The Full Circle Textiles Project aims to explore disruptive solutions in chemical recycling, with the goal of creating new fibres and garments from used clothing and ultimately driving industry-wide adoption

The Full Circle Textiles Project aims to explore disruptive solutions in chemical recycling, with the goal of creating new fibres and garments from used clothing and ultimately driving industry-wide adoption

With as much as 73% of clothing produced eventually sent to landfill or incinerated, the new The Full Circle Textiles Project launched earlier this month aims to tackle some of the challenges by scaling innovations in closed loop cellulosic recycling. However, as participants explain, there are a number of difficult but key barriers to overcome first.

Man-made cellulosic fibres (MMCF) such as viscose/rayon, lyocell, modal and cupro are most commonly derived from wood pulp and have the third largest share in global fibre production after polyester and cotton. MMCF are of increasing industry importance, with production doubling over the last three decades and tipped for continued growth, according to Fashion for Good, a global platform trying to transform the fashion industry.

However, most man-made cellulosic fibre production is based on a linear system. "At the moment, we extract virgin resources for production and dispose of textiles after use, thus generating a huge amount of waste," Kathleen Rademan, director of Fashion for Good's Innovation Platform, said on a recent webinar. "The fashion industry needs a systems-wide change towards circularity, with scalable, high-quality textile recycling technologies."

Fashion for Good recently launched 'The Full Circle Textiles Project: Scaling Innovations In Cellulosic Recycling' to validate and eventually scale solutions for chemical recycling of cellulosics, with the aim of achieving a closed loop system that converts textile waste from cotton and cotton-blend materials to produce new MMCF which can, in turn, be spun into yarn and used to create new garments.

It will see Laudes Foundation, Birla Cellulose, KeringPVH Corp and Target join Fashion for Good in investigating technologies from innovators Evrnu, Infinited Fiber Company, Phoenxt, Renewcell and Tyton BioSciences. 

Chemical vs mechanical 

The traditional mechanical recycling process has its roots in the 'downcycling' industry – producing materials used in insulation, industrial clothes or other lower-value uses – Fashion for Good states in a background report published to accompany the project launch. 

Typically done on high-purity, long staple fibres such as wool and cashmere, it involves breaking down garments by chopping them into shredded fragments, pulling apart the fibres and then disentangling and aligning them using a carding process. Drawbacks include the high-purity feedstock requirement and the shortening of fibres during recycling which can reduce performance at the yarn and fabric stage. 

"This makes it challenging to achieve the desired versatility and quality of finished garments using mechanically recycled fibres," report authors state. "To combat this, the recycled cotton fibres are often blended with virgin ones, improving the performance but worsening the environmental footprint of the final output."

In addition, because mechanical recycling does not change the colour of the garments, they must be manually sorted into groups of colours, increasing labour costs to the process.

"Chemical recycling, however, can address these shortcomings," Rademan says. 

Here textile waste is broken down into cellulosic pulp, then rebuilt into new fibres of indistinguishable, or even superior quality, according to the background report, and ultimately produce brand new garments. Emerging technologies are also able to address blended-fibre garments.

While the technology is said to hold great potential to close the loop on textile waste, there are a number of barriers to scale, including a lack of financing investment, a relatively small-scale output, and limited current off-take by brands and manufacturers.

"It's like being at an awkward teenage dance, where the volume and the price point aren't where your brands are used to it being" – Nicole Rycroft, Canopy

"It's like being at an awkward teenage dance, where the volume and the price point aren't where your brands are used to it being," explains Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of environmental not-for-profit Canopy, which works to protect the world's forests in the viscose supply chain. Also speaking on the webinar, she adds that while producers are trialling chemical recycling, it's still a new technology.

"Everybody's kind of still standing around the edge of the room a little bit, wistfully looking at each other. This is the part that everybody needs to come ready to dance to really help accelerate this space."

The case for chemical

Despite the hurdles, project partners believe the potential benefits are worth the slog.

