How Utrecht University is working on a fair and sustainable circular fashion industry
Clothes are an essential part of our daily lives. But the rise of fast fashion has led to record sales while drastically decreasing clothing quality and use time. From the production of raw materials like cotton to how we dispose of the items we don’t use anymore, the apparel value chain—which spans across the globe—is highly unsustainable. Greenhouse gas emissions, water use, toxic chemicals and microplastics pose immense challenges to the health of humans and natural ecosystems. That’s not to mention the unacceptable working conditions for millions of workers in the Global South. So what’s the solution?
Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development is trying to understand how we can reach a fair, sustainable circular global fashion industry. But what is a circular fashion industry exactly? Why is it a solution? Who needs to be involved and what needs to change? We spoke to their experts to find out.
A radical rethinking of our current system
A sustainable textile industry would mean safe, high-quality, and affordable clothing, jobs with fair wages and safe working conditions, all while minimising adverse environmental effects and respecting the planetary boundaries. Making the industry “circular” is one way to get there. In this way clothes are designed, sourced, produced, and then circulated in society responsibly and effectively for as long as possible in their most valuable form. When no longer of use they are then returned safely to the biosphere.
This shift would be a radical rethinking of our current system, but what does it mean in practice? Increasing the lifetime of clothes through reuse and repair cuts back the need for raw materials and production of new products. Recycling is also important. A dress made from mechanically recycled fibres that can be worn for fifteen years and then sold on several times before being chemically recycled has a much lower impact on the environment than its fast fashion equivalent.
Our research shows that there is still a long way to go before circular clothes fill our wardrobes
Still a long way to go
In 2019 the EU announced textiles as the next ‘high impact sector’ for the European Green Deal and Circular Economy Action Plan, with the 'EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles' following in 2022. Companies are also acting, with visible public commitments to a more circular fashion industry. “Although it may sound achievable, our research shows that there is still a long way to go before circular clothes fill our wardrobes,” explains Simona Negro, associate professor in innovation studies.
In order to understand and accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable and circular textile industry, in her research Negro is trying to identify the actors that need to be involved, the activities they perform, the rules and regulations they must comply with or try to change. “This is known as an innovation systems approach,” she explains.
It is important for both private and public actors to have a strong monitoring framework
A strong monitoring framework essential
A circular economy crosses traditional boundaries between sectors, regions and organisations, making it difficult to keep track of the real impact of circular strategies as well as attempts at greenwashing. “It is important for both private and public actors to have a strong monitoring framework,” says Veerle Vermeyen, a PhD researcher based at Utrecht University and KU Leuven in Belgium. This is where Vermeyen’s work comes in. In order to support private and public actors increase circular use of clothing fibre, she is gathering data on the current circularity of clothing consumption in Flanders and the Netherlands.
Moving from linear to more circular business models is also not easy. What’s key, says researcher Denise Reike, is that a larger proportion of collected textiles are recycled into new fabrics. These can then be bought by large brands to produce new ‘circular’ clothing. “This is not happening at a significant scale yet,” she explains.
Responsibility for action lies with consumers, companies, and governments together. They cannot do it without each other
Reike’s research shows that this requires both the build up of a new industry that produces these recycled fibers and fabrics, as well as demand from the apparel 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”.
And what about consumers? This is the focus of PhD researcher Annuska Toebast. She aims to aid the fashion industry in moving consumers towards a sustainable wardrobe. “If we want to motivate consumers to choose sustainable fashion alternatives, we first need to understand why consumers choose sustainable fashion”. Her research shows that both cognitive and emotional factors drive sustainable fashion purchases. “Consumers need to know what the sustainable alternatives are, but also want to have a pleasurable shopping experience,” she explains.
Consumers need to know what the sustainable alternatives are, but also want to have a pleasurable shopping experience
A global value chain
You just need to glance at the tags in your clothes to understand that the fashion industry extends well beyond Europe’s borders. Largely located in the Global South, it is both labour-intensive and female-dominated, with a high proportion of minority, refugee, low-skilled and low-income workers. The Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh demonstrates just how terrible the working conditions are for a large proportion of the industry’s workers.
Lis Suarez Visbal’s PhD research is trying to understand how we can prevent a circular economy from recreating the low working conditions found in the fashion industry’s current linear business model. “Can a circular fashion industry create decent jobs that contribute to well-being, gender equality and inclusion across the value chain ?” she asks. “And what about the impact of toxic chemicals use for production, disposal and recovery of textile waste on the health of circular textile workers and surrounding communities?” Her research shows that at the moment circular strategies in the sector have low ambition and little positive impact on workers, wellbeing and gender equality and inclusion, “This needs to change”.
Can a circular fashion industry create decent jobs that contribute to well-being, gender equality and inclusion across the value chain? And what about the impact of toxic chemicals used for the production, disposal and recovery of textile waste on the health of circular textile workers and surrounding communities?
“There is also a big role for governments in the Global North,” adds Reike. Part of the solution, she says, may lie in making producers of non-circular clothes pay a penalty – something known as ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’, or EPR. “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”. However, EPR policies are predominantly limited to the European Union, meaning used textiles often end up as landfill in developing countries, wreaking havoc for human health and the environment. Copernicus Environmental Governance researchers Kaustubh Thapa and Walter Vermeulen argue that responsibility for waste must extend worldwide through what they have coined “Ultimate Producer Responsibility”.
Towards a fair and sustainable circular fashion industry
Copernicus Institute research has shown that the transformation to a circular global fashion industry is a highly complex change process that involves a rich diversity of technological and social solutions, a multitude of actors with diverging interests, and a range of new rules and regulations to stimulate actors to move into the right direction.
Collectively we want to continue creating holistic insight into the most important mechanisms that influence the transformation to circular fashion and understand which levers can be pulled to accelerate this process
“Collectively we want to continue creating holistic insight into the most important mechanisms that influence the transformation to circular fashion and understand which levers can be pulled to accelerate this process,” reflects Marko Hekkert, professor of dynamics of innovation systems. He highlights a culture of collaboration with policymakers, entrepreneurs, large brands and consumers that ensures the insights generated by the institute make a difference.
Academic scrutiny of environmental and social consequences of circular strategies is also an important direction, adds Suarez Visbal. “For this we will focus on collaborations with a diversity of stakeholders from different parts of the world and across the value chain,” she explains. “It’s only in this way that we’ll be able to reach a circular fashion industry that is both fair and sustainable”.
Hekkert, M. P., Reike, D., Rainville, A. M., & Negro, S. O. (2021). Transition to Circular Textiles in the Netherlands: An innovation systems analysis.
Reich, R. H., Vermeyen, V., Alaerts, L., & Van Acker, K. (2023). How to measure a circular economy: A holistic method compiling policy monitors. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 188, 106707.
Reike, D., Hekkert, M. P., & Negro, S. O. (2022). Understanding circular economy transitions: The case of circular textiles. Business Strategy and the Environment.
Suarez-Visbal, L. J., Carreón, J. R., Corona, B., & Worrell, E. (2022). The Social Impacts of Circular Strategies in the Apparel Value Chain; a Comparative Study Between Three Countries. Circular economy and sustainability, 1-34.