Strategic technical manager for textiles at not-for-profit campaign organisation WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), Catherine Salvidge, reveals what fashion retailers and brands should look out for in the coming year when it comes to sustainability.
Last year, we learned that the steps taken to improve sustainability in the fashion industry across design, manufacturing and reuse and recycling were not enough to sufficiently reduce its environmental impact. Increasing circularity in design, circular business models and minimising production volumes is vital and will play a big role in the sector’s sustainability efforts in 2024.
Wrap’s Textiles 2030 Annual Progress Report, published in November 2023, revealed that the brands and retailers signed up to Textiles 2030 [34 fashion brands and retailers are part of 130 total signatories to WRAP’s voluntary agreement launched in April 2021, committing to reduce carbon by 50% and the water footprint of new products by 30% by 2023] – reduced the carbon impact of the textiles they produced by 12% and water impacts by 4% between 2019 and 2022.
Retailers made these impressive reductions by improving sustainability in their design and manufacturing processes, and by increasing the amount of clothes they reused [through take back and second hand concession resale] and recycled. However, in the same period, our report also showed production and consumption spiralled upwards by 13%, cancelling out these positive steps and resulting in only a 2% decrease in carbon and an increase in the water footprint of 8% overall.
If the critical goals of the Paris Agreement [to limit global warming to 1.5°C, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change] are to be reached, the industry needs to accelerate action on circular design and circular business models while simultaneously tackling increasing production volumes.
WRAP predicts that the biggest factors in textiles sustainability in 2024 will centre around these issuescoo.
Designing for circularity
Up to 80% of the environmental impact of a product can be determined at the design phase [according to Best foot Forward, a sustainability consultancy that specialises in carbon and ecological footprinting]. Governments around the world are now looking to hold brands and retailers accountable for the impact of the products they place on the market.
The EU is leading the way with the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles [launched in March 2022], which includes the introduction of eco-design requirements under the Ecodesign for Sustainable Product Regulation (ESPR), in which regulation to raise the momentum of sustainable product design was agreed in December 2023.
This will be harmonised with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) eco-modulation fees – fees paid by producer that vary according to products’ environmental performance – Product Environmental Footprints (PEF) [a way of measuring the environmental impact of a product] and Digital Product Passports (DPPs) [that store and track information about a product, its materials, components and footprint data] to support traceability and transparency, as well as the communication of sustainability claims.
In the UK, the Green Claims Code [published by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in September 2021, to help businesses understand how to communicate their green credentials while reducing the risk of misleading shoppers] will also continue to hold businesses accountable for greenwashing.
To prepare for incoming legislation in both the EU and UK, many brands and retailers – including Primark, Asos and H&M – are already focusing on how they can design products for circularity, considering how they lower the impact, extending product lifetimes and responsibly recover, reuse, remake and recycle products.
As a key pillar of circular design, WRAP has seen the topic of product durability rise in prominence, with last year’s study by Primark, environmental charity Hubbub and the University of Leeds [Worn Out, research on clothing durability, July 2023], which showed that the retail price of a garment cannot be used as an indicator for how durable an item is, and that durability was not consistent across the variety of items tested.
Keeping our clothing in active use for as long as possible is crucial to sustainability (as it slows down the need for us to buy new clothing and supports the circular economy), durability is crucial to this. This study myth-busted that more expensive items aren’t always the most durable and that sustainability can be affordable for everyone.
WRAP is now collaborating with the University of Leeds and more than 20 retailers on a three-year project to set consistent industry testing protocols, guidance and benchmarking for durability, with the aim of levelling the playing field and allow brands to communicate product durability to customers in the future. Our first guidelines from this collaboration will be published in 2024.
Although progress is being made in design, few brands have yet to engage with their supply chains on the importance of circularity. Looking ahead, the industry [retailers and brands] will need to translate what circularity means for manufacturers, in terms of changes to production processes, jobs and skills, investment strategies and access to capital. Consistency and collaboration will be key to drive clear market signals to supply chains and investors to enable circular design to scale and ensure a just transition [making the economy more sustainable in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned]. The Textiles 2030 Circular Design Toolkit can provide a consistent framework for businesses to develop their circular design strategies and communicate with their supply chains.
Addressing increasing production volumes
This is the elephant in the room. The fashion industry’s increasing production levels are currently wiping out crucial environmental improvements made during the design and production phase. More pressure is being put on brands to report on their production volumes, led by organisations such as [ethical fashion lobby group] Fashion Revolution. In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Maximising Resources, Minimising Waste strategy [a waste prevention plan that sets out government priorities for managing resources and waste in England, published in July 2023] is also looking to tackle the issue of overproduction, with an initial focus on the voluntary reporting of unsold and surplus stock to explore whether future mandatory reporting is required.
