circular economy and textiles

The circular economy in fashion

The textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. Existing recycling solutions are not sufficient to solve the problems raised by resource management in this sector. The circular economy would provide relevant solutions to meet the challenges faced by the textile industry: prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery actions can be carried out at the initiative of a multitude of public and private stakeholders in order to create sustainable alternatives. This is what the Institut National de l'Economie Circulaire (National Institute of Circular Economy) reveals through an inventory of the environmental issues linked to our textile industry, which is under great pressure on resources.
Aa textile products, and in particular clothing, are consumer goods. They play a social role and reflect the personality of those who wear them. France has marked the history of fashion by creating Haute Couture with its annual collections; its know-how is recognized worldwide. In 2017, this sector represents 60,000 jobs in France and a turnover of 13.4 billion euros. (1).
But the environmental and societal bill is very heavy. Since the 1990s, fast fashion (2) has accelerated the pace of collections, increasing the availability of ever-lower-priced clothing produced in developing countries. Overproduction generates massive resource extraction that is unsustainable. The circular economy, a principle of economic organisation aimed at decoupling the creation of societal value from environmental impact through optimised resource management. (3), provides relevant solutions to meet these challenges. Prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery actions can be carried out at the initiative of a multitude of public and private actors in order to create sustainable alternatives.

State of play

The textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. The current system of production, distribution and use is almost entirely linear with negative environmental and social externalities at all stages of the value chain. Clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years as a result of fast fashion and the rise of the middle classes. (4). Against a backdrop of falling prices in the clothing sector (5), Distributors are counting on increased sales volumes to maintain their turnover, also increasing residual stocks.
The total amount of clothing consumed in the EU in 2015 is 6.4 million tonnes. (6). In France (7), 2.6 billion TLC (textiles, household linen and footwear) are placed on the market every year, i.e. about 9.5 kg per year per capita. In 2017, 3.4 kg of TLC per capita were collected, only 36% of the potential deposit.
Tension over resources and pollution
The production of clothing requires different resources, starting with water for cotton cultivation and dyeing processes. Between 7,000 and 11,000 litres of water are needed to make a pair of jeans, or 285 showers. (8). The water impact of all clothing consumed in the EU in 2015 amounts to 46 400 million cubic metres. (9).
On the other hand, the textile sector is highly dependent on fossil fuels, since synthetic fibres (polyester, polyamide...see box on textile fibres) are derived from oil. Polyester today represents 60 % of the fibres currently used and its use is expected to double by 2030. (10).
The textile industry also generates various types of pollution during the production of the fibres (use of pesticides and fertilisers for cotton, which represents 26 % of the fibres used) during production (dyeing water loaded with toxic products) and during use (plastic microfibres).

Plastic microfibers: With each wash, thousands of plastic microfibers from synthetic fibers (virgin or recycled) are released without being filtered by the purification systems. They end up in the oceans, where they are ingested by multiple underwater species that can find themselves in our food chain. They will take decades to degrade and may contain toxic chemicals. At the current rate, by 2050, we will have dumped more than 20 million tonnes of plastic microfibres into the oceans (11).

