Decision-makers, the clothing industry and consumers must all take responsibility for reducing the carbon footprint of clothing. Today, the production phase accounts for 80% of emissions generated from Swedish clothing consumption. Moreover, Swedes tend to use their textile items only a few times, and Sweden has inefficient systems for managing textile waste. Business models based on reuse, shared use and repair of damaged clothing have the potential to extend the life of existing garments.. Yet these business models account for only a very small share of the total market today, although targeted policies and control tools have the potential to radically change the market. Mistra Future Fashion was a research programme focusing on sustainable fashion. Between 2011 and 2019 the project worked to promote a positive future fashion industry. In 2020, Mistra Future Fashion was ranked on the IVA Research2Business 100 list, which highlights research for sustainable competitiveness.
Swedes tend to use their textile items only a few times, and Sweden has inefficient systems for managing textile waste. The interdisciplinary research program Mistra Future Fashion was coordinated by RISE between 2011 and 2019 and gathered, among other things, new knowledge about the possibilities for Swedish decision makers to influence the textile industry to promote a more circular economy.
– “The greenest retail sector is second-hand, or preloved as it is also called. I believe that the most useful change in policy at the present time would be to offer tax relief on the sale of preloved garments. This would help more second-hand shops to survive and develop. A garment that is sold second-hand has already had VAT imposed on it once, so shouldn’t be subject to a further 25% VAT. It’s extremely difficult for second-hand shops to survive when most of their profits are eaten up. In principle, without tax relief only voluntary organisations can afford to run second-hand shops,” says Åsa Östlund, former researcher at RISE and former programme director for Mistra Future Fashion.
Reuse, repair and resale are the best options
Recycling – both chemical and mechanical – should only be considered when a garment can no longer be reused, repaired or resold. When recycling is justified, it is crucial to avoid pitfalls such as inefficient logistics or processes.
– “Moreover, the recycled product’s environmental impact must be lower than or equivalent to that of the virgin product that it replaced. And instead of just being added to a growing market, it should replace a product made of virgin material,” Åsa explains.
I believe tagging is the future solution for textile recycling
Strong efforts to achieve EU targets
No national collection system for textiles exists at present. Instead, the responsibility rests with the producers. With its Circular Economy Package, the EU has now decided that all member States must collect and recycle textiles by 2025.
– “However, the EU goals will be impossible to achieve without taking prompt and extensive measures. Today’s automated systems for separating textiles are not yet reliable. For example, only clean textiles can be recycled. Today, the textiles are sorted manually and with low precision. Today, a material flow that claims to consist of 100% pure cotton actually only consists of 70% cotton. Having 30% contamination is too large a discrepancy, and is due to the absence of a well-developed automatic sorting system. The maximum permissible level of contamination in order to recycle the material is 3 percent,” says Åsa.
In the future, an integrated information tag will be attached to garments throughout their lifecycle. When the garment’s life ends, the tag provides information on how to recycle it.
– “I believe tagging is the future solution for textile recycling, but it won’t be in place by 2025. I think 2030 to 2050 is a more feasible expectation. Moreover, there are many textile materials already in stock which have not been tagged and will still need sorting,” says Åsa.
Joint efforts by industry and consumers
Achieving systemic change requires enormous joint efforts from both industry and consumers. The three changes that will make the most difference to the climate are for consumers to use garments twice as many times (49%), for factories to use solar energy for clothes production (18% ), and for consumers to walk or cycle to shops instead of going by car (11%).
– “Reductions can only be achieved if consumers and producers join forces to bring about extensive systemic changes. We need targeted policies, measurability and system tools. These changes are possible, but will require collaboration and concerted, coordinated efforts,” says Åsa.