60 to 70 million people work in the textile industry, valued at approximately $2.4 trillion. According to WWF, cotton is the world's most widely used non-food product, feeding more than 250 million people and employing 7% of all workers in developing countries.
According to WRI, an estimated 5 trillion liters of water are used in the dyeing process, and an estimated 48-144 billion square meters of fabric from factory waste ends up in landfills each year. It takes up to 10,000 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans, and about 2,500 liters to make a cotton shirt. Overall, the industry is responsible for 20% of the world's water pollution, which is enough water to quench the thirst of 110 million people for an entire year.
Meanwhile, waste and circular economy have become a major issue as the total amount of textile waste has increased 8-fold since 1960, with only 15% being recycled but 85% being incinerated or landfilled. In terms of carbon emissions, the industry is responsible for ~7-10% of the annual global emissions - which is more than all international flights and ocean shipping combined. By 2030, these greenhouse gas emissions will increase by more than 50%.
The Paris Agreement's 1.5-degree target requires climate impacts to approach zero by 2050, leaving little to no room for net GHG emissions from textile production, transportation, laundering, or waste management. Compared to sectors such as plastics, glass and metals, the textile industry has been very tardy in moving to a circular economy. Less than 1% of all textiles worldwide are recycled into new textiles. This means that the industry needs to focus more on sustainability.
Key areas to reduce pollution
There are several examples of reducing pollution and developing a greener textile industry, which can be divided into four key areas:
1) new business models to extend the life of garments.
2) new production technologies, such as 3D printing.
3) new recycling technologies for materials
4) technology development for traceability.
When it comes to new business models for extending the life of garments, we see concepts such as renting/leasing, reselling and redesigning. Interest in second-hand shopping has increased, especially among the 20-30 year-old segment. Since the production of garments has by far the largest impact on the climate when considering the entire life cycle of a piece of clothing, these models will benefit a circular economy and thus reduce pollution. Second-hand shopping is expected to grow 1.5 times the size of fast fashion by 2028. One company example is Thredup, a marketplace that makes buying and selling secondhand clothing smarter and easier.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the fashion industry will increase by more than 50% by 2030. One way to reduce pollution is through new material recycling technologies. All materials on the market should ideally come from recycled or renewable sources, and new technologies for dyeing textiles that reduce the use of water and chemicals should be developed and used.
By 2025, the Waste Directive of the EU Circular Economy Package will have been fully implemented. The directive stipulates that all EU member states must have introduced the collection, sorting and recycling of textiles by that date. Achieving this goal will require electronically readable labels for high-speed automated sorting and traceability, but also new production technologies such as Renewcells' textile recycling technology. The Swedish company applies a textile recycling technology in which it dissolves raw materials in the form of textile waste into pulp and converts it into circulose. Circulose is a great white sheet, so to speak, from which manufacturers can spin new fabrics that can replace freshly picked cotton. Renewcell's technology can recycle the material 7 times before it reduces in quality.
Textiles made from wood and waste: H&M and Adidas join in too
Finnish company Spinnova, for example, has developed a breakthrough technology to produce textile fibers from wood or waste without dissolving them or using harmful chemicals. Their technology is able to process various raw materials such as wood, leather, agricultural waste and textile waste to create fibers and new clothing. Spinnova's CO2 emissions are 40-65% lower compared to alternatives.
In the first half of 2021, both H&M Group and Adidas joined Spinnova's group of committed brand partners. H&M Group sees great potential in Spinnova to address several of its own sustainability challenges. Likewise, the North Face has partnered with Spinnnova and could be an important contributor to Spinnova's market entry.
From the beginning, Spinnova has worked with several companies in both retail and manufacturing. For example, with Norwegian company Bergans and British company Hally Stevensons, which have more than 150 years of experience in waxed cotton and weatherproof fabrics. By introducing more sustainable circular textiles and processes, Spinnova is setting new standards for the industry, with no waste, side streams or microplastics, and minimal CO2 emissions and water consumption.