Today's markets are facing huge challenges when it comes to the transformation towards more sustainable business practices. A 'circular' model is currently worldwide promoted as the solution for a sustainable future, but it seems little is known about how circular thinking may be implemented and what systematic dependencies it brings along. Since we are aiming to design and develop our products for a circular system and invest a lot of efforts in building our expertise and trying to do things right, we would like provide a closer look into the meaning of circularity and how we see and define it ourselves.
There are numerous definitions for the circular economy out there and circularity is by no means a new or abnormal phenomenon. Today's global economic system is based on a linear model that became dominant after mass production was introduced in the first industrial revolution, which has delivered economic growth and increased prosperity over the past centuries. This same success story was, however, also the starting point for one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing today - resource depletion, ecosystem destruction, climate change, unresolved waste problems, etc.
The traditional linear economy is based on a 'take, make, dispose' model of production. It involves extracting natural resources to make products that are used for a limited period of time, before being discarded as waste. In a recycling economy a resource is used more than once before it gets disposed of into landfill or incineration. In contrast, a circular economy model creates closed loop material and energy cycles where waste is a problem because it is seen as value leakage and nature actually doesn't know waste. All 'waste' should become 'food' or 'input' for another process: either a by-product or recovered resource for another industrial process, or as regenerative resources for nature (e.g. compost).
In a circular economy, we see the aim therefore in looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model and ensuring raw materials and products are part of cycles. The model basically distinguishes between technical and biological cycles. Consumption happens only in biological cycles, where food and biologically-based materials (e.g. natural fibres, food, etc.) are designed to feed back into the system through processes like composting and anaerobic digestion. These cycles regenerate living systems such as soil, which provide renewable resources for the economy. Technical cycles recover and restore products, components and materials through strategies like reuse, repair, remanufacture or recycling.
A circular economy is therefore more than just a move towards waste reduction and increased recycling. It is a paradigm shift - a new way of thinking about economic activity - that is needed to completely reshape our current economic model at a global level.
To better understand the requirements in a circular economy model, one important aspect in textiles is understanding the complexity and challenges in recycling.
In today’s recycling processes, impurities of used materials can only be removed to a certain extent. In the particular case of textiles, this means that most returned clothes cannot be fully recycled in current systems because these products are made of mixed materials (e.g. cotton-polyester blended fabrics, wool sweater with polyester threads, care labels made from synthetics, jeans with elastane, etc. etc.). Almost no clothes nowadays are made in a way that the recycling facility can be entirely sure a certain garment contains no unwanted substances. In these cases, the garment cannot be integrated into a recycling stream, but rather gets downcycled or disposed off. The latter means that garments are either downcycled into lower quality products (cleaning rags, house insulation, etc.), incinerated or put into landfill. Unfortunately, and unlike many garment producers claim, the textile industry seems still far from an actual recycling system.
But why is this the case and why does it still seem to be an unsolved problem? In the current situation, trying to reach a 100% recyclability rate might prove counterproductive for companies, if for instance, the price of recovery remains higher than the value of the materials recovered. Lack of incentives does not necessarily make it desirable to pursue a circular economy objective and the complexity of designing products for circularity and reintroducing the products into the same cycle are often too high and effortful for companies.
A recently published white paper by PwC states that "currently, the circular economy framework does not provide specific criteria to support the selection of actions nor specific guidelines on how to implement the concept. As the implementation of circular economy varies significantly for different products and markets, the need for individualized or sectoral approaches makes it difficult to provide general guidelines. Moreover, engaging in a circular economy strategy may bring in difficult trade-offs. When selecting materials in a production process, circular economy principles might exclude not fully recyclable materials. However, the environmental benefits of certain materials could outweigh the disadvantage of non-recyclability."
Taking the above-mentioned arguments into account, we decided to define “circularity” for ourselves, given the industry we are working in. There is obviously so much more to be learned about implementing a fully circular system, but for the time being, the following guiding principles are what we feel confident with and what we decided to pursue in everything we develop and manufacture.
We design and develop our products for circularity. This includes all aspects from raw material selection, product design and production, use phase and end of life. In order to ensure our products are as circular as possible, all our garments follow one or both of the following principles:
Closing the biological cycle: Renewable and environmentally unharmful substances which are biodegradable at the end of life
Closing the technical cycle: Pure material contents in products (e.g. 100% of the same, easily separable or jointly recyclable materials) without any material impurities to ensure full recyclability/usability at the end of life
Our first launched product, the T-shirt LEGNA, covers both these principles. It only contains wood-based fibres (100% of the same material without impurities) making it fully recyclable in current systems and it is biodegradable in case the product cannot be fed into a working recycling stream, therefore leaving no harmful substances in nature and becoming important nutrients in the biological cycle.
There are many unsolved issues and unanswered questions regarding a fully operational circular textile economy. We as a tiny player can certainly not make a substantial difference and we wouldn’t dare to claim we are fully circular, but we try to set ourselves up in a way that everything we do supports and fosters a more rapid transformation towards circularity.
PS: If you’re interested in the topic or want to share your perspective and insights, please get in touch with us. We are always happy about feedback and inputs to evolve and improve our approach or discuss and co-develop solutions together.
Business Beyond Borders
Ellen MacArthur Foundation