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Welcome Circular; Goodbye Take, Make & Dispose


The drumbeat for greater industry alignments and stronger collaborative partnerships has grown louder and the engines of eco-innovation are making noise on many fronts within the industry. We’re seeing successes in cutting edge technology and integration of forward-thinking design principles. Positive changes are happening locally, and globally, as textile communities work together to eliminate waste in textile production. Combatting greenwashing claims and new rules regarding eco certification mandates are also on the rise.  This call to action extends from industry to individuals, as consumer engagement is key for circularity success.

Liz Lipton-McCombe, global sustainability director at Levi Strauss & Company sees a tidal shift happening in sustainable practices and products on the horizon. “Today there is a different perception when it comes to consumption,” explained Lipton-McCombe in her talk, “The New Wave of Sustainability: Increasing Consumer Expectations & Transparency” presented during the Southern Textile Association Summer Marketing Forum. “To meet today’s demand, companies need to be clear about their sustainability attributes to build trust with customers.”

To make her point Lipton-McCombe cited Globescan 2020 market research: 91 percent of Gen Z would like to be more environmentally-friendly, and 87 percent of consumers try to support brands making a positive difference, up 68 percent from 2016. She encouraged brands to “lift the hood” and show what your company is doing about sustainability. For example, Levi Strauss has published its first Corporate Sustainability Report, leaned into third party certifications, and amplified consumer-friendly and social-friendly education around its stable of sustainable fabrics. “This change in consumer behavior is not going away,” said McCombe. “We all need to move in this direction.”

The Role of Technology

A new partnership between YKK and EON highlights this modern-day, circularity-driven approach with consumer connection top of mind. Houdini’s digitized One Parka is the first product to feature YKK’s new Touchlink NFC zipper pull, and the first parka to be connected end-to-end by the EON Product Cloud.

The launch draws attention to how connected garments lower the threshold to circular business models such as resale, rental, subscription and recycling. It also changes the customer/brand relationship, moving away from being simply transactional to something more substantive for both parties. For example, by touching their mobile phone to the tech-enabled YKK zipper, users can not only access Houdini product information and get support, but establish direct two-way conversation to learn about how to keep their garment in circulation at the end of life. This takes consumer engagement beyond a QR code to a new channel of communication suited for circular economies.

“This is a new chapter in garment technology because it looks beyond product creation and serves as a portal into design systems for circularity,” explained Jesper Danielsson, Houdini’s head of product during a webinar that introduced the product to a global audience. Danielsson added that the Swedish sportswear company is committing to digitizing and connecting all its garments to the cloud by 2023 as part of Houdini’s pledge to transition its entire ecosystem to 100 percent circular by 2030.

Natasha Franck, EON founder & CEO, said that this innovation offers two streams of new solutions — the evolution of hardware is improving and software network capability is expanding for brands beyond their own enterprises. EON is the first platform to connect products from new to re-new, and pioneered industry’s CircularID Protocol to facilitate data-exchange across the circular economy.

Franck explained, “Today when the product is sold its product ID is removed. But by giving a product a digital identity, we give the product a voice. A voice that can connect with customers, with one user, or a reseller or recycler. As well as other participants throughout the product’s life cycle.”

YKK’s sustainability director Brian LaPlante highlights the simplicity and performance of the technology. No power source is needed, and the NFC chips are molded into the zipper pull, making it highly moisture-resistant and durable. “We could employ this in different hardware, and employ this across product lines and industries,” said LaPlante.

The Role of the Designer

Copenhagen Fashion Week headlined the launch of its Sustainability in Design white paper that puts forth new design tenets to inspire and disrupt how design can be used as a tool to build a more sustainable way forward for industry. Principles focus on design for circularity, data-driven responsibility and collectively spark systematic industry change.

Early stage design is not often recognized, but it is responsible for over 80 percent of all product related impacts, according to Ulla Ræbild, associate professor, Kolding Design School, who participated in a Copenhagen Fashion Week panel discussion.“In view of the new UN Climate Report, we can’t keep shuffling materials around, we have to reduce the production of new stuff by a minimum of 75 percent — which means we have to design cleverly in many ways and garments have to offer value in multiple ways,” said Ræbild. “What we put in from the beginning needs to keep pace with how we change over our own lifetimes. We have to cater to needs in a new way.”

Panelist Thimo Schwenzfeier, show director for NEONYT Germany, commented that talking about materials and resources is a good starting point, but designers have to rethink the whole process of how to design goods. “We’re seeing a re-scaling of business models, especially among younger and university level designers. They are forcing change. Responsibility starts at the beginning of the process.”

We need to broaden the scope and get everyone on board with sustainability from shareholders of companies, CEO down to marketing merchandising planner finance team. – Nicolai Reffstrup, GANNI

Nicolai Reffstrup, founder of the Danish sportswear brand GANNI believes design companies are perfectly positioned to drive change, and bring storytelling.  “We are not to put blame on the supply chain, we can’t control or blame the consumer who might be interested and aware. We need to broaden the scope and get everyone on board with sustainability from shareholders of companies, CEO down to marketing merchandising planner finance team. We need to strike three- year agreements with new types of product because innovation will take time. We also need to engage 3rd party support from material to retail to rental platforms. The collectors, the auditors. And make everything transparent.”

