Fashion sells too much circularity and recycling, but there is hope

Since the August IPCC climate report declared a “code red” for humanity, it has become increasingly difficult to write about sustainable fashion. Who wants to know more about a recycled plastic sneaker as science screams “decarbonize – NOW!” ”

But a secret sustainability barrier has transformed from a decade of (somewhat misguided) sustainable fashion initiatives that deserve consideration. The barrier developed, I argue, from a collective focus on the wrong levers to mitigate climate change. Before we get into that, how many greenhouse gases does fashion emit?

Fashion contributes around 8% of global emissions, but as population and consumption increase this figure is expected to increase by 45% by 2030. At the same time, an industry-wide science approach would require a reduction 80% emissions by 2050 to stay below 2 degrees Celsius warming. In addition to the continuing increase in fashion emissions, there are ecological damage, loss of biodiversity and pollution by wastewater from textile production processes. These interrelated global impacts are not clearly quantified.

To assess where the industry should focus to best mitigate climate change, I’ve spent the last four months digging into stakeholder priorities, browsing environmental science research, and comparing sustainability commitments. global brands. I have spoken to dozens of experts and read countless reports: I did go to school.

Is the “solution” the problem?

I saw what I believe to be an under-examined monolith in the way of sustainable fashion: the circular economy (and within it, recycling) which is seen as the key to sustainable fashion.

To elaborate, recycling and circularity are arguably the most powerful and successful public environmental initiatives in the sustainability toolbox, but they offer far fewer environmental benefits than we think. This has created the illusion that the industry is becoming more sustainable, when the opposite is true.

Despite the powerful influence of consumers (and the personal satisfaction it gives us when we participate), recycling ranks 42nd on a list of 82 possible actions to mitigate climate change, according to Project Drawdown. In addition, the Quantis research referenced above concludes that the implementation of circular (recycled) fibers “would achieve an industry-wide emission reduction of around 10% within the supply chain. wider value of clothing ”and that a circular economy goal alone“ would simply not reach the industry. broad emissions target ”.

The potential for fiber recycling is limited by many factors, including the fragmentation of infrastructure, the decommissioning of recycled materials, the rapid growth in fashion consumption, and the interest of petrochemical giants (among others) in maintaining the status quo on the production of virgin fibers. But should we ignore recycling in favor of adding our decarbonisation bellows to that of the scientific community? Definitely not (although below too).

The key here is to openly and honestly admit recycling’s ability to mitigate climate change, and how that potential changes when its limits are addressed, including those stated in the previous paragraph. The fashion overselling of recycling and circularity masks the vast work that remains to be done on innovation and the scaling up of recycling. But there is good news. This article was inspired by the significant expansion of textile recycling infrastructure and improvement in the quality of recycled materials which could see an improvement in its ranking for impact mitigation. And as I learned in the following interview with Renewcell, it is a mistake to consider the benefits of recycling in terms of emissions only, regardless of ecology and resource extraction.

Renewcell is a fiber-to-fiber recycling company with a difference. Founded in Sweden in 2017, they join Spinnova and Infinited Fiber Company (IFC) in a drive towards a rapid expansion of “chemical” recycling of textile and clothing waste. Renewcell differs in that their only waste is textiles, while Spinnova and IFC also process wood and agro-waste. Renewcell transforms cotton and viscose textiles into recycled pulp, which it supplies to textile factories in place of wood pulp from the forestry industry. This pulp is then used to make a new cotton-like material. Like the fiber-to-fiber recyclers mentioned above, Renewcell’s idea is to extract maximum (and continuous) value from cellulose-rich waste, without reducing the quality of the fiber, to reduce reliance on virgin sources. .

