1. Phase out substances of concern and microfibre release
First and foremost, a new textiles economy needs to ensure that the material input is safe and healthy to allow cycling and to avoid negative impacts during the production, use, and after-use phases. This means that substances that are of concern to health or the environment are designed out and no pollutants such as plastic microfibres are inadvertently released into the environment and ocean.
The following two areas of action could kickstart this transition:
• Align industry efforts and coordinate innovation to create safe material cycles. Elimination of substances of concern is needed to enable large-scale recycling, as well as to avoid various negative impacts at all stages of the value chain. Improved transparency along the value chain, a robust evidence base, and common standards would facilitate the phase-out
of substances of concern. While some hazardous substances could be phased out quickly, innovation will be required to create new process inputs (e.g. dyes and additives), production processes, as well as textile materials, to fully phase out negative impacts related to substances of concern.
• Drastically reduce plastic microfibre release. New materials and production processes that radically reduce the number of plastic microfibres shed by clothing, alongside technologies that work effectively at a scale to capture those that do still shed, are essential for this to be feasible. A better understanding of the causes of microfibre shedding will continue to inform solutions and identify gaps.
2. Transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature
Increasing the average number of times clothes are worn is the most direct lever to capture the value and design out waste and pollution in the textiles system. Designing and producing clothes of higher quality and providing access to them via new business models would help shift the perception of clothing from being a disposable item to being a durable product. As the acts of buying and wearing clothes fulfill a complex array of customer needs and desires, a variety of sales and service models is needed in a new textiles economy. Economic opportunities already exist in various market segments, and brands and retailers could exploit these through refocused marketing. The take-up of new opportunities would benefit from collaborative action to stimulate the development of innovative business models. Such action would also help unlock potential where the immediate economic case is not yet evident at scale.
Three areas of action would speed the transition towards this ambition:
• Scale-up short-term clothing rental.
When garments can be worn more often than a customer is able or willing to do, rental models could provide an appealing business opportunity. For customers desiring frequent outfit changes, subscription-based models can offer an attractive alternative to frequently buying new clothes. For garments where practical needs change over time, for example, children’s clothes or those for one-off occasions, rental services would increase utilization by keeping garments infrequent
use rather than in people’s closets. For all these models, refocused marketing – using the vast experience and capacity that brands and retailers have – an optimized logistics are key enablers for stimulating the growth of new service offerings.
• Make durability more attractive.
While short-term clothing rental can capture the value of durability by distributing clothing use between many different people, for certain clothing types and customer segments, quality and durability can be of value even if there is only one or a few users. In these segments, many customers value high-quality, durable clothes, but a lack of information prevents the full value capture. For clothes that have already been used and become unwanted, but which are still durable enough to be used again, enhanced resale models offer an attractive opportunity. A focus on delivering quality purchases that the last longer also encourages new technologies to be exploited that offer better fit and customization for maximum customer satisfaction.
• Increase clothing utilization further through brand commitments and policy.
Driving high usage rates requires a commitment to design garments that last – an industry transition that could be advanced through common guidelines, aligned efforts, and increased transparency. Policymakers can also have an important role in further increasing clothing utilization.
3. Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing
There is a compelling case for radically improving recycling to allow the industry to capture the value of the materials in clothes that can no longer be used. Increasing recycling represents an opportunity for the industry to capture some of the value in more than USD 100 billion worth of materials lost from the system every year, as well as to reduce the negative impacts of their disposal.
A combination of demand and supply-side Measures in the following four areas would be needed to realize this ambition:
• Align clothing design and recycling processes. Currently, clothing design and production typically do not consider what will happen when clothes cannot be used anymore. Converging towards a range of materials (including blends where those are needed for functionality), and developing efficient recycling processes for these, is a crucial step in scaling up recycling, as is the development of new materials, where current ones do not provide the desired functionality and recyclability. Alignment is also needed to provide tracking and tracing technologies to identify materials in the recycling process.
• Pursue technological innovation to improve the economics and quality of recycling. Existing recycling technologies for common materials need to drastically improve their economics and output quality to capture the full value of the materials in recovered clothing. A shared innovation agenda is needed to focus efforts and investments towards recycling technologies for common materials. Improved sorting technologies would also support increased quality of recycling by providing well-defined feedstock, in particular in the transition phase until common tracking and tracing technologies exist.
• Stimulate demand for recycled materials. Increasing demand for recycled materials through clear commitments to using more recycled input could drastically accelerate the uptake of clothing recycling. Better matching supply and demand through increased transparency and communication channels, as well as policy, would further help stimulate demand.
• Implement clothing collection at scale. Clothing collection needs to be scaled up dramatically alongside recycling technologies and, importantly, implemented
in locations where it currently does not exist. Creating demand for recycled materials will increase markets for non-wearable items, dramatically improving the opportunity for collectors to capture value from these materials. Guidelines on comprehensive collection – based on current best practices and further research on optimal collection systems – would help scale up collection. These guidelines should include a set of global collection archetypes, allowing for regional variation but building on a set of common principles.
4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs.
The need for raw material inputs in a new textiles economy would be drastically reduced due to higher clothing utilization and increased recycling (Ambitions 2 and 3 above). However, virgin material input will likely always be required. Where such input is needed and no recycled materials are available, it should increasingly come from renewable resources. This means using renewable feedstock for plastic-based fibers and regenerative agriculture to produce any renewable resources.
In addition, transitioning to more effective and efficient production processes – that generate less waste (such as offcuts), need fewer inputs of resources, such as fossil fuels and chemicals, reduce water use in water-scarce regions, are energy efficient, and run on renewable energy – can further contribute to reducing the need for non-renewable resource input.
Accounting for and reporting the costs of negative externalities would further support the shift to better resource use and production processes, and thereby generate system-wide benefits.