Can We Make Fashion Sustainable?

By Ronna Chao

Since 1976, our company Novetex Textiles has spun yarn for some the world’s top fashion brands. With the industry called to task for its wasteful ways, this year we created an upcycling system in Hong Kong to recover the value of a discarded garment and create a new resource.

Located in Tai Po, Hong Kong, The Billie System is a mechanical textile recycling system that uses no water throughout the process of converting textile waste into recycled fibres.

The system we built, The Billie, processes up to three tons of excess stock every day and converts it into upcycled slivers, which can be blended with other fibres and re-spun into yarn to create new garments.

Sounds impressive, right? Except that it’s a paltry effort in the face of our staggering textile waste problem.

In Hong Kong, where we’re based, we churn out 340 tons of textile waste every day. Our upcycling system, housed in a 20,000-square-foot facility, tackles barely 1% of that waste.

A survey of the rest of the world paints an even more alarming picture. The US delivers an estimated 12.7 million tons of textile waste to landfills a year; China produces a whopping 26 million.

At the rate we’re going, we will need upcycling and recycling facilities in our cities to be as ubiquitous and accessible as convenience stores if we want a shot at processing this amount of waste. In case it’s not obvious, that’s not going to happen.

According to the World Economic Forum, unlike materials such as paper, aluminum, and steel, the billions of tonnes of clothing sold every year have had no credible recycling solution.

Sustainability is the new black

So here’s the trillion-dollar question: Can we actually make fashion sustainable?

Considering that the industry creates some 150 billion pieces of clothing for 7 billion humans each year, the sobering reality is that no, we can’t. Any model that encourages more consumption than is necessary is inherently unsustainable.

The correct question might now be: What can be done?

A system such as The Billie has its merits, but it also has its limits. In our case, it made sense for our company because of what we already have in place: a textile mill in Zhuhai, a city in China’s southern Guangdong province that borders with Macau, which brings the distance of our garment-to-garment process travels to a mere 64 kilometers.

But a project like this is not as practical elsewhere, and adding more production lines to The Billie so it can process more waste isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Sending the world’s textile waste to Hong Kong to process won’t make sense, either.

In other words, duplicating the technology behind The Billie so it can be applied everywhere is a thrilling possibility, but that, too, weighs heavily on the environment. In the US, for instance, where only 3% of clothing in stores are made, it means having to transport recycled fibers to places such as Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, and other places, where the remaining 97% of clothing that retails in America is actually created, and then importing the final products back to the US.

Enter the circular economy, which proposes a closed-loop process of consumption. For supply chains such as our company, the premise is honest and simple. It encourages the utilization of waste as a resource instead of further burdening the planet. To illustrate, harvesting crops such as cotton, used in 50% of the world’s textiles, involves up to 20,000 liters of water per kilogram. Finding a worthy replacement then saves a staggering amount of water, and relieves our cities of a portion of waste.

Here’s why that’s not enough. Material innovation only chips at a larger problem that can’t be solved by technology, advanced as it stands today. Under the linear system we’re accustomed to, cities consume more than 75% of natural resources, produce more than 50% of global waste, and emit between 60 to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Addressing the problem at its very core requires something intangible: a change in perspective in the part of various stakeholders, including retailers, consumers, and suppliers.

Real change needs to be uncomfortable—for everyone

While retailers around the world are seeing that their impact on the planet is worth at least a conversation, and more brands are reviewing their supply chains and use of natural resources, might there exist a better path to sustainability?

In July, Spanish fast-fashion giant Zara committed to zero-discharge of hazardous chemicals from its supply chain by 2020, and vowed to eradicate single-use plastics by 2023. The sustainable cotton communiqué, a pledge to use 100% sustainable cotton by 2025, recently united brands including Nike, H&M, Ikea, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer, Woolworths, Adidas, Burberry, Timberland, as well as Kering Group’s portfolio of luxury fashion brands.

The media’s feedback has been largely mixed, with a fair amount of criticism, and perhaps rightfully so.

Here’s the thing: Retailers behind “sustainable” endeavors aren’t actively trying to deceive consumers. It’s just that the term “sustainable” has been so vastly and loosely defined, to the detriment of the movement itself. Unfortunately, not only do vague definitions allow everyone involved to perform the bare minimum and call it a day, these also encourage the belief among consumers that purchasing sustainable products is enough.

That sale seasons—plural—are part of most brands’ calendars is a testament to the state of overproduction in the fashion industry. Anticipating excess inventory is the norm. But does it have to be?

In crafting decreased quantities of products and fewer collections each year, retailers elevate the value of their inventory and reduce dead stock. Both suppliers and retailers must recognize that studying supply and demand is inseparable from any strategy rooted in sustainability, and the decision-makers behind these companies are in a unique position to consider and address how promoting a surplus of inventory impacts the environment and even societal culture.

For our part as suppliers and textile companies, a regular review of operations and systems is necessary. Efforts to improve efficiency and ensure consistent quality in the manufacturing processes must be made so that wastage in the form of “buffer production” is minimized. Ideally, production output should be exactly the order quantity placed by the customer.

In Hong Kong, an estimated 370 tonnes of textile waste are disposed of in landfills in 2020.

Just as importantly, consumers and governments need to work together to identify paths toward real solutions. Within communities, education and awareness are essential.  At a strategic level, there need to be incentives, policies, bolstered enforcement measures, and sufficient funding which not only encourage, but make mandatory a culture of recycling.

In short: Governments must make this a priority. Countries frequently cited among the top recyclers on the planet, including Germany, Japan, South Korea, Slovenia, and Austria, draw their success from key action points that make recycling a near-seamless operation, beginning with individual households. This means the burden can’t rest entirely on the fashion industry and its suppliers, or even our governments.

Thinking within the confines of a circular economy poses one of the biggest creative challenges of our generation, and old habits die hard. What the movement requires, far beyond the idea of Billie systems in place in the world’s biggest cities, is to hold ourselves accountable—because we are.

We need to change the very way we live and consume if we want to make an impact.

This article was originally published on Quartz.

Can we make fashion sustainable?