Teamwork makes the sustainable fashion dream work

12 October 2021

Read time: 10 minutes

In combining expertise from the upstream and downstream of the fashion and textiles industry, Carla Worth, Consultant at Resource Futures, and Alan Wheeler, Chief Executive Officer at the Textile Recycling Association (TRA), explore the impact of sustainability becoming mainstream and highlight why stakeholders must prioritise collaborative and cross-sectoral working to achieve a global sustainable fashion industry.

Collaboration is the new competition

As the world begins pulling itself back together and imagining a post-Covid future, the term ‘build back better’ has rose-tinted nearly all aspects of life. On an individual level, national lockdowns have forced us through personal introspective journeys that have shifted and reprioritised our values. This reframing and refocusing extends to national and international fora as well, with the eagerly awaited COP26 in Glasgow reinvigorating urgent coordinated action to tackle climate change.

Amid this common movement to build back better, what is clear is that we are stronger together. It is in this vein of collaboration that we have teamed up with the TRA (the trade association for collectors, sorters and processors of used clothing and textiles). After a difficult year for the high street, the fashion and textiles industry is equally keen to build back better. It is now time for companies to decisively join together to address growing consumer eco-consciousness and play their role in the pressing climate agenda.

Challenges facing brands

2020 was a tumultuous period that saw clothing retailers and brands face unprecedented challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Arcadia Group, owner of popular global clothing brand Topshop, made headlines in November 2020 as it announced it had gone into administration. A day later, the 240 year-old establishment, Debenhams, similarly succumbed to mounting pressures and announced its liquidation and closure of 124 stores across the UK, leaving the already precarious high street ‘reeling’.

Euratex figures reveal the steep fall in trade in the textiles industry during 2020, particularly clothing, at -17.1%. Source: Innovation in Textiles

Across the clothing industry, the pandemic has heightened market uncertainty, causing retailers to deal with new and unsold clothing orders impacted by national lockdowns. During the first national lockdown, Primark was one of many retailers that planned a ‘post-lockdown bumper sale’ when shops reopened after accumulating £1.5 billion of unsold stock, prompting hours-long queues starting as early as 7am.

Shoppers queuing outside the Primark in Stoke-on-Trent. Source: Getty

Consumer priorities are shifting

In the midst of market uncertainty, pandemic-enforced closures, and plummeting high street sales, consumer demand for sustainable clothing is paradoxically at an all-time high. The increased time spent indoors in our own homes is influencing the way we think about and engage with our clothing: rediscovering old favourites, caring for them better, mending and making clothing, and adopting a mindset of ‘quality vs. quantity’.

According to an August 2020 poll by Hubbub, which looked into how Covid-19 has altered UK shopping habits, only 16% of respondents missed clothes shopping during the enforced closures and lockdowns. Among 16-24 year-olds, this only rises to 25%. Meanwhile, Getty Images reported searches for sustainability are up 142%, and interest in sustainable living up 201%.

Perhaps most indicative of this shift in perspective is the increase in reuse. For many people, sustainable clothing is not just about purchasing fewer, better-quality garments, it is about buying second-hand, participating in clothes swaps, or simply buying less. While organic and sustainable materials are admirable, the reality is that this ‘slow fashion’ clothing makes up a small proportion of sales and is typically sold at a price premium.

The post-pandemic clothing mindset and sustainable fashion movement is growing, making sustainability more affordable and accessible. Sustainable Fashion Week, which took place 11-19 September 2021, demonstrated this by organising the week around the key themes of ‘regenerate, rewear, repurpose and reconnect’ – highlighting that sustainable fashion is about much more than just buying ethical clothing. The popularly termed ‘Buyerarchy of Needs’ – a mashup of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the Waste Hierarchy – also reflects this priority to borrow and use what you have, before buying new.

The Buyerarchy of Needs. Source: Sarah Lazarovic

Despite this growing shift in attitude, the reality is that many people still succumb to the pre-pandemic modes of consumption. This behaviour, driven by online retail giants such as ASOS that have flourished in the pandemic, continue to push the message that novelty is style. However, this messaging is inconsistent with sustainability priorities going forward, and brands who do not meaningfully join the conversation now will be left behind.

‘Build back better’

Covid-19 impacts coupled with an already struggling high street and increased interest for sustainable fashion means that many businesses in the textile industry find themselves at a crossroads, having to rethink their supply chains and business plans. This is a unique opportunity to rebuild the industry towards sustainability.

Fashion retailers are taking this opportunity to be more relevant to their consumers’ changing interests. Every week another brand or retailer announces its commitment or programme to target sustainability in its textiles, demonstrating that sustainability in fashion is becoming mainstream and not limited to a few forward-thinking front runners.

Perhaps most encouraging of all is that sustainable fashion is becoming more accessible and is being perceived less as a wealthy person’s movement, as proven by the latest Sustainable Fashion Week. WRAP’s recently launched Textiles 2030 is a big part of this. With major high street names already joined, such as John Lewis, M&S, Next, Primark, and Ted Baker, the voluntary agreement will set out to slash the impact that UK clothing has on the environment through practical interventions along the entire textiles supply chain.

By mobilising fast fashion giants that have economies of scale to offer sustainable garments at lower price points, sustainability can cater to and become more mainstream for lower-income households and families that can’t afford to pay a premium for sustainable clothing.

The need for regulatory measures

However, the fashion industry is an industry of industries and also incorporates agriculture, power generation, spinners, weavers, retail operation, and end of life. This means that most of the negative environmental impacts of textiles are locked in the supply chain, often completely detached to decisions a retailer might make.

