The Principle of a circular textile and sustainable economy

The Principle of a circular textile and sustainable economy



At the TextileExchange Textile Sustainability conference (November 11 -13, 2013) in Istanbul, Dr. David Meyers, Serial Entrepreneur, Green Ant Advisors, explained the principle and the need of a circular textile and sustainable economy. Since these aspects affect also textile and clothing manufacturing, this serves as another part in TextileFuture series on the changing landscape of manufacturing


Apart from his address at the venue, we take also a look of what is already underway in the respect of a circular economy, e.g. at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – Rethink the future.

According to the definition of the just mentioned Foundation, and these were also the words used by Dr. Meyers, “The linear “take, make, dispose” model, relying on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy is increasingly unfit for the reality in which it operates. Working towards efficiency – a reduction of resources and fossil energy consumed per unit of manufacturing output – will not alter the finite nature of their stocks, but can only delay”.

The Principle

The circular economy according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation refers to an industrial economy being restorative by intention. The aims rely on renewable energy, minimises, tracks, and hopefully eliminates the use of toxic chemicals; and eradicates waste through careful design. The term goes beyond the mechanics of production and consumption of (textile) goods and services. In the areas. it seeks to redefine (examples include rebuilding capital, including social and natural), manufacturing and products, as well as the shift from consumer to user. The concept of the circular economy is grounded in the study of non-linear, particularly living systems.

A major outcome of taking insights from living systems is the notion of optimising systems, rather than components, which can also be referred to as “design to fit” by analogy: the tree is nothing without the forest. It involves a careful management of materials flows, which in the circular economy are of two types, as described by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart (Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the way we make things: biological nutrients, designed to re-enter the biosphere safely and build natural capital and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at thigh quality without entering the biosphere.

As a result, the circular economy draws a sharp distinction between consumption and use of materials. Circular economy advocates the need for a “functional service” model, in which manufacturers or retailers increasingly retain the ownership of their products and, where possible, act as service providers, selling the use of products, not their one way consumption, as well as the proliferation of product and business model design practices in order to generate more durable products, facilitate disassembly and refurbishment and, where appropriate, consider product/service shifts.

The circular economy pioneer Walter Stahel (Architect and Economist) explains: “The linear model turned services into products that can be sold, but this throughput approach is a wasteful one. In the past, reuse and service-life extension were often strategies in situations of scarcity or poverty and led to products of inferior quality. Today, they are signs of good resource husbandry and smart management”.

The circular economy is based upon a few simple principles: design out waste, build resilience through diversity, work towards using energy from renewable sources, think in “systems”, and think in cascades (biological materials, also called bio-mimicry, meaning nature as a model, as a measure and as a mentor).

The actual situation

According Dr. Meyers, today we are using about 2.5 planets. and if we would continue like this, we will use five planets by 2050, at that point we would need about 3000 times what we need in 2050.

We still operate landfills to dispose waste. What we actually need is a closed loop eco-system, primary production and consumers, predators, decomposers and system outputs.

What we have today is a the linear economy, pictured in Table 1


The numbers: The average OECD citizen purchases annually 800 kg of food, thereof 25 % is wasted, further he consumes beverages that need 120 kg of packaging and 20 kg of new clothing and shoes.

25 % of land is agricultural systems, 80 % of global fisheries are maxed out or overfished, and 40 % of soil used for agricultural land globally is either degraded or seriously degraded.

The effects of that framework can be had from Table 2


The Circular Economy will master the future

The elements of the Circular Economy are according to Dr. Meyers, recycling, up-cycling and a closed loop.

He gives the example of nudie jeans and carpets made with scraps of old jeans, as to be seen in Table 3


Up-cycling means adding value , e.g. multiple “nutrient” sources, extreme creativity, unique pieces. And Dr. Meyers remarks: “Art has a long history of up-cycling”.

Table 4 presents an industrial system that is restorative by design


Dr. Meyers supposes that agriculture could be a closed loop (including natural fibres such as cotton), it could be cured like a forest, maintain the soil, water retention and by stopping expansion, but increase restoration and resilience. Make use of organic-biological nutrients that return to the sole in a manner that we are only borrowing them and live from solar energy.

As we stated before, all production should include the ingredients to maintain (repair), reuse and redistribute, refurbish and remanufacture and recycle.

This will change also companies in an evolution by improving existing processes, by reducing, reusing, recycling, by redesigned processes and products (cradle to cradle), and redesigned business models.

The redesign process will eliminate the concept of waste and entail eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness and textile products such as clothing will be worn again.

How product redesign through up-cycling and designed for disassembly and the creation of new materials can be effected, is shown in Table 5



The redesign of Business models should also entail the repairing of communal consumerism (shared economy) and service as a product. As an example, Dr. Meyers cited Japanese Teijin’s Eco Circle® closed loop recycling system for recycled polyester fabrics. Also the aspect if there are ways to make money while selling less goods should form part of the new business model.

What service as a product (Performance Economy) means when looking at the Life (Dis)Satisfaction Index per Capita GDP Gross National Product around the globe is given in Table 6


The circular economy consists also of industrial ecology (study of material and energy flows through industrial systems). There, the focus is on connections between operators within the “industrial eco-system, with the aim of creating closed-loop processes in which waste serves as an input, thus eliminating the notion of an undesirable by-product. Industrial ecology adopts a systemic point of view, designing  a production process in accordance with local ecological constraints, while looking at their global impact from the outset, and attempting to shape them in a manner that they perform as close to living systems as possible. One might call it also a s the “science of sustainability”, given its interdisciplinary nature, and its principles can also be applied in the services sector. With an emphasis on natural capital restoration, industrial ecology also focuses on social wellbeing (Prof. Clift and Prof. Allwood in Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

Another term has to be explained: Blue Economy, initiated by former Ecover CEO and Belgian businessman Gunter Pauli. The Blue Economy is, according to the Foundation, an open source movement bringing together concrete case studies, initially compiled in an eponymous resort handed over to the Club of Rome. As the official manifesto states, “using the resources available in cascading systems, the waste of one product becomes the input to create a new cash flow. Based on 21 founding principles, the Blue Economy insists on solutions being determined by their local environment and physical / ecological characteristics, putting the emphasis on gravity as the primary source of energy. The report, which doubles up as the movement’s manifesto describes “100 innovations that can create 100 million jobs within the next 10 years”, and provides many examples of winning South-South collaborative projects. Another original feature of this approach is the intent on promoting its hands-on focus. We take from that that German VDMA’s BlueCompetence for textile machinery has been based upon such principles.

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