Transforming the fashion industry from its linear ‘take, make, waste’ model to a circular one, where materials are perpetually recycled, is considered the ‘holy grail’ of sustainability. With global apparel consumption projected to rise by 63% to 102 million tons in 2030, and an increase in clothing being sent to landfill accordingly (the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports that $500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and a lack of recycling), achieving circularity is becoming even more critical. It has remained elusive, however, with collaborative system-wide changes across the fashion supply chain required in order to ‘close the loop.’ The focus of fashion brands to date has been on somewhat isolated initiatives, including encouraging consumers to mend and wear their clothes for longer, clothing resale, rental and recycling. Whilst consumer efforts are a positive step, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demand solutions on a global scale to halt climate change and restore biodiversity within specified timeframes, to meet agreed targets. The projected growth of the fashion industry and the resulting emissions and waste generation make a scaled circular fashion industry solution an urgent environmental imperative. But what level of stakeholder cooperation across the industry is needed to achieve circularity, and how would this be coordinated in a fiercely competitive market?
Creating A Circular Blueprint
Driven by the data cited above and the potential to deliver textile recycling at scale, Finnish biotechnology group Infinited Fiber Company have led a successful bid for over €6M of European Union research and innovation funding, to form a consortium to create a circular fashion industry blueprint. The funding supports the New Cotton Project’s 12 consortium members, spanning Finland, Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Turkey, to work together across waste management, recycling, retail, manufacturing and academia to define a new circular fashion system and business model that they hope will lead to industry-wide adoption—and a significant reduction in fashion’s waste and environmental impact. What’s highly novel about this project is that it unites companies who compete in the market, but also recognise that collaboration is needed to achieve circularity at the industry level. Industry giants Adidas and H&M are partners on this project and will work together to facilitate “the scale and volume needed to properly test this (technology),” said Infinited Fiber’s CEO Petri Alava during a recent video call. Representing Fashion For Good, who are facilitating stakeholder collaboration during the project, was Kathleen Rademan: “What we (at FFG) have noticed is, in order to get something like chemical recycling off the ground, more than one brand is needed.”
During the 3 year project, Infinited Fiber will provide 3 tons of their cellulose carbamate fibres (recycled from textile, cardboard and other high cellulose content waste) to H&M and Adidas, for use at their partner mills and manufacturers, Inovafil, Tekstina and Kipas, who already operate within the brands’ supply chains. The mills will spin, dye, knit and weave the fibres into yarns and fabrics (single jersey and denim) for use in the brands’ commercial fashion products. H&M and Adidas will obtain consumer feedback on the products throughout their life cycle, and at the end of life, take-back schemes (which H&M explained to me over email are still in the initial planning stages) will feed the products into sorting facilities, and from there, into either chemical recycling feedstock or resale channels, depending on the garment quality.
On the waste handling and processing side a number of consortium collaborators will conduct ongoing data collection and analysis to define new workflows and processes needed to deliver circularity at scale. Holland-based Frankenhuis, will sort and pre-process the textile waste, while the South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences (XAMK) will develop a technical solution for the continuous processing of textile waste fibres for pre-treatment. REvolve Waste’s role is collecting and managing textile waste data to estimate feedstock availability in Europe and define the grade of the used textile waste. On the consumer and business retail side, RISE (the research institute of Sweden) will conduct the sustainability and techno-economic analyses alongside Infinited Fiber Company, in addition to managing the eco-labelling for the project and subsequent fabrics and garments. Finland’s Aalto University will analyse the project’s resulting ecosystem and circular business models on a more macro level, aiming to define the most feasible business model.
Legislation on recycled textiles
The magnitude and complexity of this project is clear, and EU funding to drive the initiative is clearly pivotal. Commercial businesses face such unique challenges during the global pandemic, that such an ambitious project surely requires grant funding with the sector-wide environmental targets in mind. In fact, during our discussion, Kathleen Rademan and Petri Alava both mentioned potential EU regulations for mandatory recycled content in textiles, however Rademan declared: “We don’t bet on legislation, we back innovation,” indicating their commitment to ensuring that Infinited Fiber technology achieves global commercial viability. In terms of the motivator for fashion companies, Rademan says “brands are becoming more aware of (impact) reporting. This is top down (SDGs, carbon targets, recycled content targets) and bottom up (listening to consumer sentiment and demonstrating that through product).” Add to this the newly established Fashion Pact (H&M and Adidas are both signatories) which requires validated company-specific Science Based Targets on emission reductions, and involvement in achieving circularity at scale makes complete sense.
