A Royal College of Art-led consortium has been awarded GBP5.4m (US$7.1m) to establish a Textiles Circularity Centre (TCC) that will explore methods to turn post-consumer textiles into renewable feedstocks and develop new supply chains.

The four-year award is one of five circular economy centres funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres Programme, which explores how reusing waste materials in textiles, construction and other industries could deliver huge environmental benefits and boost the UK economy.

The TCC proposes materials security for the UK by circularising resource flows of textiles. Its work will include turning post-consumer textiles, crop residues, and household waste into renewable materials for use in textiles.

“This will stimulate innovation and economic growth in the UK textile manufacturing, SME apparel, and creative technology sectors, whilst reducing reliance on imported and environmentally and ethically impactful materials, and diversifying supply chains,” the Royal College of Art (RCA) says.

“The TCC will provide underpinning research understanding to enable the transition to a more circular economy that supports the brand ‘designed and made in the UK’. To enact this vision, we will catalyse growth in the fashion and textiles sector by supporting the SME fashion-apparel community with innovations in materials and product manufacturing, supply chain design, and consumer experiences.”

It adds this integrated systems approach will drive the green jobs agenda, eliminate textile waste going to landfill and incineration, and increase resource productivity, reduce carbon emissions and environmental harm, provide alternatives to energy-from-waste, as well as grow the UK bioeconomy.

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The TCC research programme has three interconnecting research strands:

Materials circularity: Will establish an integrated approach that transforms waste feedstocks into functional and regenerative textiles designed for circularity. Biotechnology will convert waste into building blocks for new polymer and fibre production, while innovations in the fabrication and design of circular textiles will enable technology-driven processes that use local materials.

Circular supply chain: Will establish narrow, slow and closed resource flows through better tools for circular supply chains. It will study which novel supply chain configurations and technologies are needed for bio-based textiles circular supply chains. 

Consumer experience: Will establish a coupling between the resource flow and human wellbeing by building a Product Cultures Lab and a Circular CX Framework with which to design consumer experiences that engage people in interactive, meaningful, co-creative, and sustainable cultures around products, transforming their role from ‘consumers’ to ‘active co-creators’ in a sustainable product cycle. 

The RCA’s Materials Science Research Centre, led by professor Sharon Baurley, won the competitive bid to set up the TCC in collaboration with scientists and researchers from Cranfield University, University of Cambridge, University College London, University of Leeds, University of Manchester and University of York, and from the RCA’s Computer Science Research Centre and School of Communication.

Dr Paul Thompson, vice-chancellor of the Royal College of Art (RCA), said the announcement comes “as we become increasingly aware of the negative environmental and social impact of fast fashion and the textiles industry.” 

Professor Baurley, RCA’s director of the Textiles Circularity Centre, added: “The environmental and human costs of fashion are huge. Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the link between human activity and damage to the environment. The time is ripe to explore an alternative model for fashion-apparel. Our Circular Economy system design proposes to do just that by introducing a new relationship between materials and human wellbeing and by innovating circular fibres and textiles for the UK – and global – SME fashion industry.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow, meanwhile, said creating a more circular economy for waste and resources lies at the heart of the government’s transformative agenda for the environment. “These new research centres will play a vital part in creating a cleaner and more sustainable waste sector, thus helping us to better protect the environment and leave it in better shape for the next generation.”