Closing the thread: highlighting circular innovation in textiles
The textiles sector is one of the least sustainable industries worldwide, producing huge amounts of waste and environmental pollution. Building on our work in the global textiles supply chain, we recently kicked off a project to identify the circularity potential of the textiles industry within Taiwan. As one of the leading exporters of textiles in the world, Taiwan is poised to help lead the transition to a more sustainable approach for the planet. Inspired by this, and building on my recent talk at the Textile International Forum and Exhibition in Taipei, here I explore how a number of new technologies could help ‘close the thread’ for the global textiles sector.
We all have a connection to textiles. If you are reading this, you are probably (hopefully…) wearing clothes. Maybe this morning you climbed out of your cotton bed sheets, dried off with a cotton towel after your shower and then looked through your wardrobe to pick out the perfect ‘textile’ to dress in today. Perhaps you have a warm association with textiles, but did you know the textile industry is one of the world’s most polluting, second only to the oil and gas sector?
What can we do about this? Recently, I was invited to speak at the Textile International Forum and Exhibition in Taipei. The theme for the conference was ‘Intelligent Innovation and Green Circular Economy’ and there is good news: there are many innovations providing hope for more sustainable textiles. It was appropriate that the conference took place in Taipei as the performance achieved there in the field of eco- and multifunctional textiles is already redefining Taiwan’s status in the global textile marketplace. This year, we’re excited that we we will be helping them to take their approach further, and thereby helping to lead to worldwide changes across the sector.
At Metabolic, systems thinking is at the heart of what we do. We are using systems thinking to examine the textile sector as as holistic whole to truly understand what circular innovation could look like. And it looks promising. To illustrate my point, I have divided the sector into four main phases: 1) raw material extraction and production, 2) processing and manufacturing, 3) use, and 4) end-of-life. In each phase, I want to share with you some key circular innovations and showcase how companies are taking this forward.
Phase 1: Raw materials – taking what we need
The choice of fiber and the production of synthetic fabric defines the first phase of the global textile supply chain. Cotton, the most dominant natural fiber, with approximately half of all textiles being made out of it, has been used for over 7,000 years. The crop is a delicate one, currently using enormous quantities of insecticides and pesticides – 11% and 24% of global use, respectively. The production often depends on exploitative child labour, making the cotton sector one of the most unsustainable. The movement towards sustainable and innovative production of cotton continues to grow, but currently only holds 0.7% of the market.
One alternative to cotton that is making a comeback is hemp, with China and the Netherlands being the leading producers worldwide. Hemp differs from cotton as it is a very hardy, mainly rain-fed crop and happens to be unpalatable to insects, drastically reducing the use of toxic insecticides and pesticides. It does not only consume 80% less water than cotton, but also boasts double the yields of cotton per hectare. Hemp fibers are rough, however, and difficult to spin on the machines used throughout the existing cotton-focused infrastructure.
Yet, Dutch innovators StexFibers are reintroducing an old technique called “steam explosion”, which can soften hemp and make it available for higher-end textiles. StexFibers has not only created a feasible business model for themselves, but will kick start new opportunities in the Netherlands for hemp farmers, spinners, sewers, and producers. Some countries, like the United States, still face challenges and restrictions to growing hemp due a long history of prohibition but even there it is rapidly turning a corner.
Phase 2: Manufacturing – keeping materials in the cycle
In a circular economy, materials are recycled back into the economy through reprocessing and remanufacturing. This is tricky with textiles due to the quality loss of the cotton fibers during the recycling process. Each time they get recycled, the fibers shorten and quickly become useless for new clothes. The Relooping Fashion Initiative uses a cellulose dissolution technique that turns worn-out clothing into new fibers, developed by VTT in Finland.
Another innovation is the Morphotex fiber, developed by Teijin Fibers of Japan. They created a way to change the colour of the textiles by varying the thickness and structure of the fibers. This removes the need for dye, reducing energy consumption and industrial waste. Although they stopped producing Morphotex in 2011, it is still an inspiring example of the possibilities of innovation.
One further idea is to reduce waste in the first place, as well as make it easier to produce clothes locally, reducing the impact of international supply chains. Having a look at retailers’ dead inventory, Amazon recently won a patent on a produce-on-demand manufacturing warehouse. The system would be designed to make clothes after the order has been placed, which is an interesting way of bringing affordable, domestic manufacturing back to certain countries.
Phase 3: The consumer – what happens after purchase
Consumers can vote with their wallets of course, and more can also be done to help everyone understand the consequences of their purchasing decisions. As such we are really pleased to work working with Fashion for Good, a global initiative to make fashion a force for positive change.
But the way a product is used is also important – after purchasing, another big impact factor is cleaning, and the water and energy consumption that comes with it. At the moment an average washing machine uses around 75 litres of water per wash. Xeros invented a polymer bead-based cleaning process that saves up to 80% of conventional water use. The beads are added to the machine with a small amount of water and detergent. Under humid conditions the beads become absorbent and attract the dirt along with the water. This gets soaked up into the center of the beads and at the end the machine removes the beads automatically. Currently the machine is already in use in the industrial sector, with the goal of making it accessible for commercial use as well. And yes, the beads are recyclable.
Another new concept can be found in Amsterdam where you can rent your clothes on a subscription basis at the LENA ‘fashion library’, instead of buying them. This allows people to extend their wardrobe without overconsuming. If a renter really likes a certain piece, they have the possibility to buy and keep it.
Phase 4: End of life – what you do with it matters
Around 80% of textiles will end up landfilled or incinerated, so it is crucial to increase the amount that is recycled or reused. In order to do that, textiles must be properly sorted when collected. Fibersort is a technology that enables the industry to automatically identify and separate textiles based on their fiber type and colour. However, it is not quick enough yet – the supply of the textiles to the system must currently be fed in piece by piece. There are also technologies like the one from Ioniqa that allows the complete recycling of PET waste with the help of magnetic separation. The outcome is a transparent and pure stream of PET that is comparable to virgin materials, and comes at a cost-effective price.
Retailers’ demand for more sustainable textiles and the need for pushing the boundaries of traditional fashion are both steadily increasing. Brands like ReBlend are designing ways to reuse materials and create new pieces just made out of worn-out textiles. ReBlend itself uses 70% of recycled materials, mostly cotton, and 30% comes from recycled polyester from PET bottles.
The textile sector is an incredibly complex system, and the need for systemic interventions has never been greater. This is because systemic interventions look at the “whole system” rather than at select components. Ultimately, doing something in a systemic way means you take the wider system and its behaviour into account. The same thinking must be extended to the ideas I have highlighted here – we must see how they connect to each other and to the system, to ensure a true transition to a circular economy. In other words, we should not forget the life cycle of these innovations, where they come from, and where will they end up once we are finished with them. In this way we can wear our clothes with pride and sleep in peace, knowing we are contributing to change, rather than creating an even greater challenge.