While WRAP’s voluntary programme is a notable step in the right direction, more action is urgently needed to shine a light on retailer’s supply chains and level the playing field for smaller businesses that are already acting responsibly. One way to mandate increased transparency in supply chains could be to strengthen and embolden the Modern Slavery Act to ensure retailers are intimately aware of their supply chains, obligating companies to prevent abuses in their supply chains, with risks of civil penalties for non-compliance.

Regulatory measures are already being considered by the UK Government. Versions of an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) are being investigated that would regulate textiles and textile waste. This would see manufacturers of clothing pay for placing textile products on the market, with the idea that these fees would pay for the management of the resulting waste. EPR is a strong signaller to nudge the industry in the right direction, and there are many ways in which it can be used to encourage change and support smaller businesses. Revenue raised from EPR could be deployed to encourage more positive behaviour, and EPR exemptions or tax breaks could be offered for clothing companies with proven social and environmental contributions, such as B Corps.

Examples can be taken from other countries that include textiles in their waste management plans. In the Netherlands, each new clothing item put on the market in 2025 must have 30% minimum recycled content, rising to 50% by 2030. We are already using such policy measures to stimulate recycling in other UK markets – the new plastics packaging tax in the UK will be applied to plastic packaging products that don’t meet the minimum recycled content of 30%. However, any such policy for textiles would need careful consideration so as not to disincentivise or prevent the use of more innovative materials, as well as consideration around recent research on microplastic release from garments made with recycled content.

Research into increasing the levels of recycled content in textiles could be funded through EPR. Circular policies and practices would be adopted by businesses as a result, stimulating demand for more recycled content and creating a positive reinforcement loop.

Implications at end-of-life: Reuse and recycling of used clothing and textiles

Each actor along the textile industry’s global supply chain plays an enormous part in the fashion industry’s impact on communities and the environment. Even if consumers, designers and fashion brands decisively join the sustainability movement, lots of work still needs to be done downstream.

Worldwide, the supply of used garments already meets demand. If progress on garment collection and recovery is accelerated, as is the target, the fate of these garments needs to be urgently addressed. The majority are currently bought by wholesalers from abroad who import these items, while only a very small proportion of the collected clothing is resold back to the domestic markets from where the goods were originally sold as new. This is because demand for used clothing in most developed countries is still very low and existing (mainly mechanical) recycling markets for recycled textiles are small and have a low value.

The situation in the UK is different, where domestic reuse of used clothing is much higher than most other developed countries, mainly because of the large network of charity shops, popularity of car boot sales and peer-to-peer platforms such as Vinted, Depop and eBay. While this high domestic reuse rate in the UK is positive, it also means that the opportunities to expand and invest in textiles recycling markets will be limited.

For the last 30 to 40 years, unwanted clothing from developed countries has mainly been imported by countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Pakistan and increasingly India. However, these markets are becoming increasingly crowded, even though relatively few countries have formal collection systems for used clothing. There is evidence that Kenya is becoming more crowded with China’s increasing market share of exports into the country, which grew from 0.7% to 30% within a few years (figures based on visualisations built in the Observatory of Economic Complexity). If more countries increase formal collection of used clothing, they must also, critically, address and plan for their end markets.

Covid-19 has exposed weaknesses in the international used textile market and we need to act now to ensure flows of textiles do not follow a similar path to that of used plastics, with low-value plastics oversaturating the processing capabilities in Asian countries. To avoid being on the backfoot, swift action with EPR and improved circularity must be prioritised for textiles. There is a need to establish new markets and new demands for all recycling grades to develop a stronger pull factor, stimulating demand and driving up values.

Clothing and textiles recycling is seeing some exciting developments. Some frontrunners are demonstrating how a controlled chemical recycling process can turn a collection of old fabric into a yarn (or pellet in the case of polyester) that can be reused to manufacture a new recycled product. However, what comes out of a recycling bank, charity shop, retail takeback scheme or kerbside collection will always contain a mixture of good quality reusable items and lower quality items that have to go for recycling, and possibly a small percentage of contamination.

Separating the good quality items to keep them at the top of the resource/waste hierarchy and deliver suitable recycling grade textiles in a format that can be used by frontrunning chemical textiles recyclers is labour and resource intensive. In addition, few are motivated to invest in new infrastructure and markets for low-value materials that are currently difficult to get hold of. Policy measures such as EPR and product standards could help to stimulate investment and demand in the UK and in other countries. This would ensure recycling grades are sent to robust markets with good infrastructure and strong demand, where they can be used in the manufacture of new products and thus encourage circularity.

The way forwards

As the aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic begin to stabilise, it is becoming increasingly clear that brands and consumers are fully on board with sustainability in clothing and textiles. Voluntary programmes such as WRAP’s Textiles 2030 will surely be an important industry unifier and a signpost for change, but more joined-up thinking is required, linking both upstream and downstream textiles industries. Policy measures such as EPR are needed for widespread change and to level the playing field – preventing companies undercutting on price by not addressing sustainability and ethical issues.

To deliver a global sustainable fashion industry, countries throughout the world need to collect and process more used clothing and throw less away. This will require a considerable amount of effort from designers, brands, consumers, collectors and processors. However, the appetite for sustainability in textiles is strong and stakeholders are recognising that the time for positive change is now. There is great opportunity to respond to current economic and environmental pressures and take a unified step forward as an industry, with joined-up thinking all the way through to government.

Resource Futures’ recent work related to sustainability in textiles includes providing data support for the final year of WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) Progress Report.