There's a lot of talk about “closed loops” for the fashion industry. What does it mean?

Every other week, Make it last’s sustainability expert Anna Brismar of Green Strategy answers questions about fashion and sustainability. Have a question you want answered? Send it here! And read more about what sustainable fashion really is, or at least how we define it with the help of Anna, here.

This week’s question:

Today there is a lot of talk about developing “closed loops” for the fashion and textile industry. Do you think this will be the answer to sustainability for the industry, or do you see challenges with this approach?

Anna Brismar: Yes, there is a lot of discussion today about creating closed loops in society and also for the fashion and textile industry. A number of international fashion companies have launched initiatives to close the loop on textiles and other materials. For example, garment collection programs have been set up by numerous fashion companies, such as Marks and Spencer and H&M, and soon also by Gina Tricot. Other companies have developed biodegradable products, for example PUMA and OAT Shoes, while still others provide rental and repair services to promote longer product lifetime (see Houdini, Nudie Jeans and Filippa K). Such approaches are all important parts of a closed loop system.

By definition, a “closed loop system” is a societal system where products and their components are designed, manufactured, used and handled so as to circulate within society for as long as possible, with maximum usability, minimum adverse environmental impacts, minimum waste generation, and with the most efficient use of water, energy and other resources throughout their lifecycles. This however requires that the following five key preconditions are met (at minimum):

– Products are designed at the onset so as to enable disassembly of individual components in order to facilitate repair or substitution of broken parts and possibly redesign if desired, and finally, to enable recycling of all components at the product’s end of life;

– Products are designed so that their individual components can either be recycled as technical parts (e.g. metal zippers and plastic buttons of clothes), OR biodegraded into organic matter and composted as biological nutrients (e.g. cotton or wool textiles);

– Products are produced without any hazardous chemicals and substances to enable safe industrial recycling and also safe biodegradation and composting, with consideration to both human, animal and ecosystem health. (If any components with a risk level are used in production, these components must be fully traceable in the loops.)

– All products are returned by their end users at collection points and thereafter transported to larger facilities for effective sorting and recycling. These means that consumers need to be willing to take their unwanted clothes to collection points, with or without an economic gain.

– There are well-functioning business-to-business and cross-sector collaborations in society that enable products to be repaired, refurbished and redesigned (to extend their lifetime); services to enable rent and secondhand (to enable new user lifetimes); as well as facilities and services to enable effective collection, sorting and full component and material recycling. Product components can hence be incorporated into new products, giving them new life.

In other words, achieving closed loop systems is not only about creating “circles of flowing material”. Also it raises important questions about the properties and functioning of the loops, such as: What products are actually flowing in the loops? How much products and material are flowing in the loops? (Should we reduce the amounts of clothes and other items in the flows?) How do we create loops with consumer products that are in high demand and of high quality, durability and longevity? How do we create loops that are free from hazardous chemicals, such as unsafe dyeing agents? And, how do we create loops that are efficiently managed, using renewable water and energy sources?

Furthermore, there are three additional challenges, which are rarely discussed, but also need to be solved before we can achieve truly sustainable closed loops within the fashion and apparel industry.

– How can we progress from global to regional and local loops? Although global loops are better than no loops at all, regional and especially local loops are to prefer.

– Where do we put the degraded matter of biodegradable products? Apparel and fashion products are often manufactured using materials that have been sourced from various parts of the world! For example, if your clothes are made of 100 % cotton that was grown on Turkey soils, using fertilizers extracted from East African mines, and then dyed using coloring agents produced and sourced in China, where do we put the degraded matter? This will be a highly relevant question if/when biodegraded products are a reality at large scale!

– How do we manage the individual types of components after sorting? For example, how do we give the material in the plastic buttons and metal zippers new life after separating them from the textiles? How do we create effective local and regional collaborations across businesses?

In sum, “simply” creating closed loops is today not enough to developing a more sustainable fashion and apparel industry. Apart from all the challenges raised above, still other conditions need to be greatly improved within the industry, such as factory working conditions, supply chain transparency, and more conscious consumer behaviors. Nevertheless, closed loop systems are definitely an essential and fundamental part of a more sustainable fashion industry and modern society at large.

Pictured: Puma has launched a line of Cradle to Cradle-certified apparel that are either biodegradable or recyclable through the brand’s take-back program. 

1 Comment

Jonathan Mitchell: Nice analysis of closed loop systems. Interesting to see the many different forms 'closed loop' can take.So much space for creative and innovative thinking.
March 16, 2015

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