With legislation also being developed to ban unsold stock being sent to landfill and energy from waste in the UK and the EU in the coming years [in December 2023 the European parliament reached a provisional agreement to ban the destruction of unsold stock, while in the UK this policy is being explored as part of the Maximising Resources, Minimising Waste strategy], retailers will need to consider how they can reduce and manage volumes of surplus, unsold and returned products, including improved forecasting, nearshoring to shorten lead times for certain products, using on-demand production models and supporting customers to buy the items to fit and suit them first time round to reduce returns [that have a deep environmental footprint via shipping and processing, sometimes even being incinerated or put in landfill and adding to carbon emissions] through the use of technologies such as 3D body scanning and digital fitting room.
Brands will need to focus on how they can meet both their growth revenue targets as well as their climate commitments and make circular business models part of their portfolio, so they are accessible, straightforward and attractive to their customers, to reduce the production and sale of new products. Over the past year we have seen brands begin to integrate circular models into their businesses, including own brand resale from retailers including Finisterre and Oliver Bonas to the launch of rental and repair offerings by partnering with specialist providers such as [clothing alteration services] Sojo and The Seam, and rental platform Hirestreet, but we need to see this accelerate in 2024.
To be successful, customers will need to be at the heart of any new initiatives. WRAP’s research [Citizen Insights: Clothing Longevity and Circular Business Models Receptivity in the UK, October 2022] has also shown there are approximately 1.6 billion unworn items in UK wardrobes and that there is clear mainstream market potential for pre-loved, repair and rental – but brands need to consider which models are right for their business and customers, as one size won’t fit all and building the right partnership will be the secret to success. The Textiles 2030 Circular Business Models Guide for Fashion can support brands on this journey.
Closing the loop on materials
More than one million tonnes of used textiles are generated annually in the UK [WRAP’s Textiles Market Situation report 2019]. WRAP estimates suggest that a third of these are non-rewearable textiles (NRT), which are currently being lost to landfill/incineration or are being exported, to be sorted in lower cost labour regions [for example in Ghana, where 15 million used garments arrive every week]. As demands for recycled content increases and pressures from EPR schemes around Europe put the responsibility on retailers to manage the waste created by the industry, we will need to see urgent financial support from governments, retailers and investors to allow the reuse and recycling sector to scale and innovate.
Projects to watch in this space for 2024 include the UK Research and Innovation-funded Automatic-sorting for Circular Textiles Demonstrator [a £4m project to develop and pilot a pioneering fully-integrated, automated sorting and pre-processing demonstrator for post-consumer waste textiles, which could divert thousands of tonnes from landfill each year], which aims to build on approaches currently coming to market in countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden to create a world-class blueprint for sorting facilities that integrates the latest technologies to sort NRT’s for fibre-to-fibre recycling.
Additionally, Project Re:claim, a joint venture between Salvation Army Trading Company Ltd and corporate wear specialists Project Plan B, which has unveiled plans for a world-first commercial-scale polyester recycling system.
In 2024, WRAP also wants to see more brands and retailers establishing partnerships and offtake agreements with recyclers to attract the investment needed to scale these technologies. The most recent example of this is Zara’s partnership with recycler Circ [US-based Circ separates synthetic fibres from cellulosic content in textile waste, recovering most of the raw materials so it can be remade into high-quality fibre].
Addressing the industry’s water footprint
Until now, the industry’s main environmental focus has been the goals of the Paris Agreement and Net Zero. However, the Textiles 2030’s Progress Report has highlighted that the industry’s water footprint is rapidly moving in the wrong direction.
This is mainly driven by cotton use and increasing production volumes, and although nearly three quarters of cotton (71%) used by signatories of the agreement now come from improved sources, this will not be enough to significantly reduce the water impact of the industry.
The industry must collaborate to identify and stimulate the market for more sustainable and less water intensive alternatives to conventional cotton, such as organic, regenerative and recycled cottons, and recycled and next-gen manmade cellulosic fibres to scale, while ensuring a just transition for cotton farmers.
Collaborative action is the key
Finally, to tackle many of the complexed issues highlighted and system change required, collaboration and partnerships will be key to accelerating the action we need to see over the next year. Through initiatives such as Textiles 2030, WRAP aims to unite all of the organisations across the textiles value chain and move the industry towards a more sustainable future.