The problem of textile waste
The conventional fashion industry is one of the world’s most polluting industries, and has a highly negative environmental, economic and social footprint. The textile industry is built on an outdated linear (“take-make-dispose”) economic model and therefore textile waste has become a major problem in the sector. The EU textile industry alone generates around 16 million tons of textile waste per year (The European Commission). Much of this waste ends up in landfill or is incinerated, at great cost and considerable environmental impact. This represents a loss from a production process which uses millions of tons of water and kilowatts of energy, and countless hours of human labour.
While most debates focus on the problem of used garments (so-called post-consumer waste) little attention is paid to the textile waste and leftovers that are created during the manufacturing of garments. This waste stream is less recognized and less visible to the public. Over the past 30 years the majority of garment production has shifted to developing countries, mainly in Asia, in the search for cheaper labour.
Global clothing supply chains often involve many actors at many levels, which makes it difficult for brands to know how much waste is generated during production.
Although it has not been widely researched, it can be estimated that garment manufacturers producing clothing for many of the world’s major fashion brands are wasting between 10 and 40% of the fabric used for creating clothes (Runnel et al, 2017). This inefficiency is due to a systematic conflict of business interests, a lack of data and transparency between brands and producers, and a lack of design and technology that can make use of leftover materials in the product design process.
Alleviating these barriers in the garment supply chain, by measuring and creating visibility for textile leftovers and providing innovative design methods for recycling, can unlock major opportunities for material circulation of production leftovers and associated economic benefits. Doing so can also help to reduce the environmental impact of the textile industry and lead to a win-win business case.
Upcycling – a new life for leftovers from garment production
More and more fashion designers are turning to the concept of upcycling. It’s a recycling approach where “waste” – i.e textile leftovers that would usually end up in landfill or incineration – is used to create new, higher-value products.
Upcycling is a growing trend among fashion designers, helping to save resources and keep tons of textile waste out of the waste stream. More and more designer brands and fashion houses are waking up to the method and applying it as they seek solutions to the industry’s environmental impacts and to offer socially and environmentally conscious choices for their customers. Until recently, however, upcycling has been used mostly on a small scale, as an element in some brand’s collections, and not on an industrial scale.
Reet Aus, the ethical and sustainable fashion designer from Estonia, is one of the first designers to bring upcycling to industrial scale to create garments that are entirely made from manufacturing leftovers and therefore 100% upcycled. Earlier in her career as a designer she was struck by how unsustainable the fashion industry is, and it led to her find her passion for upcycling, which she has been working with since 2002. Through her company Aus Design She has shifted from working with industrial leftovers in Europe to working with big production units in Asia (Bangladesh and India), where the textile industry has a huge environmental impact.
Reet Aus is also one of the first to have written a doctoral thesis on upcycling and the potential for implementing it in the fashion industry. She also spreads the upcycling methodology by teaching new fashion designers in her role as Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Arts and co-founder with SEI Tallinn of the Estonian Academy of Arts’ Sustainable Design Lab.
UPMADE – an innovative business model based on upcycling
Reet Aus has teamed up with SEI Tallinn to create a novel circular business model, called UPMADE, for applying the upcycling method in the textile industry on an industrial scale.
UPMADE has been adopted by several brands and a number of textile manufacturers in Bangladesh, India and Europe. It helps brands to cut down their textile waste by channelling leftovers back into the design and production of new garments. This maximization of resources leads to savings of energy, water and other resources by avoiding production from virgin raw material.
The UPMADE business model consists of three components: software, design and a certification process.
The UPMADE software helps to map the textile waste in the given manufacture and uses a special algorithm to turn production leftover data into input information helping to design and produce upcycled garments. The software also carries out resource savings calculations.
The UPMADE design approach, turning trash to trend, is a service helping the brand to upcycle its textile leftovers, maximising fabric use, while tailoring to the design criteria of the brand owner.
A manufacturing company wishing to produce UPMADE products will need to go through the UPMADE certification process. This is important to guarantee that the upcycled products are made of production leftovers. It also ensures that the used leftover fabric is free from harmful chemical substances and that the manufacture is socially responsible, complies with safety standards in the workplace and uses no child labour.
Brands can clearly communicate their resource-saving achievements to consumers using a tag (see photo), which also states how much water, energy and CO2 the item has helped to save.
Being part of the UPMADE business model and carrying its certificate means that manufacturers can form a long-term partnership with the brand it produces garments for. In addition, in order to produce UPMADE certified 100% upcycled garments for a brand the manufacturer can also sell the brand more working hours. The brand, in turn, can get more out of the fabric if the manufacturer will also produce an upcycled collection from the fabric waste.
In 2014 UPMADE certified its first garment producer In Bangladesh. In its first five years UPMADE has saved 174 826 127 litres of water and 108 576 kg of CO2. This means that 12 980 kg of textiles waste has been saved from landfill and instead been converted into new clothes.
UPMADE in garment manufacturing in India – the case of Mandala Apparels
Mandala Apparels, a garment manufacturer for European brands in Pondicherry, is one of five factories where UPMADE has been implemented. A small, women-driven company, this sustainable and ethical manufacturer has adopted the UPMADE certificate and integrated it into its already fair trade and organic cotton-based production.
Mandala Apparels represents a typical sustainable garment producer, and is ideal for implementing the UPMADE model. The company also illustrates the benefits it can have from UPMADE as well as the challenges this kind of manufacturer faces on the journey to becoming an ethical and circular company.
The integration of the three principles – the circular economy, the use of organic fabrics and fair trade – has allowed Mandala to be unique and to combine circularity and organic and social criteria in its production process, supporting its aim to become a 100% zero waste company. Mandala has also incorporated its whole supply chain in this approach, from the farmers producing organic cotton to the ginners, weavers and dyers of organic fabrics. Fabric residues, cut pieces and roll ends are all channelled back to production at the Mandala factory through the UPMADE design process. Even textile waste that is too small or damaged to be upcycled will find a second life, as it is sent to be recycled to create new yarn or clothes tags for the sustainable garments created by Mandala and other manufacturers.
Mandala Apparels’ experience has shown that acquiring the UPMADE certification and being part of its business model has a range of benefits. The manufacturer can play a pivotal role in the garment production value chain, and is able to advise the brand it produces garments for on sustainability issues and untapped potential down the production chain, from organic cotton growers to fabric producers and dyers.
In this approach the producer is seen as an equal partner, an important link in enabling truly sustainable garment production. Collaboration between the manufacturer, the brand and other players in the production chain is the basis of the UPMADE model.
A key challenge in sustainable textile production is that, while brands demand that manufacturers and their supply chains are sustainable, at the same time they are often not willing to create long-term relationships with manufacturers and to support them financially in their efforts to become more sustainable. This needs to change. And consumers can do their part by choosing to buy products made by sustainable suppliers.
UPMADE – a win-win solution
By integrating UPMADE with other sustainability approaches, such as the use of organic cotton and fair trade, it is possible to create a transparent and sustainable textile and garment production chain. Furthermore, UPMADE allows brands to communicate better with their consumers and highlight the problems of the textile industry. Raising consumer awareness can also help to change consumption patterns. This in turn can enable brands to pay a fair price to actors in the production chain, from organic cotton growers to textile producers and dyers as well as garment manufacturers, enabling ethical, sustainable and circular production.
- Circular Economy in Practice – Reducing Textile Waste
- Runnel, A., Raihan, K., Castle, N., Oja, D., Bhuiya, H. (2017). White paper. Reverse Resources.