There’s a gap in the textile life cycle – raw materials are processed into fibre, which is converted into fabric, which is then processed into a finished product. These products are then transported to various parts of the world and sold. Consumers wear these products and discard them, most often before they are truly unusable. They then make their way into global landfills. These discarded items take forever to break down, and often release methane, a greenhouse gas as they decompose.
Designers and scientists suggest that we get rid of the words “end of life” and replace it with “end of use” when speaking of textiles. This change in perspective will allow us to move from a pattern of linear use-and-throw to a closed, circular process where there is potentially no concept of waste.
A Closed Loop System Inspired by Nature
Consider the water cycle. Water moves through the physical processes of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff and subsurface flow while the mass of water remains constant over time. There’s no down-cycling or downgrading of the molecules in this process. Outputs of one process continuously move into the next process as usable inputs and so on repeatedly in a closed loop. Stunning and foolproof.
What if the cycle of textile production and use achieved such simple sophistication – if every fibre of textile produced is continually reused or organically converted into a form that is used to make textile again!
Closing the loop means avoiding wasteful discarding of clothes which also leads to wasteful manufacture. It means using our natural resources to their full potential before they are discarded. And even then, ensuring that they are discarded in a way that does not harm the environment.
There are multiple ways to close the loop which exist under two interlinked broad umbrellas:
- Responsible production.
Brands should consider environmental and societal impacts in their production processes. How can they reduce wasteful production practices that cause hazardous waste even before the products reach the market? How can they ensure that their products cause the least harm possible when they are discarded post consumer utilisation? Can they think of ways to reuse consumer waste?
A great example of this is a brand called I:CO who collects post-consumer textile waste( clothes and shoes) They sort these into unwearable and still wearable goods. The wearable goods are repaired and resold whereas the unwearable items are broken down into raw materials for reuse. Brands participating in I:CO’s sustainable movement include H&M, Levi’s, Puma, Forever 21, and the North Face.
- Responsible consumption.
Consumers can think before they both buy and discard. Do I really need/want this? Will I actually use it or will my purchase just propel more wasteful production and consumption? When I no longer want a particular item from my wardrobe, can I think of someone who would benefit from it? If not, could I recycle it in some way?
A great example of this is the #30wearschallenge fashion movement by Livia Firth (wife of actor Collin Firth. She encourages consumers to buy clothes only if they can imagine wearing it at least 30 times( think once a week for just 7 months). #30wears is not about stopping shopping but it is about buying and using responsibly.
The Need To Close The Loop
- Eliminate end waste. Americans, alone, throw away a total of 26 billion tonnes of textiles every year, according to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency. 12.7 million tonnes of it ends up in the landfill, some of it only for a broken zipper or seam, easily repaired if one knows how. The 4% of global landfills filled with textile waste are toxic hotbeds releasing greenhouse gases, owing to the hazardous chemicals in textile waste.
- Preserve natural resources. We need to justify the huge amounts of resources used in making a product in the first place! One of many examples of this is that of the 82 million tonnes of fibre produced in 2011 – It took 145 million tonnes of coal and a few trillion gallons of water to process just the fibre (not including the product manufacturing)! And consumers contribute to this viscous cycle by purchasing the end products and throwing them away before their time has come.
H&M’s CEO Karl-John Persson puts it this way, “To find ways to close the loop for textiles is crucial not just for the fashion industry but also for the global society and the entire planet’s wellbeing.”
Let’s play our part to close the loop!