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A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future

  • Published on September 17, 2021
Since the 20th century, clothing has increasingly been considered as disposable, and the industry has become highly globalised, with garments often designed in one country, manufactured in another, and sold worldwide at an ever-increasing pace. This trend has been further accentuated over the past 15 years by rising demand from a growing middle class across the globe with higher disposable income, and the emergence of the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon, leading to a doubling in production over the same period.

The time has come to transition to a textile system that delivers better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes. The report A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future outlines a vision and sets out ambitions and actions – based on the principles of a circular economy – to design out negative impacts and capture a USD 500 billion economic opportunity by truly transforming the way clothes are designed, sold, and used.

Beyond laudable ongoing efforts, a new system for the textiles economy is needed and this report proposes a vision aligned with circular economy principles. In such a model, clothes, fabric, and fibres re-enter the economy after use and never end up as waste. Achieving a new textiles economy will demand unprecedented levels of alignment. A system-level change approach is required and one which will capture the opportunities missed by the current linear textiles syste
It is hard to imagine living in a world without textiles. Nearly everyone,
everywhere comes into contact with them nearly all the time. This is
especially true of clothing, the focus of this report. Clothes provide
comfort and protection, and for many represent an important expression of
individuality. The textiles industry is also a significant sector in the global
economy, providing employment for hundreds of millions around the world.
These benefits notwithstanding, the way we design, produce, and use clothes
has drawbacks that are becoming increasingly clear. The textiles system
operates in an almost completely linear way: large amounts of non-renewable
resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a
short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.
More than USD 500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing
underutilisation and the lack of recycling. Furthermore, this take-makedispose model has numerous negative environmental and societal impacts.
For instance, total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, at
1.2 billion tonnes annually, are more than those of all international flights and
maritime shipping combined. Hazardous substances affect the health of both
textile workers and wearers of clothes, and they escape into the environment.
When washed, some garments release plastic microfibres, of which around
half a million tonnes every year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more
than plastic microbeads from cosmetics. Trends point to these negative
impacts rising inexorably, with the potential for catastrophic outcomes in
future. This linear system is ripe for disruption.
This report outlines a vision for a system that works, delivering long-term
benefits – a new textiles economy based on the principles of a circular
economy. It offers a direction of travel on which the industry can agree and
focus its efforts. In a new textiles economy, clothes, textiles, and fibres are
kept at their highest value during use and re-enter the economy afterwards,
never ending up as waste. This vision is distinct from, and complements,
ongoing efforts to make the textiles system more sustainable by minimising
its negative impacts. With specific emphasis on innovation towards a
different system, a new textiles economy presents an opportunity to deliver
substantially better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes.
Transforming the industry to usher in a new textiles economy requires
system-level change with an unprecedented degree of commitment,
collaboration, and innovation. Existing activities focused on sustainability
or partial aspects of the circular economy should be complemented by a
concerted, global approach that matches the scale of the opportunity. Such
an approach would rally key industry players and other stakeholders behind
the objective of a new textiles economy, set ambitious joint commitments,
kick-start cross-value chain demonstrator projects, and orchestrate and
reinforce complementary initiatives. Maximising the potential for success
would require establishing a coordinating vehicle that guarantees alignment
and the pace of delivery necessary.

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