How Closed Loop Systems Actually Work

by: Rosie Dalton | 4 years ago | Features

Image: closed loop production systems reduce waste, and are therefore inherently kinder to the environment than conventional production models, so here's an image of people being at one with nature. Image source.

There has been a lot of talk lately about closed loop systems as the new frontier of responsible fashion. In fact, a lot of major fast fashion brands have made their own efforts to step into this space, with Zara recently announcing an upcoming partnership with Lenzing (the company behind Tencel fabric) and a recycling initiative rollout to match H&M's. But what does a closed loop system actually look like and how far away are we from achieving this as a viable way forward? Well, according to Sustainable Planet, Ecologists describe a closed-loop system as one that does not exchange matter with the outside world." What this means, really, is that "the only truly closed-loop system may be the Earth itself". But with that said, loops can be closed, for example, through recovery, re-use or recycling. It's just important to understand the nuances of what's involved here.

One of the first things to know about closed loop systems is that they are very difficult to achieve — especially right across a brand's entire supply chain. Of course, we do have to start somewhere and closed loop textiles, for instance, can be an excellent place to start. As The Guardian points out, though, there is so much more to closed loop textile recycling than just technological innovation. The publication describes a hypothetical closed loop world as "a world in which all new clothes were made from existing clothing and textiles. Garments unsuitable for reuse would get broken down through an environmentally friendly process. Resources including polyester and cotton would be recaptured and turned back into yarn, fabric and then garments with no loss of quality. What this would mean, in the case of polyester, is that one day we will no longer need oil to produce it."

OK, so essentially there is a lot involved. And, importantly, it's not just the fancy technology that we need to make this work, either, but also consumer awareness and willingness to commit to a more sustainable future for fashion. Having a truly closed loop means customers would also need to recycle their garment back to the designer at the end of its lifecycle, providing raw materials for the brand to then break down for reuse. In theory, this is something that both H&M and Zara are proposing to do with their respective recycling programs. But it's important to acknowledge the specific difficulties of recycling and reusing different kinds of fabrics. Something that's 100% cotton, for example, is relatively straightforward, but things become far more complex when we're talking about synthetic fibres — and, after all, this is the make up of much fast fashion clothing.

As a way to address this, Ecouterre reports that Inditex will work together with Cáritas and plans to dedicate €3.5 million over two years to upgrade the charity’s garment-sorting and -treatment facilities. “In parallel, Inditex will also place new containers throughout its stores, adding to the existing network, in order that all its brick-and-mortar stores in Spain will have a container by September.” However, at this stage, the recycling collection containers are only planned for the retailer’s Spanish stores.

Plus, all this does little to change the fact that fast fashion brands already support such inherently unsustainable models. In fact, without them always pushing us to buy so much new clothing, we wouldn’t have nearly so much textile waste in the first place. So an even better solution would be to focus on buying less cheap clothing and, instead, support responsible independent brands wherever possible. Of course, it is also worth asking those brands if they offer any sort of recycling initiatives of their own, because developing personal relationships with smaller labels will be far more sustainable in the long term. And this is where the opportunity for genuinely closed loop supply chains could actually arise — not with the fast fashion brands, who often tend to enter into their 'ethical' commitments on more of an initiative basis than an overall business model.

So what about closed loop fabrics, then? The way the industry currently stands, these represent one of the best options for brands and consumers looking to reduce their environmental footprint. Austrian company Lenzing, for example, has revolutionised the industry with its environmentally conscious production of Tencel — a natural, man made fibre also known as Lyocell. "Made with wood pulp from sustainable [Eucalyptus] tree farms, tencel textiles are created through the use of nanotechnology in an award-winning closed-loop process that recovers or decomposes all solvents and emissions," The Eco Market explains. It is certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council, 100% biodegradable, and 100% organic, since the basis is a natural raw material. Tencel is described as a closed loop process because, within its production, more than 99% of the solvent is recovered, purified and reused — yielding very little by product and leading to less land and water usage. So, essentially, Tencel is a fantastic fabric, which is why so many responsible labels like Filippa KKuwaii and Ovna Ovich gravitate towards it. It is important to remember, though, that closed loop fibres like this can only truly be closed loop if we, the consumer, also contribute to making this overall process work — to ensuring that, once our clothing has worn-through, it will be responsibly recycled rather than simply sent to landfill.

For this to be really possible, we would need to see more recycling initiatives come into place. And, while it is an undeniably positive step in the right direction for major brands like Zara and H&M to get behind closed loop production, it is also important to consider exactly what percentage of their clothing will be made from Tencel, and exactly how they plan on managing their recycling programs moving forward. Not only that, but we would also need to see their entire business models shift in order for their new, so-called ‘responsible’ frameworks to really make a difference overall. For the meantime, though, I feel far safer supporting independent, responsible labels that use closed loop fabrics like Tencel. But I also understand that, unless I commit to trying to recycle the clothing that I no longer want, then the closed loop ends with me.

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