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Sorting Things out: A new Look for the Textile Industry

It’s time to shift the responsibility for textile waste, according to Valérie Boiten, Senior Policy Officer at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 

For many of us, stepping into a new year is a chance to clear the clutter and clean out closets. The result: an outpouring of textile waste. Suitcases filled with used clothing are donated to charities, and waste collectors notice an increase of holey socks and worn-out shoes mixed with household waste.

It is no surprise that, in a world with ever-changing fashion trends and ever-lower clothing prices, textile waste is growing, and is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with.

On average, European citizens discard 11kg of textiles per person per year, with garments typically having been worn only seven or eight times[1]. In the EU, only around a third[2] of these textiles are collected separately, and therefore have a chance of an afterlife. The majority however is headed straight to incineration. Globally, it is estimated that a truckload of discarded textiles is dumped in landfill or incinerated every second[3].

Through legislation, public authorities assign responsibility for the flows of solid waste in their jurisdictions. But until recently, textile waste was a problem that sorted itself out. Textile collectors were generally able to make a profit selling used textiles on the global market for second-hand clothing, or for recycling into lower-value applications, such as insulation material, cleaning cloths, and mattress stuffing. These transactions covered the costs for the fraction of textiles that could not be reused or recycled.

Regulation required

No more. Over the past two decades, clothing has become a disposable product, premised on high volumes of lower quality garments at low price levels. As a result,  collectors of used textiles report a decline in the quality of what they receive[4]. Meanwhile, the market for textile-to-textile recycling is yet to take off.

Given the ever-increasing volumes of textile waste, and the difficulty in building a business case for reuse and recycling, used textiles are increasingly treated as a classical “waste problem”, one that requires regulation as part of public waste management.

In the EU, policy measures are under way to do just that. EU member states are required to establish systems for the separate collection of textiles by 1 January 2025. Today, collection and sorting systems for textiles are often voluntary, small scale and fragmented. In addition, they tend to focus on clothing that is suitable for reuse, leaving other types of textiles and worn out clothing unaddressed. The requirement to set up separate collection systems is set to change all that. In the short term, it will most likely lead to a further increase of collected textiles.

Enter EPR

Against this backdrop, extended producer responsibility (EPR) for textiles has seen increased political momentum, as it is unlikely that EU member states will meet separate collection requirements if they do not introduce additional measures beyond what is already in place. Put simply, EPR regulations make companies responsible for the post-consumer stage of the products they put on the market. With almost 400 existing schemes globally, across various product types, from packaging to used tyres, EPR is a known policy tool that has been widely adopted. Yet to this date, France is the only country with an EPR in place for textiles.

If designed well, EPR can be an effective tool to help finance separate collection and sorting systems for textiles, which greatly improves the economic rationale for reuse and recycling. In addition, EPR systems can mobilise the highly needed investments to improve sorting operations, which largely rely on manual labour today, and have a limited ability to detect fibre content. EPR legislation can create a landscape in which recirculating used clothing and textiles becomes more economically viable – and ripe for investment.

But the introduction of EPR alone will not disrupt the short lifetimes of our textile products, in particular clothing. To have a chance of staying on track with a 1.5°C future, based on McKinsey modelling done in 2020, we need to live in a world in which one in five garments is traded through circular business models by 2030[5]. The window of time is narrowing. The entire industry needs to radically alter its core business model – and the potential to do so is real.

Circular business models decouple revenue streams from production and resource use. Instead of incentivising sales volumes, they make more revenue from fewer products, for example by repairing and recirculating existing products. These models have the potential to grow from 3.5% of the global fashion market today to 23% by 2030, representing a US$700 billion opportunity – and potentially an overall CO2 emissions reduction of up to 16%[6].

Systemic transformation

By covering the costs of building collection and sorting systems at scale, EPR legislation sorts out the tricky logistics around discarded textiles. It creates an important momentum to invest in reuse and recycling activities. But the need for a more systemic transformation is apparent. Shifting to business models that maximise resource use rather than product turnover would allow the industry to fully capture the material value of their products, seizing new opportunities for revenue generation in a way that significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

[1] European Environment Agency, Textiles in Europe’s circular economy (2019).

[2] Köhler A., Watson D., Trzepacz S., Löw C., Liu R., Danneck J., Konstantas A., Donatello S. & Faraca G., Circular Economy Perspectives in the EU Textile sector, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2021.

[3] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion’s future, 2017.

[4] Ljungkvist, H., Watson, D., & Elander, M., Developments in global markets for used textiles and implications for reuse and recycling, Mistra Future Fashion, 2018. See also EURIC, Updated position on EPR for textiles, 2021.

[5] McKinsey & Global Fashion Agenda, Fashion on Climate: how the fashion industry can urgently act to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, 2020.

[6] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Circular business models: redefining growth for a thriving fashion industry, 2021.

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