A 100% circular fashion industry by 2050? Second-hand alone will not get us there

You have bought a complete outfit on Vinted, thrown your old winter coat in a clothing recycling bin, and feel super sustainable and environmentally conscious. This is a big step towards the Netherlands' ambitious goal: a 100% circular textile industry by 2050, right? No, says recent research from Utrecht University. They show that walking around in second-hand clothes is only one part of the solution and investigate what is really standing in the way of a fashion industry that’s better for both people and the planet.

With roughly 2200 businesses in 2020, the second-hand fashion industry—which includes traditional “kringloop” thrift stores as well as new online marketplaces for renting and resale of second-hand clothes—is already taking off in the Netherlands. There is also an abundance of innovative new businesses. Burgeoning in-store and online fashion libraries, where conscious fashionistas can rent a new wardrobe every week, are just one example.

“But second-hand reuse alone is not going to be sufficient to reach government targets,” explains Denise Reike, an innovation scientist at Utrecht University and lead author of the study in Business Strategy and the Environment. “We also need technology-based solutions from businesses: in our research we see the most potential in mechanical and chemical recycling”.

A catch 22 situation

A few larger retailers like Adidas, H&M and C&A have begun to bring out items or smaller collections containing mechanically recycled materials. “But despite official claims these are not fully circular, and are struggling to make it mainstream,” explains Reike. The problem is that these large retailers do not possess the know-how to fabricate circular clothes themselves, and this is instead outsourced to a few small, specialised firms. “In order to scale-up production and develop technologies that can deal with the low-quality items thrown into recycle bins—many of which are still sent abroad to rot in landfills— the smaller firms that are currently leading in circular fashion need clear signals for demand and financial support from larger retailers. But the larger retailers think it’s too risky to invest in the absence of well-developed technologies and materials that could cover the large production volumes they need”. It’s a catch 22 situation.

Challenging for consumers

It is also messy business for consumers. “It is currently difficult to understand if an item made from ‘75% recycled cotton’ or ‘50% recycled polyester’ is more environmentally friendly”, explains Reike. “We have no standardised, accurate labelling system”. There are also other impacts caused directly by consumers that are difficult to understand and trace. Do you arrive the local clothing library by SUV or public transport, how often do you wear an item, and how well do you take care of it? And what about the environmental impacts of shipping and returns? “Consumers are almost completely in the dark about the real impact of their choices, so alone they don’t have the knowledge in their hands to create real demand for circular fashion”.

“Our research shows that there is still a long way to go before circular clothes becomes the standard on Dutch retail shelves,” says Reike. “And this relates to more than just a lack of consumer understanding or brand willingness to provide sustainable solutions”.

A role for the Dutch government

This is where the researchers see a large role for the Dutch government. They propose that part of the solution may lie in making producers of non-circular clothes to pay a penalty – something known as ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’. In this way, money can directly flow towards the innovative circular entrepreneurs that are struggling to grow, while incentivising big brands to divest from non-circular textiles. “Textile supply chains are global, so this responsibility must of course extend worldwide, and happen sooner rather than later,” says Reike.

However, the research also shows that is no single factor preventing a circular textile industry. “Responsibility for action lies with consumers, companies, and governments together. They cannot do it without each other”. A combination of solutions is also needed. “Focusing entirely on second-hand fashion or the more technical solutions like mechanical or chemical recycling will not do the trick. We need to promote a range of different approaches to reach the goal of a sustainable and circular textile industry by 2050,” concludes Reike.

Reike, D., Hekkert, M. P., & Negro, S. O. (2022). Understanding circular economy transitions: The case of circular textilesBusiness Strategy and the Environment.