Circularity Enabling Environmental Impact Pricing
During a discussion with Aalto University Professor Kirsi Niimimaki, she elaborated on their role in leading the “ecosystem building,” where they will create ways for the consortium members to share information within a co-dependent and collaborative framework that defines value creation beyond money. “We quite strongly believe that when we move to circular systems, the supply chain needs to be much more transparent – we need much more information. If it’s possible to construct this transparent data system, that information could be part of the business (decision making) and part of the pricing system.” Niimimaki suggested that such data collection would facilitate shared Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and carbon footprint data, meaning that environmental impact “could then be included in the pricing system.” This would be revolutionary in an industry where opacity maintains a product pricing system that is completely divorced from data on resource use, waste and emissions. It could also be pivotal in shining a light on the environmental impact fashion is having on developing countries, where much of its manufacturing is done. This project scope sits wholly within Europe, however it should be noted that the vast majority of global apparel production is in China and Bangladesh. I state this not to diminish the critical importance of this project, but to say that it will not produce an immediately implementable global blueprint solution, but it will pave the way for it.
Environmental Impact Reduction of Circularity
Before a new circular fashion system is implemented as a result of this project, quantification of the expected environmental benefits of Infinited Fiber’s fibres and perpetual recycling method is crucial. What does the life cycle of an Infinited Fiber fibre-based product look like compared to a virgin fibre one, and is Infinited Fiber fibre more ‘sustainable’ that other plant based chemically synthesised fibres, like viscose? Infinited Fiber have just completed an LCA based on their current pilot operations. In an optimal scenario where production happens in a modern factory powered by renewable energy sources, carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e) from their cellulose carbamate fiber production are calculated to be below 800 kg/tonne of fiber produced from textile waste. For comparison, research indicates that the viscose fiber carbon emission equivalent in a modern European facility is around 1,200 kg/tonne and as high as 5,300 kg/tonne if produced in China, powered by coal. Fundamental to the success of this circular system, then, is the parallel development of global green energy infrastructure. In a timely announcement this week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson committed to a radical green energy innovation plan and banning the sale of fossil fuel powered vehicles from 2030. The next President of the United States, Joe Biden, has committed to reentry into the Paris Agreement when he takes office, reconfirming the US commitment to environmental policy.
The New Cotton project itself will also include an LCA analysis that takes into account the whole value chain, from raw materials through to fiber, yarn and garment production, as well as end-of-life. To be viable, Alava explained to me that Infinited Fiber’s share of the market would need to rival that of viscose, which currently stands at around 7% of global fibre production. Infinited Fiber are in discussion with two Chinese companies interested in licensing their recycling technology, offering promise to their aim of global expansion. However Alava concedes that the fashion industry is “relatively conservative…so we are not sure the industry is ready to invest in this.” Undaunted, Alava said they are exploring other business models that could see them become a large-scale supplier themselves.
Since conducting the interviews for this article, H&M and cellulose chemical recycler Renewcell have announced a multi-year partnership where circulose pulp will be provided to the brand to replace a portion of its virgin fibre usage. But to transform to circular materials across the brand’s vast product lines, more than one recycled cellulose supplier will be needed, they say. Nellie Lindeborg, who manages Assortment Sustainability for the group said: “We are always looking to widen and diversify our material portfolio for use across the group.” She highlighted that cellulose carbamate is unique to Infinited Fiber Company, given that it provides fibres ready for spinning, rather than a pulp still requiring processing into fibres. H&M invested in the company in 2019 via their CO:LAB, and Lindeborg added that their overall “aim is that the entire industry should benefit from wider availability of these materials.”
With Infinited Fiber Company’s sights on global scaling of their technology, the outcomes of this three year New Cotton Project, which ends in September 2023, will (at least partly) determine their business model. As engineers and instigators of the first end-to-end multi-stakeholder circular fashion blueprint, our planet’s health depends on their success.