LONDON – We’ve spent several months researching novel textile-textile recycling technologies, which many are billing as integral to the future of the fashion industry. In doing so, we’ve spoken to stakeholders right through the fashion supply chain, from new technology players in this space to fibre makers, fashion brands themselves and other industry insiders.
What have we learned? All will be revealed in our new report, which will be published in the second half of May. Here, however, are some of the more pertinent findings.
- You need deep pockets in this space. Novel textile recycling start-ups burn cash. Rapidly. Pilot plants can cost from €5-10m, demonstration facilities from €30-50m. And that’s all pre-commercialisation. Remember also, this is new technology. Teething problems are inevitable, so a financial buffer is a must. Don’t expect to see anybody making a serious profit until the second half of this decade.
- … which means you need the right partners. A friendly fashion brand, perhaps, or a charitable foundation, many of which are looking closely at the fashion sector. This space is ripe for investment. That said, some of the most promising innovations have been spawned out of current industrial processes, based on existing technologies. These have the advantage of bringing with them considerable expertise and know-how (access to people with the right skillsets is a huge challenge for this sector)
- The industry is still in a state of flux. It’s possible to count on one hand the number of businesses which have made any significant progress in novel textile-textile recycling – by which we mean have a fighting chance of commercial success. We expect more entrants into this market segment, and one or two existing names to fall by the wayside in the meantime. The next two to three years will be critical.
- Despite a fiendishly tricky market, there is some certainty for early entrants. A few of the tech players have been successful at achieving major recycled fibre purchasing agreements with fashion brands, bringing security and enabling them to continue tweaking and refining their solution. These kinds of agreements will provide a significant advantage over would-be new market entrants.
- Is greenwashing a thing in novel textile recycling? Quite possibly. We’ve seen some rather dubious looking claims during our research. Even industry insiders we spoke to are sceptical about some of the claims being made about what can be achieved with these technologies in terms of fibre strengths, properties and recyclability. That said, the majority of the companies we have spoken to have been very upfront, open and transparent about the challenges faced and limitations of what is possible.
- We still need more data. The superiority of recycled fibres cannot be taken as a given. Some solutions providers have commissioned independent lifecycle analysis (LCA) research into the fibres their technologies produce and how these compare to their conventional counterparts. But we need more of this kind of research. Not only is it good from a public relations exercise (and storytelling), but it also helps brands to substantiate their green claims in light of impending new anti-greenwashing regulations.
- Technology in this space is evolving as more and more expertise and cash flows in. Technological possibilities are opening up. The level of ‘impurities’ (such as elastane) that can be processed by these technologies is steadily increasing. That said, the fashion industry itself can still do its own part by producing better clothing, using less complex fibre blends.
- Brands should expect to pay a margin for fibres which have been produced by novel recycling techniques. Some recyclers we spoke to have built in a premium via purchasing agreements with fashion brands (and rightly so). The capex for this kind of technology is significant, while the extra processing and other steps involved pre-production have to be funded somewhere along the line. Whether extra prices will at some stage be passed onto consumers (and why shouldn’t they?) is another matter.
- Regulation is facilitating progress. Our guess was that the pandemic might stall work on novel textile recycling techniques for a few years. We were wide of the mark on that front. In a post-pandemic world, regulators appear more focused on climate and sustainability targets than ever, and this is bringing heightened interest in novel ways of producing textile fibres while making better use of waste streams. Across Europe, local authorities are bringing in new laws around the collection and sorting of textiles, and recyclers are establishing relationships with actors in this value chain.
- There is cause for optimism. Some of the industry’s brightest minds and engineers have illustrated that it’s possible to use futuristic techniques to turn waste textiles into a resource. These novel technologies can – and should – become a viable and significant industry within their own right by the end of the decade. But to go back to an earlier point, the fashion industry itself must play its own part if it wants this technology to be optimised. ‘Designing for circularity’ needs to become more than just a marketing slogan.
You can order Textile Recycling: State of Play here: Textile Recycling: State of Play – Apparel Insider