"As with a lot of innovations that we see in the apparel space, it's not an easy solution," acknowledges fellow panellist Christine Goulay, head of sustainable innovation at French luxury goods group Kering. "You often have to get a lot of different stakeholders or people together, so there are pieces of the puzzle that all need to join up.

"This is a technology that needs a lot of R&D and development. [There] are definitely some challenges there, which is why this project is so critical in actually moving things forward more quickly."

But the timing is right. "There are so many brand commitments out there about going circular and not sourcing virgin materials...we can't do business as usual through this linear supply chain. People are ready; they realise it's a priority, the innovation, the technology is getting to a stage where it's coming on to the market. It's really happening now."

Also present was Samantha Sims, vice president of environment, sustainability, and product stewardship at apparel giant PVH Corp, which launched a new corporate responsibility strategy last year to accelerate its sustainability efforts.

"Chemical recycling we deem as one that is just a non-negotiable. It's critical that we have it in place" – Samantha Sims, PVH Corp

"One of the key targets is around our goal to have three fully circular products on the market by 2025. To really achieve that big hairy, audacious target, there's a number of technologies and solutions that are critical. Chemical recycling we deem as one that is just a non-negotiable. It's critical that we have it in place."

Meanwhile, Rycroft told the panellists: "There's nothing but opportunities in this space that lies ahead," noting Canopy research shows an "absolute abundance of raw material."

"With even just using 25% of cotton waste that's available, you hit all of the raw material needs of current man-made cellulosic annual production." That would be more than sufficient to be the raw material to manufacture the 6.5m tonnes of man-made cellulosics that are currently being produced.

Katrin Ley, managing director of Fashion for Good, concurred, adding a perfect storm of innovation and opportunity is forming.

"The companies that join the party now can capitalise on those innovations, and on sustainability. They can really lead the transformation and be the winners eventually.

"We know that we can entice investors to join the game and engage in opportunities if we can ensure there are attractive returns, make sure that risk is manageable, and also ensure that the impact is measurable. If parties, brands, supply chain actors, innovators, and investors really come together, we can create those conditions to ensure just that."

Rycroft adds now is a "perfect time" for more conventional and traditional investors to be looking at this space. 

"When we first launched CanopyStyle, there was this almost unicorn on the horizon. There was an interest in circular economy and alternative fibres as a feedstock, but it wasn't seen as viable by brand partners or by the viscose producers that we were having conversations with.

"Fast-forward seven years, we now have three of the top five viscose producers on the market with man-made cellulosic fibres products that contain between 20-50% recycled textile as the feedstock. That's quite a remarkable shift for a relatively condensed period of time."

The coronavirus catalyst

The Covid-19 pandemic also acts as a driver.

"It's more important than ever to be listening to your consumers and what they want," Sims said.

"With Covid, we look at it as people are re-evaluating their values and thinking about what's important. When they do spend money on a product, where do they really want to spend that money, and what brands do they want to be engaged with? We really view it as a catalysing moment to lean in even more on sustainable product and circularity."

Also speaking on the webinar was Dilip Gaur, business director of Birla Cellulose, the pulp and fibre business of Indian textile conglomerate Aditya Birla Group.

The recycled content produced by four of the project's five innovators will be converted at Birla Cellulose's pilot plants to produce high-quality cellulosic fibres. From there, fibres will move through the project partners' supply chains to be manufactured into garments.

"At the end of the day, it's doing well by doing good" – Dilip Gaur, Birla Cellulose

"At the end of the day, it's doing well by doing good," Gaur summarised. "Not only are you helping planet, it makes a lot of business sense. This is the time when you make your bets and it can lead to financial gains and also solve the problem of circularity."

Supply chain alignment

From a brand perspective, Goulay says it is important for Kering to see how the technologies perform, learn what the strength and weaknesses are, and where to provide support. 

"It's critical that the suppliers are here with us to test everything so we can give that market feedback on the quality standards that we need as a brand. Dilip and his team can evaluate the actual technology and we can start this conversation to make sure as we're moving forward, we're achieving that quality, that scalability, that we need to make these technologies a reality.