In the past year GANNI’s design and sourcing teams accelerated the use of responsible fabrics to 73 percent, advanced circularity through GANNI Repeat, a new rental platform and implemented Circular Design training. “We raised the stakes when it came to meeting our ambition for carbon reduction and as the super important cultural movements rose, we held a mirror to ourselves and accelerated our work on social responsibility,” said Reffstrup.

The Role of Community

A new North Carolina-based business ushers in the concept of “custom circularity.” Material Return, an employee-owned enterprise, based in Morganton, NC, works with local manufacturers and national brands to transform textile waste into new products — all within 75 miles. The model benefits the environment, local economies, workers and value-aligned clients, explained  Sarah Chester, executive co-director of The Industrial Commons, a non-profit organization that interconnects businesses to solve industrial problems, based in western NC, and the umbrella organization of Material Return.

Years of development with Gaston College Textile Technology Center and Manufacturers Solution Center, both integral players in NC’s network of institutions focused on revitalizing textiles in the state, has resulted in the creation of Material Return, a system that collects consumer and post production waste that is delivered to Leigh Fibers for recycling and then returned to partners in the Carolina Textile District to make the final product.  “It’s called circularity,” stated Chester.

Clients include a mix of  brands such as Smartwool, DeFeet, Kitsbow and tsdesigns, in addition to suppliers Meridian and Valdese among others.

“It’s about finding new ways to connect and support people in our communities and create responsible jobs,” said Chester.

Circularity takes on a larger landscape with I:Collect (I:CO, for short) a global solutions provider and innovator for collection, reuse and recycling of used clothing and shoes. The scale of I:CO’s worldwide take-back system and logistics network is unique in the textile industry. The European based company has partner locations worldwide that sort items for reuse or recycling purposes. Currently the company collects clothing and shoes in more than 60 countries.

I:C0 has developed a collection system at retail stores to engage shoppers directly, so clothes and footwear are collected where new ones are purchased. The company reports that this global system allows apparel makers to take responsibility for their product and at the same time end-consumers are motivated to prevent textile waste. Every item received is sorted manually and categorized by I:CO’s partner facilities, based on up to 350 factors.

The Role of Incentives

Starting in 2023, in order to participate in Copenhagen Fashion Week (CFW), “companies must comply with CFW sustainability standards,” stated Cecilie Thorsmark, CEO, Copenhagen Fashion Week. “This requirement is in an effort to drive systematic change. A show can not be just a showcase. We will use our role to demand sustainable action.”

This concept of trade show exhibitor sustainability compliance is expanding beyond the border of Copenhagen. For example, in the near future, brands exhibiting at the German trade event Neonyt will have to be 70 percent sustainable in order to exhibit.

“Today when the product is sold its product ID is removed. But by giving a product a digital identity, we give the product a voice. A voice that can connect with customers, with one user, or a reseller or recycler. As well as other participants throughout the product’s life cycle.” – Natasha Franck, EON

In some circles there is growing belief that mandates from the top down with regulations and incentives is needed to advance the sustainability market beyond niche businesses. Jeremy Lardeau at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, shared, “You can’t make change simply based on consumer behavior. Business needs to decide what is innovative, and the government needs to endorse it. Look what’s happening with electric cars and tax incentives — people are buying e-cars.”

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is a founding member of The Policy Hub, an organization established in 2019. It is designed to speak as a unified voice for the textile industry, and its stakeholders,  proposing policies that accelerate circular practices in apparel and footwear. The Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI), Textile Exchange and ZDHC Foundation are fellow members. The Policy Hub advocates for better and more efficient policies that correspond to the circular apparel and footwear industries.

The Policy Hub recently issued a white paper in response to EU Commission discussions on transparency, with focus on the EU Substantiating Green Claims Initiative and the EU Empowering the Consumer Initiative recommending that legislation include two key elements: develop clear rules on the types of sustainability claims and how to substantiate them; minimum standards on the communication of the claims indicating  ways to display this information to consumers. (Additional EU Commission initiatives include the EU Consumption Pledges and EU Sustainability Product Initiative. The entire report is available online.)  

Changing consumer behavior was a topic of a panel discussion during the Techtexil North America trade fair held this August in Raleigh, NC.  Todd Cline, director R&D, sustainability & wellness at Procter & Gamble, showcased the brand’s big-time marketing campaign on washing laundry in cold water with P&G Tide detergent. “If you only talk about carbon footprint — with statements like ‘if you wash in cold water you help decrease your individual environmental impact’ — you reach a small percentage of the audience,” said Cline. He endorsed taking a more personal approach, something along the lines of, “It’s not about saving the world, but how you can save $150 on your utility bill if you wash with cold water. When it comes to getting individuals to switch from hot to cold water wash, Cline advised, “Eco-friendly has to require less time, less money or do less damage to your clothes.” In other words, to incentivize sustainability, it would be wise to highlight how responsible choices benefit the consumer.