The concept of closed loop supply chains sounds a laudable, if possibly Utopian ideal: a virtuous circle of production from cradle to grave and back to cradle again. However, the reality is proving harder to achieve for the clothing and textile sector.

As Ulf Eriksson, product manager for textiles and shoes at the Sweden-government-owned Ecolabelling Sweden (or Svanen - Swedish for swan), points out: "A closed loop is a challenge for the garment industry because this is a fashion business.

"If you want all this different apparel, then you have to ask for offerings from a range of suppliers. That approach is not really suited for eco-textiles and closed loops."

The concept of closed loop supply chains may gain momentum this autumn when the European Commission is expected to outline in detail new European Union (EU) eco-label proposals for clothing and textile production. These are expected to include measures to encourage the re-use of polyester residuals.

According to Dr Christina Dean, director of Redress, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), 80% to 90% of a product's production, use and disposal impact on the environment is determined by initial product design. And thus can include closed-cycle production.

The US-based organic specialist clothing brand Patagonia has rolled out a re-selling partnership with eBay, for instance. Launched in 2011 in the United States, the programme encourages customers to re-sell their items on eBay and is now being introduced in Europe.

"If a company makes something good, you want it to stay in circulation," said Patagonia's vice president of marketing, Vincent Stanley. "We wanted to make it easier for customers to put things back into circulation, particularly expensive items.

"One big part is the mindset of customers. We are trying to get enchantment attached to the clothes that people have had for a long time, the memories, in the way they do with furniture."

To this end, Patagonia has opened a blogpost, 'Worn Wear', where customers can post photographs and stories of their Patagonia clothes.

Closed loop challenge 
Yet, as Llyr Roberts of the Sustainable Places Research Institute at the University of Cardiff in Wales, said: "The clue to the fashion industry's closed loop challenge is in the name. It's counter-intuitive for fashion to turn around and say, 'you should keep your clothes for a bit longer.' But ultimately, the fashion industry is going to have to bite the bullet and start re-using clothes."

When people have really had enough of Patagonia clothes, the company says it will accept them at their stores so they can be recycled. And it is confident that its closed loop supply chain for underwear and fleeces is especially meaningful, as it involves materials being shipped to Japan and melted down into new fibres with an equivalent value.

The challenge, said Stanley, is with wool and cotton. "They have to be chopped up and re-knit into items of lesser value - T-shirts or pool table covers."

And there are certainly technical obstacles to establishing detailed closed loops.

"It's very difficult to do," agreed Dr Anne Bonhoff, global head of chemistry for US-based safety science company UL. "But in principle it's chemical management that needs to go down the complete supply chain. It will be time and cost intensive, but suppliers and sub-suppliers need to know what are the demands and requirements of the brands."

Svanen has placed great emphasis on using recycled fibres. "If a company uses recycled fibres at the start of the process, we allow them to meet all the criteria we lay down for fibres," said Eriksson.

"Not so many people use these because recycled polyester is not the same quality as virgin polyester. You have to make some compromises on the longevity of the product."

Consumer incentives
In the UK, the Isle of Wight-based eco-factory Rapanui Clothing has designed an innovative approach to encourage customers to buy into the concept of recycling and closed loops.

"We have to provide the consumer with the incentive to return the product," said company co-founder Rob Drake-Knight. Rapanui plans "in the near future" to offer customers a store voucher worth 30% of the value of the returned product. "We get the product back, we get the customer back and we make another sale, it's win-win for all sides," he said.

"We are working on some products and economic systems that will allow all of our products to work [on a closed loop]. This will apply to the company's products that use organic cotton and any products from recycled plastic. The nutrients we use will be recycled."

Meanwhile, in February this year, Sweden's Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) announced that all customers worldwide could hand in used garments in return for a voucher. The clothes are taken for repurposing by the Sweden-based company I:CO-System, which processes around 500 tonnes of used items every day in 74 countries.

Hong Kong and Germany-based Esprit and Belgium-based C&A have similar policies. According to I:CO, its used textiles are converted into insulation material for the construction industry, for cushioning and filling material, for stuffed toys, insoles or bags; while shoes are turned into floorings, key-rings, protective packaging, pellets or hard casing.

Roberts feels the industry should avoid aiming too high and instead target a more general interpretation of closed loops.

"Patagonia and others are doing genuinely amazing things when it comes to cradle to grave to cradle," he said. Another example is Swedish-based Nudie Jeans, which began taking used jeans and redesigning them into carpets and rugs.

"But the quickest way to change behaviour and support that loop would be simply to persuade the consumer to return or recycle the clothing. We need to plant the idea into consumers' heads," he said.

This approach is echoed by Patagonia, according to Stanley. "The first principle is to reduce consumption and not make things you don't need."

Closed loops within loops
The challenge for the textile industry has always been that it uses both natural and synthetic materials, said Asheen Phansey, sustainability analyst with France-based Dassault Systèmes, which has tried to take account of this issue in its product lifecycle management (PLM) software.

But now, you can look at shoes and separate the leather from the rubber soles - and they can go down their separate recycling loops.

"With natural materials such as cotton, it is possible to do more of a closed loop, but there's not enough land or natural resources to grow enough cotton for everyone, so I don't think it is chemically feasible," Phansey said.

Stephan Clambaneva, Dassault's business consultant, added: "It's like a car - it's not possible to have a zero carbon impact car, but you can repurpose goods and have a large impact.

"You can have closed loops within loops: a major environmental impact of jeans is how often they are put in a washing machine during their life. So how about developing a pair of jeans that do not need to be washed?"

Click on the links below to read other chapters in this briefing:
Green garments: Eco-labels - good or greenwash?
Green garments: Brands clean up their toxic chemical use
Green Garments: Sustainable practices in Asia