Closing The Loop On a Circular Economy

Greenpeace says it won’t happen until we shift our culture of consumption. Yes, and OIA’s Sustainability Working Group is working collaboratively to that end. Find out what we’re doing to prevent or delay apparel going to landfills.

By Nikki Hodgson October 11, 2017

In its recent report, “Fashion at the Crossroads,” Greenpeace laid out some of the environmental challenges associated with fast fashion and a few criticisms of an apparel industry that they feel caters to a culture of consumption. In the report, Greenpeace takes aim at the apparel industry’s latest efforts to transition to a circular economy, stating “closing the loop will only become truly achievable once the unsustainable quantities of clothes that are consumed and thrown away have been reduced through changes in production and consumption—enabled through adjustments to the quality and design of clothes, including their repair and end-of-life.”

We agree. The outdoor apparel industry has long advocated that durability and repairability are two crucial components of sustainability and a circular economy. Standing in contrast to a more traditional, linear economy, circularity is a system in which apparel manufacturers keep textiles an components in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value while a finished product is in use, then recovering components at the end of a product’s life for use in a subsequent product. In practical terms, it means keeping products and materials out of landfills; it means robust product care and repair systems and guidance; it means durability and innovative materials, better collection systems, and a design that encourages repair, recycling and reuse.

In practical terms, it means keeping products and materials out of landfills; it means robust product care and repair systems and guidance; it means durability and innovative materials, better collection systems, and a design that encourages repair, recycling and reuse.

This is no simple task, which is why the OIA Sustainability Working Group formed a Circular Economy Task Force to collaboratively address what has become a nebulous and overwhelming issue to solve. Through in-person working groups and monthly calls, outdoor industry companies have been working to better understand how our industry can transition to a closed-loop system and what that might look like. As referenced in the Greenpeace report, it will require non-traditional business models, better collection systems, materials innovation, and addressing durability and repairability at the design stage.

Through in-person working groups and monthly calls, outdoor industry companies have been working to better understand how our industry can transition to a closed-loop system and what that might look like.

Durability is an incredibly important factor in determining the environmental impact of a product. For example, the Higg Index—the industry sustainability tool designed to help brands and facilities assess and communicate the environmental and social impact of their supply chains—has a section dedicated to a brand’s policies around care and repair of its products.

Brands receive more points within the Higg Index if they have product repair programs in place, such as Patagonia’s Worn Wear Program or iFixit Guides. But brands also receive points if they have design standards in place to provide guidance or incentives for design considerations to maximize product features that are repairable and upgradable. The Higg Index also includes a suite of tools that help designers make more informed sustainability and materials decisions, including the Design and Development Module (DDM) and the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI).

The Higg Index also looks at End of Use, awarding points to companies that have policies in place to divert as much post-consumer waste from the landfill as possible, either through re-use, repurpose, or recycling.

Using the Higg Index, OIA has been tracking industry scores for two years. Outdoor industry companies typically score higher in the durability, care and repair sections than other industries, but there is still work to be done in both the Care and Repair and End of Use sections, and it is work that will require the involvement of stakeholders inside and outside of the outdoor industry. It requires behavioral and systems change, consumer awareness, political support, innovative thinking, NGO involvement, and collaboration across industries, between brands, retailers, suppliers, and collectors. It will require a long-term plan and investment. But we believe it can be done.

It requires behavioral and systems change, consumer awareness, political support, innovative thinking, NGO involvement, and collaboration across industries, between brands, retailers, suppliers, and collectors. It will require a long-term plan and investment. But we believe it can be done.

The Greenpeace report raises some important points and recommendations, but we know that we are up for the challenge. Ten years ago there was no industry-wide tool to assess and improve global supply chains. Ten years ago companies like Walmart, H&M, Patagonia, and The North Face were not using the same tool and sitting on calls to work through these issues.  More than a decade of collaboration has helped develop a deploy the Higg Index to lay the groundwork needed to make the right decisions at any sustainability crossroads.