The fashion economy urgently needs to become more sustainable, but how?

clothesBarely one percent of all used clothing in Europe is recycled at a high grade. The rest is mostly incinerated together with household waste. So the logical answer to the question of how things can be done differently seems to be to improve the collection, sorting and recycling. But the circular economy experts at VITO know that it is not that simple. “A real transition to a circular fashion economy can only happen if the change is systemic and takes place along the entire value chain.”

The environmental and climate impact of our textile and clothing consumption is enormous. For the production and transport of all the textile sold in Europe every year, more than one ton of primary raw materials (such as materials for fibres), no less than one hundred thousand litres of water and hundreds of square metres of land are needed per European. Plus, most of these pieces of clothing and textiles only remain in circulation for a very short time. It is an unmistakably disposable economy, and in today's world - where sustainability and greening is not an option but a necessity - that can no longer be tolerated.

But how do you change the textile sector? How do you transform it from a linear to a circular model? “There are many initiatives to bring out so-called sustainable textiles,” says Evelien Dils of VITO. “But they have actually yielded very little. Not infrequently, it was simply about greenwashing ‘fast fashion’ (clothing that is quickly discarded).” Such initiatives also often lack a wide scope. “The textile sector is an immensely large and complex system and is organised globally. So you also have to ask yourself what Europe can do to bring about changes outside our continent as well. And then there are the many trade-offs. Take the introduction of new materials (such as apple leather). That is not necessarily beneficial. It depends on how the textile industry picks up innovations and brings them to the consumer.”

Selective collection is coming

So something needs to be done urgently, and Europe agrees. In 2020, the European Commission identified textiles as one of the most important product groups in its Circular Economy Action Plan (as part of the Green Deal). In March 2022, it launched an ambitious strategy to develop a circular fashion economy. A key part of that plan is that targets will be set for the recycling and reuse of collected textiles in the foreseeable future.

For our circular economy experts, the European textile strategy contained few surprises. After all, Europe has called on VITO several times to find out how the European textile industry can evolve towards more circularity and sustainability. In the most recent research report from February 2022 and commissioned by the European Environment Agency, VITO advised that the textile industry should focus on a circular design with a view to extending the lifespan and use of secondary materials on the one hand, and on improving the collection of discarded textiles, high-quality reuse and recycling on the other.

By 2025, each member state will have to organise a system for the selective collection of discarded textiles – just as happens in our country for plastic waste with the familiar 'PMD' (plastic, metal, drinks containers) bags, for example. “That will be a major change,” says Tom Duhoux of VITO. “However, this measure is not sufficient in itself. If we later have a mountain of textile waste, we will have to be technologically and organisationally capable of properly recycling various textile types and designs. Low-grade recycling is not an option, because that is not compatible with circularity. Besides consuming less, we need to move towards recycling 2.0, which is synchronised with the quality demanded by the textile industry.”

Cooperation throughout the value chain

This synchronisation requires cooperation, which brings us to the SCIRT project coordinated by VITO, a European initiative that was launched in 2021 to (roughly summarised) investigate the transition to ‘textile-to-textile recycling’. Although that is far too narrow a description. “SCIRT brings many things together,” says Dils. “There is a technological section in which we conduct research into improved recycling, for example of complex fibre mixtures. We are also studying how we can better align the sorting of textile waste with the needs of a recycling company.” For instance, the Flemish machine builder Valvan Baling Systems is developing a new version of the Fibersort™ within the project, which automatically sorts discarded textiles in a continuous process based on fibre type and colour. This technology contributes to the economic viability of the textile recycling process.

And then there are the textile companies and the fashion designers who will have to adapt. The Flemish spinning mill AVS, part of the European Spinning Group, has been pioneering the circular economy for several years by producing yarns from recycled textiles. “We are seeing annual growth of 200 percent for this yarn, but it remains a very small part of our overall business,” says Julie Lietaer, CEO of European Spinning Group. “The group of buyers is very broad and from all segments of the sector: from clothing manufacturers to mattress makers. The Belgian sustainable jeans label HNST is one of the better-known examples.” In addition to HNST, the Belgian clothing brands Bel&Bo and Xandres and the French brands Decathlon and Petit Bateau are also involved in the SCIRT project. Working in collaboration with technical partners and research institutes such as VITO, these brands will develop six representative types of clothing based on recycled textile fibres.

Get everyone involved in this story

Lastly, we also involve consumers in SCIRT. “We are also setting up a ‘true cost’ model in which we include all externalities that are currently not included in the sales price of clothing (such as the environmental or social costs of plastic waste),” says Duhoux. “That's how we calculate the actual cost price of a piece of clothing.” The true cost model can be a lever to adjust the consumer's perspective, but also to convince policymakers to support manufacturers who work sustainably so that they remain competitive.

SCIRT tackles everything in a systemic way. “A true circular fashion economy will only happen when the change is systemic and takes place everywhere in the value chain,” says Duhoux. “That is only possible if all parties involved, from collectors to sorters and recyclers to spinning mills and designers, focus on a common interest and goal.” At the same time, the SCIRT project, which will run until 2024, is also pragmatic. As Dils says, “We aren't aiming for the ideal system, because then you have to start from scratch and that is unrealistic. We are, however, examining how we can push the current system towards a circular fashion economy with targeted and well-considered innovations, interventions and collaborations. That's how we initiate the transition.”


Tom Duhoux en Evelien Dils

Tom Duhoux - R&D Circular Economy - VITO
R&D Circular Economy
Evelien Dils - Project Coördinator Circular Economy - VITO
Project Coördinator Circular Economy