Time to tackle textile waste

Fast fashion may be the initial target of a voluntary agreement to reduce textiles waste, but hospitality businesses are on the radar of both Wrap and regulators. By Nick Hughes.

First it was food waste, then plastics; now the spotlight has turned to textiles and their environmental impact.

Last week, Wrap launched Textiles 2030, a decade long voluntary agreement with the aim of halving the carbon impact of the UK textiles sector and slashing its water footprint by 30%.

Major high-street retailers like ASOS, John Lewis, Tesco and Primark are on board along with a number of recycling and reuse organisations.

Although conspicuous by their absence at the time of launch, Wrap says hospitality businesses also have an important role to play in achieving the programme’s aims, not least in piloting future circular models for workwear and other textiles like linen.

Textiles 2030 is billed as the first national agreement in what will become a global network of initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of clothing around the world.

The government’s recent waste prevention programme for England (WPP) highlights data that shows the global fashion industry produced around 2.1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2018, equalling 4% of the global total. In the UK specifically, clothing use accounts for 26.2Mt CO2e of our carbon footprint and has a water footprint of 8 billion m3 on a consumption basis, with the greatest impact coming from fibre production. Globally, 17% to 20% of industrial water pollution arises from textile treatment and dyeing.

There are also issues associated with microfibres. As much as 0.19 million tonnes of microfibres from the production and normal use of synthetic textiles, particularly domestic laundry of clothing, has been estimated to enter the marine environment alone annually, and as consumption continues to grow that figure seems set to rise further.

Adopting the same ‘target-measure-act’ approach used by Wrap for its work on food waste, the ambition is to put the UK textiles sector on a path consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change and achieving net zero by 2050 at the latest.

To date, engagement with the hospitality sector has been limited, according to Wrap’s head of programme David Moon. Workwear supplier Arco is a signatory while the Professional Clothing Industry Association Worldwide (PCAIW) is an affiliate member. However, Wrap has yet to engage with client or consumer-facing businesses like hotels, restaurants or contract caterers, although Moon says they are “on our radar”.

Wide scope

The reason hospitality sector involvement will be critical to the success of Textiles 2030 is on account of the programme’s scope. While a forerunner to Textiles 2030, the sustainable clothing action plan (SCAP), focused narrowly on clothing. Wrap’s latest programme widens the scope to include non-clothing textiles such as curtains, towels and bed and table linen, all of which are used in large quantities by the hospitality sector.

Add in corporate wear – chef whites, for example, or the uniforms worn by front-of-house staff – and the sector’s footprint suddenly starts to look quite big. Data on textile use in hospitality is notoriously hard to come by, a point Moon acknowledges, but a 2017 report commissioned by the Textile Services Association found on a weekly basis over 53 million items are processed by textile services companies in the UK, of which the hospitality industry accounts for 22% of the value.

Wrap has developed a roadmap for delivering the agreement with signatories expected to contribute to the targets in three main ways. The first is by designing for circularity, including durability of items, recyclability, use of recycled content and minimising waste. The second is by implementing circular business models, including reuse pilots. Finally, companies will be asked to close the loop on materials by setting up partnerships to supply and use recycled fibres for new products, and accelerating the commercialisation of fibre-to-fibre recycling in the UK.

Key role for hospitality

Moon suggests hospitality businesses could have a key role to play in piloting new ideas because of the nature of their business models. High street fashion chains sell to millions of individual customers. But businesses like hotels have considerable volumes of textiles circulating within their operational sphere of influence, which gives them a higher degree of control over the end use.

“I think there are opportunities within the sector [for businesses] to be frontrunners particularly when it comes to closed loop recycling of textiles,” says Moon. Corporate wear is of particular interest since businesses could use their power over product specifications to make materials easier to recycle by specifying one particular fibre type rather than a blend of cotton and polyester for example.

Moon also suggests there is potential for textiles used in hospitality “to provide a feedstock for some of the innovative technologies being developed for chemical recycling”.

Suppliers to the sector could also contribute by reducing their own direct carbon and water footprint. While around 75% of the carbon impact of household clothing is embedded in the supply chain, Moon believes post-manufacturing emissions are likely to account for a far greater share of the total in textiles that are laundered and reused over and over again. “If we look at something like linens in hospitality because they are reused so often that will reduce the supply chain footprint per use but boost the energy impact.”

Linen suppliers say items can be laundered and reused up to 200 times depending upon the linen and towelling specification. At the end of their useful life, bed sheets and table cloths are often turned into wipers for commercial use in the motoring or aviation sectors, hinting at the potential that already exists to extend the lifecycle of materials.

Public procurement

Moon also believes governments have a role to play in improving the sustainability of the textiles industry by wielding their power of public procurement in settings such as government buildings, schools and hospitals. “If governments said ‘in view of our concerns over the climate and waste we actively want to use the power of public procurement to use closed loop recycling’, they’ve got the power over specifications to help develop the market,” he says.

The UK government has already shown that textile waste is on its radar. Although it doesn’t specifically reference business use, textiles was one of seven sectors targeted in the WPP as “as the most significant in terms of tonnages of waste arisings, carbon emissions from production, public interest and other indicators”. Defra set out plans to consult by the end of 2022 on options for textiles, such as an extended producer responsibility scheme that would ensure the industry contributes to the costs of recycling. It said such a scheme “could boost reuse, better collections and recycling, drive the use of sustainable fibres, and support sustainable business models such as rental schemes”.

Using powers sought in the (delayed) environment bill the government will also be able to set minimum standards for clothing on durability and recycled content, as well as explore ways to improve labelling and consumer information on clothing. According to estimates in the WPP, there is potential to save over 6MtCO2e between 2023 and 2032 through such “selected waste prevention measures”.

It’s a further sign that clothing is finally getting the political attention that plastics and food waste have received for some years. Moon suggests textiles have tended to be overlooked by comparison because the problems are less visible. “If you think about textiles you’ve got a third of clothing sitting unused in wardrobes and people don’t worry about it. The problem in a sense is masked.”

At the very least, Wrap’s new agreement will finally bring the issue of textiles’ environmental impact out into the open.

1 Response

  1. Its about time this came to the forefront and lets home some good remedies emerge.
    There are things like J Cloth which go into the garbage that cannot be recycled or degraded and since they are of a particular fibre they are not environmentally friendly at all.
    Lots fo different materials are publicised for spills, wipes etc etc that go into general waste, so can imagine that the problem is bigger than shown.
    Would look forward to seeing how this develops

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