"After the project closes, it really will be potentially continuing this iterative process of R&D, and eventually what we want to do is be able to adapt and implement and scale. That's the ultimate goal."

Gaur concurs. "We need to align the thinking of the entire supply chain to solving the problems of the industry," he said, adding coverging business and CSR will be key, with project success depending on seamless collaboration.

Rycroft agrees, noting the project exemplifies a shift in the industry from a very competitive and proprietal space to more pre-competitive, with the recognition that no single brand, producer, or technology is going to make it to market alone.

Storytelling

Looking ahead, to when the technologies are at scale and garments are on shelves, executives believe labels will be key to sharing the narrative with consumers by displaying the percentage of recycled content.

"Labelling will be critical...We'll see more and more of it come onto the market," Sims says, while Ley believes "compelling storytelling" could help drive demand. 

"I hope the fashion industry can use their imagination to come up with stories that really connect with consumers' hearts and minds. That could be water savings, or analogies like we see with how many bottles of water are in those shoes, or in this rain jacket. That is something that is so easily digestible."

For Goulay, it is equally imperative to share the narrative with industry stakeholders.

"We're going to have great stories to tell decision-makers and brands and businesses" – Christine Goulay, Kering

"We're going to have great stories to tell decision-makers and brands and businesses, because it's going to be less expensive down the road in the long term if you don't have to buy more new inputs to make the product. If you're taking unsold product and making new product, then that overall is not going to just be good for your environmental reporting or your impact reporting, but also your financial reporting."

Collection systems 

In the years to come, industry can expect to see an uptake in what are currently deemed "disruptive solutions," combined with the emergence of new collection systems, the executives say.

"We're anticipating that by 2030, 50% of man-made cellulosic volumes that are out on the market will be from these next generation feedstocks and that currently disruptive technologies will be mainstream," Rycroft states.

Ley adds: "That scale-up will lead to prices coming down, reaching more virgin equivalency. We will also see new collection systems emerging. We need textile waste to be collected and brought to the right destinations to truly close the loop."

Gaur explains it is important to focus on scaling sorting and collection as "textile is a very complex mix of various things." He notes the difficulties of sorting the different components of a single garment for recycling, giving the example of a pure cotton shirt that may have a button or a shirt made with a cotton blend. "The crux of the solution is how well you sort, segregate, and select."

Meanwhile, for Rycroft, the back-end infrastructure of this new supply chain presents a new opportunity in terms of business, revenue, and value-add for many communities and existing businesses.

"There's a tendency for us to focus on that kind of back-end supply chain and building that out, the collection and sorting and all the aspects related to textiles. But there's also a parallel movement around paper and packaging with the use of agricultural residue, some of which are also suitable for man-made cellulosics. That back-end supply chain is currently starting to be developed for packaging and paper; there is an ability for there to be a synergistic leveraging of other commodities also moving in this direction."

Goulay agrees. "We have to look beyond fashion and beyond apparel. How can we bridge to packaging and to fast-moving consumer goods companies, and tap in and learn from what they're doing, if they're two steps ahead in a very similar process? The orchestration maybe doesn't just stop here, but also goes and sees how we can bridge and find those win-wins, and dovetailed opportunities with other sectors."

Getting in the water

For brands and supply chain partners looking to get involved, Goulay notes "it's always good to start with the data." She advises firms should do their data mapping and comparison and look to resources like Fashion for Good, Canopy and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for guidance. 

For Sims, a shift in mindset is key. "Apparel is not naturally an innovative space. We don't have big R&D infrastructures so there's this mindset around jumping in and trying things. Getting in the water, testing these technologies until you start to get your hands on them, learn what will work as it relates to product development; [that] just can't be underscored enough.

"We look at consumer demand for more customisable and quicker access to product, and nearshoring trends. We see how this chemical recycling market can grow and evolve. It'll be really important and interesting to look at the kind of tensions and the common areas in terms of where chemical recycling needs to be available. Along with collecting all of the post-consumer goods and being able to get that to consumers quickly."