The production and transport of textiles generates 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, more than all international flights and shipping combined. (12). The value chain is long to produce a garment and each step can take place in a different country: a pair of jeans can travel up to 1.5 times around the world, from the cotton field to the store. (13). It seems that the use phase has the highest carbon impact (machine washing and drying) while production is responsible for about a quarter of CO2 emissions. (14).
This strong pressure on resources and the associated pollution will worsen as clothing production is expected to triple by 2050. (15).
The complex recycling of textiles
A garment is a complex product, made of different materials (natural, artificial, synthetic), metal accessories, and which undergoes treatments (dyeing, primers). This complexity does not facilitate recycling during production and at the end of life.
80 % of textiles used in the European Union are not recycled (17). Recycling opportunities vary from fibre to fibre.
The mechanical recycling of cotton is controlled, but it degrades the quality of the fibre and new garments can only contain 20 % of recycled fibre. On the other hand, wool can be recycled several times and it is possible to transform cotton into a material close to lyocell (artificial fibre) with recycled cellulose.
Textiles based on mixed fibres (cotton/polyester/elastane for example) are more difficult to recycle because the processes are not the same for different fibres that cannot be chemically recycled without first being separated. However, these blends are more and more widespread in fast fashion clothing: the current system therefore favours disposable fashion.
Closed-loop recycling solutions (19) are still in their infancy. In open-loop systems, the easiest fibre to recycle is polyester: the polymer is chemically transformed into a monomer before being transformed back into fibres, which are most often recycled into insulation. In order to recreate textiles, recycled polyester is mainly derived from other sectors, in particular PET bottles. (20). We must also remain vigilant about the amount of energy required to recycle fibres, while ensuring that potentially toxic products potentially present in clothing (dyes, finishes) are not put back in the loop.
A large investment is therefore required to develop recycling technologies so that recycled materials become as profitable as virgin materials. Existing recycling solutions therefore do not compensate for the environmental damage caused by the textile industry. There is an urgent need to slow down the extraction of materials and to rethink the use of the resources mobilised. The circular economy provides answers to the challenges facing the textile industry.

Textile industry: towards a circular economy

The circular economy aims to decouple value creation from our impact on the environment. It implies the implementation of new modes of design, production (eco-design, industrial and territorial ecology, economy of functionality, etc.) and consumption that are more sober and efficient. It also calls for waste to be considered as a resource. (21).
Eco-design: design and procurement
Styling choices can considerably limit the environmental impact of a garment and improve its circularity.
Firstly, the shape: in production, the cutting of the pieces of each garment generates between 20 and 30 % of fabric offcuts. If designers rethink the cut of our garments, they can optimize the use of fabric, or even create zero waste patterns, without fabric waste. 3D printers can also be a way to adjust the garment to fit the customer's needs as closely as possible. (22).
The choice of fabric, accessories (buttons, rivets...) and patterns have consequences on the product's end of life (disassembly and recycling). A jean can only be recycled at 30 % due to the many hard stitches (seams) and metal accessories. The French jeans brand 1083, for example, offers children's jeans designed to be repaired, with removable legs in case of a knee snag. In addition, favouring single-material fabrics makes recycling easier, as does substituting prints based on synthetic inks with woven or embroidered patterns.
Sustainable sourcing also reduces environmental impact and facilitates product circularity. Conventional cotton is the second most used material after polyester. Its environmental impact can be reduced by the use of organic cotton using less chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The outdoor brand (23) Patagonia began sourcing 100% from its organic cotton in 1996. Other less widespread natural fibres are much more virtuous for the environment: flax cultivation requires no irrigation, few inputs, no GMOs. This plant grows in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Hemp has similar properties.
Among artificial fibres, lyocell is produced with eucalyptus cellulose and is preferable to viscose because the natural non-toxic solvents used to transform wood into fibre are recycled at 99 % (24). Thus, pollutants are not returned to the wastewater.
The use of synthetic fibres should be reserved for products for which they are not substitutable, such as sports equipment and outdoor clothing. The use of recycled fibres is more virtuous, even if it does not solve the problem of plastic microfibres and should therefore be accompanied by a strategy for recovering microfibres from wastewater at all stages (production, use, waste).
In addition, new practices can reduce the impact during the finishing, dyeing and finishing phases: 1083 uses laser washing of jeans instead of sandblasting.
An integrated dyeing process before spinning would save 90 % of water. (25). It is possible to use vegetable dyes such as the Archroma company, which uses inedible nut shells and leaves. Research is investigating the potential for using molecules from living organisms to ennoble textiles: bacteria produce the pigments, avoiding the use of large quantities of water and dye chemicals.
For the NGO Greenpeace, the elimination of toxic chemicals is a prerequisite for good quality circularity. Since 2011, the campaign Detox challenged the sector and secured the commitment of 80 brands (including 19 fast fashion brands) to greater transparency and zero toxic chemicals in their production and supply chain by 2020.
Eco-design is therefore an essential lever to limit environmental damage during the production of clothing and in the management of its end of life.
Longer service life
The production and transport of textile products are the phases with the greatest environmental impact. One of the main levers for action to reduce the sector's footprint is to reduce the purchase of new clothing and thus extend the useful life of each garment as much as possible. However, the average lifespan of a garment worn in the EU in 2015 would be 3.3 years. (26).
The quality of the selected fabrics is a determining factor in the longevity of the garment. Brands must test the durability of their products on the basis of objective and comparable criteria. For example, for a strong fabric, long fibres should be chosen. Some brands offer products under warranty and thus take responsibility for the quality of the textiles they put on the market. Some even provide guarantees for refurbished garments. Clothing can also be designed to be multi-functional, worn on several occasions and in different conditions, reducing the need to purchase multiple pieces.
Another way to extend lifespan is the growing second-hand clothing market, encouraged by digital technology. In France, 58 % of the collected TLCs are returned to the market in their original state. (27) and 6 out of 10 French people have already bought second-hand (28).
Environmental issues are indeed opportunities for the textile industry to reinvent itself.
New business models
The number of times an item of clothing is worn before being discarded has decreased by 36% over the past 15 years. (29). To prevent our clothes from sleeping in our closets, new business models, based on the economy of functionality, are emerging.
The number of garments lined but the average number of times a garment is worn before it is no longer in use fell sharply between 2000 and 2015 - Source: Euromonitor International Apparel & Foorwear 2016 Edition - World Bank, World development indicators - GD (2017).

