Blog|April 1, 2022

Circular textile systems are more than just recycling

The separate collection of discarded textiles will be mandatory in EU member states by 2025 and in Finland by 2023. Accordingly, the most R&D efforts have been directed to recycling. Still, circular economy is much more than just recycling. Extending product lifetimes is the best option to minimize environmental impacts. Both aspects are important – the recently launched EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles  sets design requirements for textiles to make them last longer, easier to repair and recycle, as well as requirements on a minimum recycled content to be included.

Textile circulation will improve in the future

When a textile product is discarded, it can be directed to reuse purposes via collecting and sorting or back to textile production via recycling. Recently, however, most of the discarded textiles in Finland (61% in 2019)  have been utilized for energy production. This means that a large number of textiles has ended up in mixed waste, even when they could have been collected for reuse or recycling. Collecting of reusable textile products has been carried out in Finland for a long time by reuse centres and charities. Once the separate collection of discarded textiles begins, also broken and other non-reusable textiles are collected for utilization. This collection and processing of textiles into new raw materials will be carried out via various actors and channels. A great amount of long-term development work has been done in collaboration to make this possible, for example in the Telaketju-network, and in November 2021 the first North European circular economy facility to refine end-of-life textiles into recycled fibre was opened in Paimio.

Click here to see a larger image of the circular textile system picture above. 

Extending product lifecycles opens new business opportunities

In addition to recycling activities, it is important to extend the lifetime of textile products and make their use more efficient. This is where services play a key role, including various types of rental services, as well as maintenance services, such as repair and washing. The disruption that has already occurred in the way we consume entertainment, such as music, television and literature is also slowly happening in the textile industry. In the future, textile users will have more opportunities to decide whether to select clothes from a monthly based on-demand rental service or to buy a piece of clothing to own.

New types of product-as-a-service (PaaS) businesses, such as clothing libraries, are emerging to supplement the offerings of retail and more traditional evening wear rental companies. Transferring the ownership from consumers to companies supports circularity, as the efficiency of using a product increases. As companies can extend the revenue from a single product over time, it makes more sense to design high-quality and timeless products, which can be easily maintained. For the user, the PaaS-models provide access to high-end products with a moderate cost and a more sustainable way of enjoying fashion without always having to buy something new.

In the novel PaaS models, it is important to consider how the model is organized: who is responsible for each function, and how are the logistics and maintenance of a product organized. The evaluation of the environmental impact, especially the carbon footprint, becomes more complicated when the use and maintenance cycles are repeated. Transportation plays a significant role: the distance between the provider and the user, the transportation methods (walking/cycling, car, public transport) and delivery methods (post and other logistics service providers) all affect the environmental footprint.

Data is needed to ensure sustainability in circular activities

To design more sustainable textile products, to evaluate the environmental impact of the different alternatives, and to organize the activities and services in a sustainable way, we need data. In the Circular Design Network (CircDNet) project, funded by the Academy of Finland, we aim to build a basis for better utilization of data in the circular economy. In the future textile business, knowledge-based product design and service design are in a key position. Companies operating in the textile sector have a significant role in realizing circular economy and increasing the sustainability of textiles, by offering us better products and services from an environmental point of view.

However, we as consumers also play an important part. The new sustainable consumption habits require changes in our way of thinking. Regardless of whether we purchase a product or utilize PaaS models, we should treat our textile products and materials more respectfully and maintain them better – shift our minds from consuming into the role of a user, a maintainer and a recycler.

This blog has been written in collaboration with Circular Design Network -project and the Telaketju -network. A version of this blog in Finnish can be found behind this link .


Pirjo Heikkilä, Senior Scientist, Project Manager, VTT
HTuovila copy

Hannamaija Tuovila, Research Scientist, VTT