by Scott Cassel and Kristin Aldred Cheek
Last fall’s textiles summit was a watershed moment in efforts to address textile waste in the U.S. Organized by the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI), New York Product Stewardship Council (NYPSC), New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling (NYSAR3), and New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I), the event brought together more than 200 textile designers, brand owners, used clothing collectors, recyclers, and government officials for the first time. The focus: improving the sustainability of the textile industry throughout the supply chain, including reducing the amount of textiles disposed and keeping millions of dollars in valuable materials circulating in our economy.
One point of general agreement at the summit was the need to move away from a “fast fashion” mentality and, in its place, build a repair-reuse-recycle mindset among businesses and consumers. Unfortunately, nearly one year later, leadership from brand owners and manufacturers remains largely absent.
Upstream, there are voluntary initiatives to reduce the environmental impacts of the textiles industry. Researchers are developing new methods to separate and extract fibers from used textiles, which would enable companies to recover the most valuable material and turn it into new products. Downstream, there are often-cited projects by companies like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher to repair, reuse, and recycle clothing.
Such efforts are examples of the varied possibilities for a more sustainable approach, but they shouldn’t distract us from the reality that the textiles industry as a whole is the second largest polluting industry in the world after oil and gas. While we wait for fiber recovery technology to be refined and brought to scale, or for voluntary efforts to grow to a meaningful level, the amount of textiles disposed continues to climb. A record 13 million tons of textiles went to landfills or combustion facilities in 2015 alone.
The technology to reuse, recycle, and repurpose many textiles already exists. Countless organizations and businesses already understand the value of recovering what’s currently being wasted and are clamoring for more material.
What’s missing is the properly funded infrastructure for collection and processing.
By requiring all textile manufacturers to finance and manage the post-consumer textiles they sell into the market, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies can achieve the efficient reuse and recycling of a high percentage of scrap textiles. EPR policies create an organized structure for cooperation and communication that is based on financial incentives and social responsibility. These systems create a level playing field among producers so that all players compete equally. At the same time, EPR lifts much of the burden from taxpayers who are currently funding disposal, regardless of their personal textile purchase and disposal habits.
There is a huge opportunity here for brand owners. Over the long haul, economies across the globe are heading toward more transparency, more substantive corporate responsibility, and more circularity. Companies that take responsibility for the lifecycle of their products will have the fewest risks and the greatest likelihood of increasing their market share. Moreover, companies that seize a leadership role today and engage in the process of developing an EPR system will be setting the bar for themselves and their competitors and defining product stewardship in the textiles industry for years to come.
To develop effective policy, there needs to be a facilitator that can develop a consensus on the extent of the problem, the goals sought by those with an interest in the outcome, the barriers to achieving those goals, and the solutions to overcoming those barriers. There is a roadmap for success. Over the past two decades, PSI has facilitated the development of many effective EPR policy models, and today our members are interested in the development of a policy model for textiles.
Governments are preparing to tackle the issue. Manufacturers and brand owners need to bring their knowledge and interests to the table and lead the industry to the solution. If your organization is interested in being part of the conversation, contact PSI’s Kristin Aldred Cheek at (617) 236-8293.