Already existing in mobility, clothing sharing and rental services increase the use of the resource and respond to consumers' need for quick and frequent clothing changes. Mud Jeans offers a leasing service for the jeans they still own. Tale me has the same offer for children's clothing, which by its very nature needs to be changed very often. The library offers a shared wardrobe via a monthly subscription. The relationship to clothing ownership can therefore also be reconsidered by the circular economy.
In addition to selling products, brands may offer repair services to encourage their customers to keep their clothes as long as possible. H&M, for example, is launching its in-store repair service, Take Care (31). Outdoor brands (Decathlon, Patagonia with the tour, etc.) Worn Wear (32)) are champions in selling repair services, and even offer customers workshops to repair their products themselves.
Indeed, consumer involvement increases the emotional durability of textiles. Customization services and sewing or upcycling workshops (33) are all ancillary services that could be offered by the brands. These downstream marketing strategies involve the consumer in co-creating a product that corresponds to his or her tastes and needs and increase his or her attachment, and ultimately extend the product's lifespan.
These new business models are still niche markets and need fiscal support in order to scale up. These changes mark a profound shift in the way clothes are worn, sold, shared, repaired and reused. Beyond the environmental benefits, there are also societal benefits as these initiatives also create new local activities and recreate social ties.
It is essential to understand customer needs and to seize the economic opportunities that arise from them. All stakeholders must be mobilized to contribute to these profound changes in consumption patterns.

