stage, are falling short. Without the buy-in from consumers to actively participate and the infrastructure to facilitate it, this won’t change anytime soon.
But, there’s some good news
Consumers are ready for a new normal that involves more conscious purchases and brands that are purpose driven. After-pay, the installment based e-commerce company, compiled a report titled Meet Gen-Z: Reshaping the Retail Landscape where they found that Gen Z, who comprise USD 144 Billion in annual spending power, are expecting brands and fashion retailers to embrace the circular economy and will prioritize this when deciding where to shop and what to buy. Even more, Business of Fashion has reported a shift for consumers in general, in a post-covid retail era, which will lead to more consumers seeking out brands that are focusing on quality and ethical and sustainable practices. With this insight into consumer habits in mind, it seems as though participation in the programs and implementation strategies proposed by the MMCF report will become more successful and consistent; filling the missing piece to the puzzle of a successful circular model.
Now more than ever there is an opportunity for every stakeholder in the value chain to participate in a solution to the wasteful problems that have haunted the fashion industry for decades. Implementing the action points that the MMCF 2030 report highlights, has the potential to pave a new way forward for the apparel industry and set a standard that will result in positive impacts for the environment.
The report has come at a critical time in the shifting retail landscape
As new generations dominate in a growing percentage of global purchasing power within the market, and consumers of all ages have been stuck at home with more time than ever to re-evaluate their priorities when shopping. It’s imperative that brands adapt to meet their demands, and as they do, implement structures within their value chain to promote circularity and recyclability of their products. And if consumers really do buy in, the results will be nothing short of a new perspective on how value chains can function. If governments and industry play ball to set up the right infrastructure, and with strong stakeholder engagement at every stage in a products life-cycle, a circular, zero waste apparel industry is within our grasp.