Impact of recycled fibers compared to virgin fibers

The global cotton industry produces 25 million tonnes per year, at considerable cost in land, chemicals and water. Renewcell believes it can meet part of this demand. Their biggest supplier is Bank & Vogue, which owns and operates the Beyond Retro vintage fashion store chain. In an interview with Renewcell’s growth director, Harald Cavalli-Björkman, he revealed that they had recently obtained 30,000 tonnes of cotton-rich clothing waste from Bank & Vogue’s sorting center in India. Additionally, they get pre-consumer textile scraps from factories in Turkey, India and Bangladesh. After their IPO last year (which raised $ 60 million from investors including Capital Group and H&M), they are turning a disused wood pulp factory in Sweden into a production plant with an annual capacity of 60,000 tons. 50,000 tons are already accounted for, says Cavalli-Björkman: 40,000 tons will go to one of the largest factories in the world, Tangshan Sanyou in China, and 10,000 will go to H&M.

There is clearly a demand, but what about the capacity? How much waste is available to feed the Renewcell pulp mill? Is this enough to reduce world demand for cotton? And what is the environmental impact of Renewcell’s recycled fibers (called Circulose) compared to viscose of wood origin, or virgin cotton?

First, looking at the impact of Circulose production, Cavalli-Björkman said he used the Life Cycle Assessment comparing ten sources of Synthetic Cellulose Fibers (MMCFs) by SCS, commissioned by Stella McCartney. A third party evaluation of Circulose was conducted using this methodology and demonstrated that Circulose had a net negative impact of -2 kg of Co2e per kg of fiber. Cavalli-Björkman says this is largely attributed to the fact that Renewcell avoids cutting down trees for the raw material (which has long-term impacts on carbon sequestration, even if the trees are replanted).

As for capacity, Cavalli-Björkman says there are around 7 million tonnes of cotton-rich waste collected each year – compared to the 25 million tonnes of new cotton lint requested each year. What is the scope of the expansion of waste collection, I wonder, and what is the projected pulp production capacity in the years to come? Cavalli-Björkman says Renewcell has the resources to reach 120,000 tonnes of production per year and aims to reach 360,000 tonnes by 2030, funded by company revenues. “[We have] 80 million dollars, plus 70 million loans that allow us to obtain a positive cash flow, allowing us to finance [our expansion] through the balance sheet, ”he explained.

The company follows the Offtake model which has been very successful in the tech industry. “Battery maker Northvolt was founded on the strength of a $ 14 billion contract with Volkswagen,” he says, along with “fossil-free steel” from SSAB (producing for Volvo) and “McDonalds signing an agreement with Beyond Meat ”. Reflecting on the success of this model in all sectors, the Chief Growth Officer said: “Companies see their [sustainability] goals for 2030 and 2050 and realize that there is going to be a shortage “of the most sustainable materials. This is also true for fashion, with H&M, adidas and others pledging to replace virgin materials with recycled materials over the decade. Fashionable levy models could secure the cash needed to develop critical global recycling infrastructure, while also securing the sourcing of materials from brands helping startups to get started.

What is the capacity of Circulose?

Capacity building is Renewcell’s main focus alongside expanding global facilities, but Cavalli-Björkman cautioned against establishing coal-fired facilities overseas in favor of 100-powered facilities. % by renewable energies which are already working in Sweden. Currently, they have no evidence that treating waste with coal near the sorting sites would be beneficial for shipping the waste to Sweden. During our discussion, the path is mapped to increase Renewcell’s capacity to 500,000 tonnes per year, but global demand for cotton is 700 times that figure – which goes back to the current limitation of circularity to stem environmental impacts. .

Apart from that, however, it also raises the question of whether parallel cotton optimization could turn the tide on the global impact of lint. Is there an opportunity to reduce industry emissions from cotton growing practices? These questions are better addressed in another article (forthcoming), but they emphasize that the conversation about circularity should not be held to the exclusion of the, albeit less noisy, one of reducing emissions.

Exploring this subject further with Cavalli-Björkman, he admits: [needed in] other aspects of the value chain, some would call it greenwashing. Perhaps further emphasizing the direction of the industry, he added, “The company is not a substitute for extending a garment’s lifetime use or establishing circular business models.” And it is certainly not a substitute for replacing coal with renewable energy sources in textile and clothing manufacturing centers.

This puts the discussion on circularity in the right frame, in my opinion, as a fragment of a much larger sustainability strategy that follows science-based goals to decarbonize the supply chain, optimize the use of resources, eliminate waste and toxic chemicals and, of course, recycle.

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