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EU-funded New Cotton Project ends with eight key insights

By Simone Preuss


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Credits: New Cotton Project

The EU-funded New Cotton Project was launched in late 2020 and brought together twelve players from across the value chain: Adidas and H&M on the brand side, Finnish bio tech company Infinited Fiber, Aalto University and University of Applied Sciences Xamk, sustainability organisation Fashion for good, textile mills Frankenhuis (Netherlands) and Inovafil (Portugal), manufacturers Tekstina (Portugal) and Kipas Textiles (Turkey), recycling consultant REvolve Waste and Swedish research institute Rise.

Together, they set out to demonstrate a circular model for commercial garment production. After three and a half years, at the end of the project, they have shared their findings, which they condensed in eight key insights that are vital for the industry to address in order to support the scaling of circular materials moving forward and to successfully scale fibre-to-fibre recycling. 

They also highlight the need for the industry to transition to circular value chains, the urgent need to develop and scale sorting and recycling infrastructure and the need to address significant data challenges to support the shift towards a circular textiles industry. Following are the key insights.

1) Wide-scale adoption of circular value chains

Textile circularity requires new forms of collaboration and open knowledge exchange among different actors in circular ecosystems while textile circularity ecosystems must involve actors beyond traditional supply chains and previously disconnected industries and sectors, such as the textile and fashion, waste collection and sorting and recycling industries, as well as digital technology, research organisations and policymakers that form collaborations and exchange knowledge.

“There is also a need for a more fundamental shift in mindsets and business models concerning a systemic transition toward circularity, such as moving away from the linear fast fashion business models,” concludes the consortium. 

2) Circularity starts with design process

   An end-of-life scenario should be kept in mind right from the beginning when designing new styles as this will dictate what embellishments, prints and accessories can be used. “If designers make it as easy as possible for the recycling process, it has the bigger chance to actually be feedstock again. In addition to this, it is important to develop business models that enable products to be used as long as possible, including repair, rental, resale, and sharing services,“ advises the consortium. 

3) Building and scaling a sorting and recycling infrastructure

    There is a need for technological innovation and infrastructure development in end-of-use textiles collection, sorting and the mechanical pre-processing of feedstock in order to scale up circular garment production. Currently, much of textile sorting is done manually, and the available optical sorting and identification technologies are not able to identify garment layers, complex fibre blends or what causes deviations in feedstock quality for fibre-to-fibre recycling.

“Feedstock preprocessing is a critical step in textile-to-textile recycling, but it is not well understood outside of the actors who actually implement  it. This requires collaboration across the value chain, and it takes in-depth knowledge and skill to do it well. This is an area that needs more attention and stronger economic incentives as textile-to-textile recycling scales up,” states the consortium. 

4) Improving quality and availability of data

   There is still a significant lack of available data to support the shift towards a circular textiles industry, which is slowing down development of system level solutions and economic incentives for textile circulation. With the exception of a few good studies such as Sorting for Circularity Europe and ReFashion’s latest characterisation study, there is almost no reliable information about fibre composition in the post-consumer textile stream either.

“Textile-to-textile recyclers would benefit from better availability of more reliable data. Policy monitoring for extended producer responsibility schemes should focus on standardising reporting requirements across Europe from post-consumer textile collection through their ultimate end point and incentivise digitisation so that reporting can be automated, and high-quality textile data becomes available in near-real time,” suggests the consortium. 

5) Continuous research and development across value chain


The scaling of fibre-to-fibre recycling will require ongoing research and development across the entire value chain, for example around sorting systems. For chemical recycling, a high recovery rate and circulation of chemicals used need to limit the environmental impact of the process. Ongoing innovation is needed for manufacturing processes, requiring technologies and brands to work closely with manufacturers.

“Overall, the New Cotton Project’s findings suggest that fabrics incorporating Infinna fibre offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional cotton and viscose fabrics, while maintaining similar performance and aesthetic qualities. This could have significant implications for the textile industry in terms of sustainability and lower impact production practices,” finds the project.

6) Thinking beyond lower impact fibres

    The project’s third-party-verified LCA revealed that cellulose carbamate fibre, in particular when produced with a renewable electricity source, shows potential to lower environmental impacts compared to conventional cotton and viscose. Yet, the consortium also noted that this comparison was made using average global datasets from Ecoinvent for cotton and viscose fibres and that there are variations in the environmental performance of primary fibres available on the market.

“However, the analysis also highlights the importance of the rest of the supply chain to reduce environmental impact. The findings show that even if we reduce the environmental impacts by using recycled fibres, there is still work to do in other life cycle stages. For example; garment quality and using the garment during their full life span are crucial for mitigating the environmental impacts per garment use,” is the conclusion.

7) Citizen engagement 

According to the project, the EU has identified culture as one of the key barriers to the adoption of the circular economy within Europe. An quantitative consumer survey by Adidas conducted across three key markets revealed that there is still confusion around circularity in textiles. For the consortium, this highlights the importance of effective citizen communication and engagement activities. 

8) Cohesive legislation

   The project highlights that legislation is a powerful tool for driving the adoption of more sustainable and circular practices in the textiles industry: “With several pieces of incoming legislation within the EU alone, the need for a cohesive and harmonised approach is essential to the successful implementation of policy within the textiles industry.” It also advises to link different pieces of legislation such as Extended Producer Responsibility and the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation. 

In closing, the consortiums points to the fact that the high and continuously growing demand for recycled materials implies that all possible end-of-use textiles must be collected and sorted, for which both mechanical and chemical recycling solutions should be implemented as well as closed-loop (fibre-to-fibre) and open-loop recycling (fibre to other sectors).

“There is a critical need to reconsider the export of low-quality reusable textiles outside the EU. It would be more advantageous to reuse them in Europe, or if they are at the end of their lifetime recycle these textiles within the European internal market rather than exporting them to countries where demand is often unverified and waste management inadequate,” is the consensus. 

“Holistic approach and mindset shift”

Overall, the learnings “spotlight the need for a holistic approach and a fundamental mindset shift in ways of working for the textiles industry”. The consortium calls for “deeper collaboration and knowledge exchange” to develop effective circular value chains, scale innovative recycling technologies and increase the availability of recycled fibres on the market.

During the final month of the project, the consortium hosted a policy roundtable with EU policymakers, disseminated key learnings through a public facing seminar and webinar and submitted a white paper on ‘Driving the Transition Toward Circular Textiles’, along with an environmental LCA analysing the entire value chain. This and other white papers can be accessed via the New Cotton Project website.

New Cotton Project