A four-year study has found 82% of what is considered apparel and textile waste can actually be renewed and resold, effectively meaning brands are sitting on their next supply chain.

The recently-released ‘Leading Circular: Pathways for Evolving Apparel and Textile Business from Linear to Circular’ is the culmination of four years of collaboration between The Renewal Workshop and more than 20 brands.

The report’s primary focus is the need to rethink what is traditionally considered “waste” and to recognise the potential it poses to the sector as a new supply chain.

The project saw The Renewal Workshop – which has worked with industry heavyweights including The North Face and H&M Group – complete assessments for more than 50 companies in the apparel and textile sector to evaluate what each brand designated as waste; things that they considered to have no further financial value.

These are products that have been deemed unsellable for a variety of reasons including customer returns that could not be restocked because they were dirty, damaged, used, or returned at the end of the season. They also include warranty returns, take-back programmes, and items damaged during shipping, warehousing, or in the store.

“Most of the products in our assessments had already been written off as losses representing both material and financial waste. However, our aggregate product assessment data challenges those assumptions and practices around what is, and is not sellable inventory,” The Renewal Workshop explains in its report.

“Our research shows that 82% of products classified as waste can be renewed and resold. The product assessment research redefines what waste is and creates the potential for a new regenerative supply chain for brands.

Of all the garments that were processed in pilot phase, nearly half could be resold ‘like new.’ A further 36% could be resold with a repair, while only 18% of garments originally deemed as waste were actually needed to be recycled.

Of the total products, 46% only required light or minor repairs to restore them while the remaining 36% required more substantial or noticeable repairs. By applying the renewal certification process to these products previously considered waste, brands can sell them to customers.

“Once we shift our mindset from “it is waste” to “it has value,” products can be managed in a way that maximises their use and reduces their negative impact on the environment,” report authors state.

The most compelling findings from The Renewal Workshop’s research are said to be the scalable solutions for the vast majority of issues that are sending products to landfill.

Until recently, brands faced a common set of constraints and the same set of limited linear options for inventory deemed unsellable. These included landfills, incineration, donating locally and overseas, or paying to manage and store product.

The linear solutions of the past are no longer the only options for brands, report authors note.

“With an aggregate finding that 82% of unsellable inventory is actually resalable, brands are sitting on their next supply chain.”

“There are new opportunities to use circular systems to recoup financial value from existing products. With an aggregate finding that 82% of unsellable inventory is actually resalable, brands are sitting on their next supply chain. The choice is whether to invest resources in linear methods like warehousing, incineration, and using landfill, or redirecting those financial resources to renewal processes and recommerce programmes that can generate new revenue and new customer relationships.”

However, with only 26% of products having viable recycling options available to them, investments in circular design, as well as resale, are essential.

“Design plays a major role in the circular business. From the first sketch, the life cycle of a product is being determined. The future rests in the hands of the designer,” The Renewal Workshop notes.

The organisation worked with a group of designers from The North Face earlier this year to educate designers on the principles of circular design and how to implement them into future brand collections.

“The North Face Design Residency is an example of a company moving deeper into the circular model,” it says.

In terms of taking action, the report notes the first step brands can take to develop products that can be recycled is to define the full life cycle path at the inception of product design.

There are choices throughout the design and manufacturing process that create more, or fewer, opportunities for a garment to be renewable or recyclable, says The Renewal Workshop, which provides partners feedback on their products so designers know the options and limitations of their design choices.

“An old adage is still the best advice for apparel and textile leaders: reduce how much we make, reuse products for as long as possible, and only once we have done both of these, recycle those products into new raw materials. However, as we have seen in the apparel and textile industry, recycling is complicated and isn’t a readily available option right now. While we love putting something in the blue bin instead of the trash, the industry has a great deal of work to do to build technology, processes, and recycling infrastructure to create a meaningful blue bin that will make those good feelings real.”

The most responsible path for brands is to begin by keeping the things they make out of landfill, it adds.

“This means revisiting what is being declared waste, investing in renewal systems, designing and redesigning products to be more recyclable, using more of the materials that already exist, creating opportunities for reuse through recommerce and rental, and taking back the products when customers have finished with them. Alongside investments in recycling technologies, we can create a fully circular apparel and textile system.”