Actors for change

Public actors
As for other sectors, public actors are showing a growing commitment to the ecological impacts of textiles. They rely on strategies or roadmaps setting objectives that can be binding and accompanied by an investment plan to support the evolution of the actors.
At the European level, the EU circular economy package adopted in May 2018 obliges Member States to set up separate collection for textiles by 2025. The EU also funds research and innovation programmes such as the European Clothing Action Plan (ECAP).
At the national level, states have the ability to change market conditions to encourage virtuous players. Taxation is a tool that encourages the use of recycled fibres, the production of recyclable clothing and repair channels. Regulatory leverage can impose constraints such as the establishment of mandatory guarantees. In France, the roadmap for the circular economy (FREC) provides for the implementation by 2019 of an action plan to combat unsold clothing waste, based on the model of food waste. Since March 2017, multinationals have a duty of vigilance over their subcontractors and must "prevent serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, human health and safety, and the environment" (34). Finally, states define the regulatory framework for the status of waste, with important consequences for the actors involved in collection and their authorizations.
The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system that has existed in France since 2008 for textiles, household linen and footwear (TLC) is exemplary. Each company that sells clothing of its own brand on the French market must either set up its own collection and recycling system or pay a contribution to the eco-organization Eco TLC which takes care of it for them, in proportion to the volume of clothing placed on the market. This eco-contribution is differentiated according to sustainability criteria and the use of recycled fibres. The funds collected finance the system, Research & Development to develop recycling solutions and awareness campaigns to encourage the general public to sort TLC.
Through public procurement, government departments integrate recycled textiles into their textile purchases and direct investment in collection and sorting infrastructure.
Finally, if the fashion industry is to change, future professionals in the sector must be trained in these issues. Training and awareness-raising are missions of public authorities who must work to ensure that the circular economy is integrated into teaching and research programmes.
At the territorial level, cities are actors in collection and are familiar with local ecosystems (habits of residents, associative fabric, collection and sorting infrastructures). Collection rates in cities are generally lower than national averages and 40 % of Europeans live in cities with more than 150,000 inhabitants. (35). The treatment of textile waste can also be an opportunity to combine environmental and social objectives by supporting the employment of people far from employment in the collection and sorting of textiles. Municipalities, in direct contact with citizens, must imperatively communicate on the collection points, their diversity and ensure transparency on the fate of the garments collected.
Private actors
The transition to a circular economy will not happen without brands. According to a study conducted by Eco TLC (36), only 4% of issuers on the market have clearly quantified objectives on the theme of the circular economy and 23 % have set up collection actions. Extending the period of use, responsible consumption and responsible purchasing are the three pillars of the circular economy that are most activated by brands.
Given the strain on resources, fast fashion retailers have a vested interest in getting into the loop. H&M has set a target of sourcing 100 % cotton in an environmentally responsible manner (organic, recycled and Better Cotton Initiative). (37)) in 2020. Their partnership with I:CO results in the collection of 25,000 tons of textiles per year. Today, 35 % of materials are recycled or from sustainable sources, the objective is to increase to 100 % in 2030. The brand was already encouraging its customers to bring back the clothes in exchange for a voucher, it has just launched the concept. Take Care, in-store service for repairs, maintenance advice and customization of clothing (38).
The Foundation H&M conscious launched the Global Change Award in 2015 to stimulate innovation in fashion. The 2018 winner is the company Resortecs (39) which has developed a thread that dissolves at high temperatures. The metal accessories (zips, buttons, rivets...) are released, the parts of the garment are easily detached, the whole is reusable or recyclable.
Brands have a strong power of influence with consumers so that recycled or second-hand clothing has a more valued image. They must commit themselves to extend the emotional durability of clothing (by involving the consumer) and the physical durability of products through their quality and eco-design. Large groups have the financial capacity to support R&D projects and to test pilot projects so that the niche becomes the norm. For example, after years of development, C&A launched a Cradle-to-cradle® certified t-shirt in June 2017. (40) at a call price (7 €) and thus demonstrates that a sustainable alternative at a reasonable price is possible. They have made their knowledge of the subject public in order to encourage other companies to do the same.
