For all its promises about recycled materials and sustainable sourcing, how much progress is the fashion industry actually making?
Fashion brands are now using 50 per cent preferred materials — up from 44 per cent last year — and greenhouse gas emissions are down by five per cent — a saving of 1.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions, global non-profit Textile Exchange’s third annual Material Change Index shows. But it’s never that clear cut in sustainable fashion.
Brands are using more recycled materials, but still too many synthetics and not enough textile waste. The use of sustainable alternatives to cotton, wool and leather is increasing, but the industry shift towards preferred materials is in lieu of making fundamental changes to reduce production levels. While material changes can have a significant impact on the overall environmental footprint of a product, the focus on incremental improvements suggests brands are interpreting recommendations on sustainability as an ultimate goal to strive for, rather than as the bare minimum to build on.
The report is based on Textile Exchange’s Corporate Fibers and Materials Benchmark (CFMB), now in its seventh year. It leverages data from 292 brands, including Kering, H&M Group and PVH, hoping to understand the industry’s progress towards “preferred materials” and to what extent this is reducing its overall environmental impact. This includes recycled cotton, regenerative fibres including Cupro and Lyocell, and certain recycled synthetics. “
The key findings centre around recycled materials and land use for new material production, encouraging brands to build a resilient, matrixed approach to material sourcing that takes into account the social impact of material production, as well as changing risks and conditions as the climate crisis plays out.
Six key insights
#1: MCI preferred materials hit the 50% tipping point. For the first time, the Index has reached 50% preferred materials use (up from 44% the previous year). Preferred cotton now represents 65% of overall cotton used by participating brands, and recycled polyester jumped to 32% of polyester use, compared to 21% the year before. COVID-19 impacted participants’ sourcing patterns, meaning that overall consumption of materials was only marginally higher this year (1.3%) despite increased participation, yet preferred materials increased by 15%. Time will tell if this was due to the pandemic or a real sign of shifting to preferred, or even an early sign of “dematerialization”. For now, it is rewarding to see the favorable shift in proportions moving towards preferred.
#2: Growth in recycled materials dominated by nontextile inputs. Progress has been made in the uptake of recycled inputs, which now represent 29% of synthetic fibers, and 12% of materials overall. This growth in recycled is predominantly dominated by plastic packaging waste. While in the shortterm the substitution of virgin polyester by recycled has merit, the push must continue from plastic packaging waste to textile-to-textile. Data shows that there was only a slight increase in the textile-to-textile share. Post-consumer textile waste is now at 1.49% of recycled inputs, and 0.18% of textile use overall, as reported by participating brands.
#3: GHG decrease reflects slower growth as well as an increase in recycled. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions fell by 5% last year, which reflects a saving of 1.9 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions when compared to a conventional materials portfolio. This decline is influenced by the COVID-19 “low-growth” 1.3% scenario (compared to a “business as usual” scenario of 3%), as well as from the conversion to preferred materials, particularly recycled polyester.
#4: Land under improved practices increasing, but metrics need to link to geographical context. The MCI now represents over five million hectares of cropland, grazing, and forestry under improved practices, such as sustainability programs and certification. Over one million more hectares than last year, but still only 17% of the total land area from which land-based materials were sourced by Index participants in 2020.
#5: Transparency of sourcing regions must improve. Building on the above, line of sight to sourcing origins is an increasing priority for companies, and tools that help are advancing rapidly. Index results suggest that knowledge of country-of-origin hovers around 48% of materials sourced. Textile raw materials are being traced back to 49 companies, dominated by India, China, Turkey, the US, and Pakistan. As the sourcing of recycled materials increases, origins and circumstances of “waste origins” (secondary inputs) will become more important for integrity and monitoring impact.
#6: Early signs of brands decoupling value creation from new resource extraction. The transition to a circular system has the potential to unlock huge economic, social, and environmental opportunities for brands willing to innovate and invest in new ways of doing business. Although too early to prove a trend, the number of items reported through alternative business models went from 5 million to almost 6 million between 2019 and 2020. Companies reporting data on re-commerce grew from six to 13 (out of 114), and there were 0.6 million more items in re-sale in 2020 over 2019. Evidence suggests that the pandemic contributed to this growth. While take-back volumes dropped 30%, possibly also due to COVID-19, other activities such as rental, repair, and upcycling all grew. It is too soon to tell if this data is representative of industry change or indeed if it results in a contribution to a more sustainable world.
This is what Industry leaders told: • Preferred won’t be optional. All materials will need to deliver sustainability benefits, and no-one can afford to pick and choose.
• There is an urgency to scale solutions. With a lot of the tools, resources, and innovation needed already available, it’s time to focus on action.
• Thinking about dematerialization is crucial. Companies will need to dematerialize and start decoupling value creation from the extraction of resources to create new products.
• More regulation is needed. Leaders are demanding more laws and controls to raise the minimum bar, leveling the playing field for brands and retailers that want to be better.
• It’s going to take persistence. We will not be regenerative and circular overnight. Advice is to stay resolute, stay committed to good intentions and invest not for a year or two but until the job is done. • There’s no more “middle” ground. From company size, to supply chain links, to the gap between the “fastest of fast fashion” and companies with a higher calling, the middle-sized, middle links, and middle ground will disappear. Together, we reflected on the global pandemic and resulting disruption, understanding its impact when it came to sourcing preferred materials:
• Sourcing experiences were polarized. Half of the companies experienced significant disruptions and cut back everywhere, while others doubled down on preferred materials or were resilient enough in their supply relationships to navigate the shocks.
• There was a radical pivot to digital. From buying and selling platforms to innovation in 3D printing and the use of traceability tech, almost everything that could, quickly went online.
• Circularity plans were accelerated. As many companies rose to the challenge of COVID-19 as struggled with it–often at the same time. Out of the hardship we may see truly inspired strategies that take advantage of this moment and further ignite the transition to a circular economy. If we are to dramatically reduce the impacts of our textile world–that is, to make a material difference– we’ll need to think big and to implement change at scale.
Textile Exchange’s third annual Material Change Index