The Bond between Recycling, Sustainability and Technology

The Bond between Recycling, Sustainability and Technology

According to the World Economic Forum (WEC), “Waste is so last year.” Despite what may seem like a poignant title for a thought-provoking article, WEC, together with leading government offices, are sharing some exciting news: the fashion industry is cleaning up its carbon footprint.

The abundance of waste in the industry, as discussed in previous articles in this series, stretches across all five continents and through each and every stage in the textile manufacturing process, rendering fashion the second most polluting industry on the planet, after oil. However, in recent years, communities, governments, large retailers and enthusiastic eco-minded organizations, have been joining forces with the tech industry, and in a cross-industry collaboration, have been actively, albeit, slowly, waging war on waste in the fashion industry – some have ended in triumphs.

EU takes a stand on sustainability

Enter the EU, where a majority of its larger member states, namely the UK, France, and Denmark, have taken waste to heart, so to speak. Determined to make a difference and set standards for neighboring EU countries, these and other nations, in cooperation with tech industries and environmental organizations, are impacting the fashion industry today. It’s a true collaborative journey that begins by first starting the conversation, then drafting initiatives, and finally, putting sustainability plans in motion that are all driven by technology.

One key initiative was to create a circular economy, more specifically, a closed loop fashion system: Reuse-redistribute-refurbish-remanufacture-recycle. To encourage a shift towards a circular system, in 2015, the EU Commission launched a €5.5 billion program. This kick-started a program whereby member states would be obligated to establish separate collection systems for textile waste by 2020.

Several EU countries have actively embraced sustainability action plans. The UK, a long-time frontrunner in environmental programs, established the UK Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (UK SCAP) in 2008, to engage both industry and consumers in making the lifecycle of garments sustainable. France too, is on the sustainability map, with the Textiles Recycling Valley initiative, a technologically advanced collaboration project to increase the collection and reuse of textiles. This initiative brings together experts in textile innovation, reverse logistics, materials reuse and economics, whose goal is to process 50% of waste fabric on the market and reuse and recycle 95% of it by 2019.

The results of these initiatives speak volumes. With more companies anxious to get on board, nearly a 100 UK retailers, brands and public organizations have pledged to reduce carbon and water footprints and textile waste in landfills by 15% by 2020. France has been deemed the first country to pass a law that prevents grocery stores and supermarkets from throwing away food that neared expiration. This eco-friendly legislation has been extended to the textile industry, as it is now outlawed to throw away unsold clothes.

With government programs fast on the rise across the EU, none is as dramatic as Denmark’s Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), a leadership forum on fashion sustainability. GFA’s doctrine is that there is no alternative, but for sustainability to become an integral part of any company’s business strategy. Led by industry experts, designers, researchers, scientists and key technology companies, GFA works closely with retail giants to enroll them in their mission to change the way fashion is manufactured, marketed and consumed.

The successes of the Danish government’s programs have encouraged a host of EU nations to get involved in what is now the world’s largest business event on sustainability in fashion, the Copenhagen Fashion Summit. It is here that technologies are being developed by focus groups to reduce the use of water, energy and chemicals in the textile production process, for example, via digitized monitoring systems, electric energy instead of fuel and implementing sensors to scan toxins and pollutants in various raw materials.

Big Brands. Big Moves towards Sustainability

As more and more large fashion retailers become more environmentally conscious, technology will open more doors wider than they’ve ever been before. H&M, for example, continues to take the lead on sustainability in the retail world, with successful and commendable agendas in place and many more in the boardroom and on the production floor.

Besides its formidable garment recycling programs, retail giants with global reach such as Levi’s and Adidas have turned to technology, to develop and produce biodegradable materials to replace synthetic and other fabrics that are harmful to the environment. A prime example is Adidas, which has initiated programs that use nylon reclaimed from confiscated nets from illegal fishing operations, reprocessed the material and created a shoe that also contains polyester from recycled soft drink bottles.

H&M and Levi’s also have tremendous sustainability plans in work. H&M’s company research shows that a significant amount of the water used and carbon emissions from their manufacturing plans is highest during the production of fibers, such as cotton and polyester. Together with industry leaders and technologists, they are seeking viable solutions for reusing and recycling textile fibers for new use. Levi’s, for example, already dissolves old clothes to make a new fiber that the company uses in its jeans, a new-fangled alternative to water-intensive cotton production.

These retail giants, as well as others, will have to comply with even stricter compliance requirements and meet high international standards on the shop floor and through every stage of the production process. One thing is certain, it is technology that will drive the competence of this global value chain through the likes of data analysis, robotics, sensors, 3D printing and more.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

These innovative technologies make up only half of the equation. It’s the consumer that makes up the other half. It’s the same consumer that has both a social and an environmental responsibility. However, it’s not up to the consumer to single-handedly educate the brand. Rather, it’s the brand’s responsibility to reduce waste and cut pollution – first and foremost.

Society is not anywhere near where it should be in terms of helping to reduce the carbon footprint, let alone tackle fashion industry waste, both of epic proportions. First and foremost, it takes cutting-edge innovation to take sustainability head-on. It also takes a powerful government, strong leadership, unwavering industry support, and educated and inspired consumers.

It might also require the work of industry influencers, most of whom are cultivated through eco-friendly organizations and focus groups. These are the people who are the real deal in the sustainable fashion movement. These same people will help create and maintain the commendable zero-waste fashion, that one day, will generate little or, hopefully, no waste at all.

Rotem Taitler

Rotem Taitler