Smaller brands are not outdone by their creativity and pioneering role. They have a capacity to innovate and raise customer awareness through their proximity. Fashion must remain attractive, offer a customer experience, a story to which he or she adheres.
Multi-stakeholder ecosystems
Collaboration is one of the keys to success towards a circular economy. Innovation, sharing of good practices, quantified objectives: all players must agree to act in the same direction. A powerful innovative ecosystem is needed to ensure the scalability of existing good solutions.
The Global Fashion Agenda (41) is a forum on sustainable fashion driven by the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. (42) which sets concrete targets for 2020. The Pulse Score is a measurement tool set up by the Global Fashion Agenda and the Boston Consulting Group that evaluates the performance of brands in their environmental and societal commitments. On the basis of an exemplary scenario, taking into account the cost of labour, energy, water, waste and chemicals, they estimate that the implementation of these commitments can improve net income before tax by 1 to 2 points. (43). The tool allows companies to compare their performance against other market players and helps them prioritize actions. By identifying all good practices, companies benefit from the experience of other brands while increasing their profitability.
The Pulse score is based on the Higg Index, a tool that measures social and environmental impacts throughout the supply chain. It is developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which has 200 members (brands, suppliers, associations and universities). After measuring the company's performance, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition supports its members in improving their practices for a more sustainable fashion and ensures the networking of the actors.
Networking between brands and public authorities is crucial, but should not be done without civil society actors.
Civil society
NGOs represent an essential counterweight and ensure that all negative externalities are taken into account in the actions of companies and public actors. Since 2011, the Detox Greenpeace's Greenpeace Greenpeace program has been widely encouraging companies in the sector to change their practices. 80 brands (representing 15 to 20 % of the global market) have committed to eliminating the use of toxic products in their value chain by January 1, 2020. Seven years later, Greenpeace draws a first assessment (45) All the brands have made significant progress, but the difficulties vary according to their size and market. 72 % of them declare the elimination of perfluorinated substances (PFCs), one of the families of substances pointed out in the campaign. This challenge has forced the brands to strengthen the traceability of their supply chain and to involve their subcontractors in this process.
In addition, the brands are developing partnerships with international NGOs and local associations to ensure the redistribution of unsold clothing or collected clothing that is still wearable. In France, Solidarity Donations or the Donation in Kind Agency are working with marketers to recover their unsold inventory.
Finally, consumers at the end of the value chain play a major role at different levels. Their choice to favour more ethical brands and their demand for transparency will force brands to adjust their offer. However, there is a dissonance between their sensitivity to the environment and their purchasing decisions, which are still geared towards fast fashion. According to a consumer survey conducted by Eco TLC (46), ethics is still a secondary argument, fashion remains a favourite purchase. It is therefore essential to help them take hold of these subjects, even in their technical aspects, by popularizing knowledge, and without making them feel guilty. Labels and certifications are a first valuable source of information.
Furthermore, the use phase is responsible for approximately one third of the carbon impact of clothing, depending on the frequency and temperature of washing. (47). In addition, it is consumers who take the initiative to have their clothes repaired and thus contribute to the extension of the wearable life. Finally, they are actors in the sorting process. In a circular economy model, they therefore become suppliers of raw materials.
As part of the Mistra Future Fashion research programme, a customer survey was conducted among 4,617 adults living in Germany, Poland, Sweden and the United States. (48). The study reveals that consumers with the lowest purchasing power consume more fast fashion. Moreover, consumers are not inclined to choose clothing rental systems and libraries, but instead turn mostly to resale and repair services.
There is therefore an important awareness and communication work to be done with consumers in order to make a successful transition to a circular economy.
The circular economy therefore offers solutions that enable the fashion industry to meet the environmental challenge without denying what makes it special: creativity, design and the well-being of users.
As initiatives emerge, the industry is mobilizing to seek out innovations and new business models that can profoundly change the way we produce and consume fashion. The scales of action are varied, complementary and mobilise all players. Large-scale experiments need to be carried out to slow down resource extraction and close the loop.
Alice Jardillier, Institut National de l'Economie Circulaire, October 2018
(1) Key figures 2017-2018; Union des Industries Textiles ;
(2) An expression which designates the renewal, as quickly as possible, of collections of articles of clothing fashion. The aim is to translate as soon as possible the perceived fashion trends at a given moment in time, by offering representative and accessible products for sale, in order to encourage the renewal of the customer's wardrobe as much as possible. (Definition of the website).
(3) Advocacy for the circular economy, National Institute of Circular Economy, 2018.
(4) A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion's future; Ellen Macarthur Foundation, November 2017.
(5) In France, from 1996 to 2004, prices rose by 5 % in clothing, compared with 26 % for all consumer prices. Source INSEE :
(6) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost; ECAP, December 2017.
(8) Le revers de mon look; ADEME, March 2018.
(9) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost; ECAP, December 2017.
(10) Fashion at the crossroads; Greenpeace International, September 2017.
(11 ) The state of fashion 2018; The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, 2017.
(12) A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion's future; Ellen Macarthur Foundation, November 2017.
(13) Carnet de vie d'un jean; ADEME, October 2014.
(14) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost; ECAP, December 2017.
(15) A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion's future; Ellen Macarthur Foundation, November 2017.
(16) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost; ECAP, December 2017. Graph produced by the ECAP Footprint Calculator tool.
(17 ) Fashion at the crossroads; Greenpeace International, September 2017.
(18) Le revers de mon look; ADEME, March 2018.
(19) Use of recycled raw materials for the same use and purpose without functional loss of the material. Conversely, open-loop recycling is the use of the recycling material for a different destination, but in substitution of a virgin raw material (e.g. the recycling of a polar fibre PET bottle); ADEME definition, July 2018.
(20 ) PET: polyethylene terephthalate. This is a type of recyclable plastic polymer.
(21 ) Plaidoyer pour l'économie circulaire, Institut national de l'économie circulaire, 2018.
(23) All outdoor sports: mountain, sea...
(24) A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion's future; Ellen Macarthur Foundation, November 2017.
(25 ) Fashion at the crossroads; Greenpeace International, September 2017.
(26) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost; ECAP, December 2017.
(28 ) Les Français and Clothing Textiles, Household Linen and Footwear (TLC); Eco TLC, June 2018.
(29 ) A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion's future; Ellen Macarthur Foundation, November 2017.
(30 ) A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion's future; Ellen Macarthur Foundation, November 2017.
(33) Upclycling is the transformation of waste into objects whose value is higher than the original object or material.
(34) Law No. 2017-399 of 27 March 2017 published in OJ No. 0074 of 28 March 2017.
(35 ) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost; ECAP, December 2017.
(36 ) L'engagement dans l'économie circulaire des entreprises de l'industrie des Textiles d'habillement, du Linge de maison et des Chaussures (TLC); COHDA for Eco TLC, June 2018.
(37 ) NGO that accompanies cotton farmers in changing their production methods to more sustainable practices. The BCI (Better cotton initiative) label is controversial because it authorizes GMOs and pesticides.
(40) Certification issued by the NGO Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which supports companies in the development of socially and environmentally sustainable products.
(43 ) The Pulse of the fashion industry report 2018.
(44 ) The Pulse of the fashion industry report 2018.
(45) Destination Zero: Impacts of seven years of the Detox campaign on the clothing industry; Greenpeace, July 2018 ;
(46 ) Les Français and Clothing Textiles, Household Linen and Footwear (TLC); Eco TLC, June 2018.
(47) Mapping clothing impacts in Europe: the environmental cost; ECAP, December 2017.
(48) Annual report 2017; Mistra Future Fashion, March 2017.
To go further:
– A new textiles economy: redesigning fashion's future Ellen Macarthur Foundation, November 2017, 150p.
This report proposes a profound transformation in the way clothes are designed, sold and used. Based on the circular economy, this vision would avoid the negative impacts of this sector and create economic opportunities equivalent to $500 billion.
The Pulse of the Fashion Industry report is published by the Global Fashion Agenda in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group. The report explains to what extent the environmental, social and ethical challenges facing the fashion industry today are not only threats, but above all an opportunity to create untapped added value.
– Fashion at the crossroads Greenpeace International, September 2017, 108p.
In this report, Greenpeace identifies and assesses initiatives taken by companies in the clothing and footwear sector that attempt to both slow the flow of raw materials and close the loop.
This report, conducted as part of the European Clothing Action Plan project, examines the overall impact of clothing in Europe. It examines the level of consumption, textile waste, environmental footprint and consumer behaviour.
– Annual report 2017 Mistra Future Fashion, March 2017, 21p.
Mistra Future Fashion is a research program on the circular economy in the service of a positive fashion industry for the future. RISE, Research Institutes of Sweden, hosts this programme in collaboration with 15 partner research organisations.


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