Blog|October 8, 2021

Data is king in the circular economy of textiles

Textiles are an important part of our everyday life; however, their manufacturing and usage are currently not on sustainable ground. The textile industry is responsible for producing more emissions than all the international flights and maritime shipping combined  and is also the second largest global consumer of water.

The environmental burden of textiles can be reduced with sustainable circular economy, primarily by extending the use life of textile products, and by circulating the textile materials at the end of their lifecycle. In a sustainable circular economy, the supply chains are transparent, and materials and products can be traced back to their origins. To enable this, we need information, or in other words, data. Data plays an important role also in service business models focusing on extending the lifespan of textile products.

The systems in circular economy are complex and require collecting, processing, sharing, and utilizing data effectively. Data for circularity is at the centre of our Circular Design Network project, which aims at bringing different actors together and enabling better utilization and new circular opportunities based on data. 

In June 2021, the CircDNet project arranged a textile-focused workshop for interested stakeholders, such as company representatives, experts and researchers. We worked in small groups on different data-related possibilities and challenges in the circular textile economy. We first identified the relevant sets of data that can be utilized for narrowing and closing the loops in manufacturing and recycling of consumer and workwear products. We also discussed who can utilize the data and how, and identified the challenges and development needs.

Data in the value chains of production and recycling

Utilizing product information (e.g. materials, origin and supply chain) has been quite limited in a linear model of the textile industry. When moving towards a circular economy model of textiles, the requirement for accurate product information becomes higher, so that the sustainability of materials and supply chains can be improved. Also, new requirements for data will emerge to ensure the effective, economical and safe product cycles even back into new raw materials.

One conclusion from the group discussions was that in the manufacturing process, information is usually transferred from one phase to another, however, it is typically not accumulated further in the value chain.

From the perspective of production, data is needed to ensure the traceability of products and materials, to enable the transparency of the supply chain, and to optimize the production processes. Recycling brings forth additional needs since the information transferred along the products enables both the sorting of textile waste and choosing the right processing and recycling methods. In addition to the fibre composition, also colours and finishes, potential dirt and contaminants, hard parts such as buttons and zippers, and the structure of the fabric have an effect on how the textile can be processed in recycling.

Whether the product is new, second-hand or made from recycled materials, clothing brands, second-hand retailers and service providers are interested in the sustainability of the products and stories behind them for marketing purposes. The sustainability related terminology and indicators, however, are complex. How the information and terms are interpreted plays an important role on how usable the data is. The information regarding different products should be reliable and comparable. Missing or non-comparable information about size and model/fit of product is challenging, and even more so in second-hand trade. The consumers, as well as all actors in the clothing industry, are curious on how recycled fibres affect the durability and quality of products.

The future data needs were also discussed in our June workshop. Since the circular economy and recycling systems are still emerging and guided by legislation, data must also be gathered for the needs of statistics, waste monitoring and RDI activities. From the perspective of value chains in the production and recycling, there is a need for a common data system which would cover the whole value chain. It should be flexible, easy to use and harmonized. The system should include sufficient data for different needs and enable comparison of the environmental impacts of different activities. In waste recovery and recycling, further research and development is needed to discover new business opportunities.  

Data in the circular economy models of consumer products and work wear

The role of data is extremely important in consumer-based circular business models, such as second-hand trade, clothing rental and leasing services. In addition to the product information, the second-hand actors benefit from data related to the condition of the products, as it is a major factor in determining the resale value of products. The challenge lies in the lack of common standards – now the second-hand actors have each their own standards to determine the prices based on varied condition classifications. From the perspective of the consumers, standardized classification would make it easier for the consumer to compare the product condition and pricing, and this way make second-hand shopping more attractive.

In clothing rental and leasing services, especially product information and information of the condition of the products are relevant. Data on usage, washing, and repair activities are also important. This data enables more accurate evaluation of the products’ condition, need for maintenance, and potential for further product use cycles. The feedback from the consumers was seen as a valuable source of data in the future. The challenge there lies in motivating the consumers to give feedback (e.g. on product qualities, suitability for the purpose of use and condition of products). The role of automation in collecting the data was seen important, as currently this is work is done manually.

In the B-2-B workwear industry, the manufacturers and suppliers have already collected and applied data for the “clothing as a service” model for quite some time. These good practises would benefit the development of consumer-focused service models in other product segments as well. Closed-loop models, in which the workwear is directed for recycling or to be upgraded by the service provider could work as a benchmark for consumer-focused service providers.

From the perspective of the workwear customers (such as construction industry, hotels and restaurants), the relevant data comprises the product information (measurements, material, potential standards for e.g. reflection qualities, manufacturer and origin, and assembly and environmental impact). A transparent supply chain would enable value-based procurement decisions. However, sharing data is challenging. The data should be reliable and verified, and it should enable comparing between different providers and products. Collecting and sharing data regarding, for example, the workwear of the military or police, however, may not be possible. The end users of workwear will benefit from product information as well, as they can make the sustainable, fit-for-the-purpose product  choices, and educate themselves on how to wear and take care of the product to maintain it optimally.

In the “clothing as a service” -models the maintenance information (numbers of washes and repair information) is also relevant.  Laundries can use the data to prevent short-handed washes to save energy. However, on the product level, this data is difficult to gather. The amounts of textiles (in tons) in the washing process is relevant data for laundry operators.

As a conclusion from the workshop, we can say that there is an increasing need to collect data and to develop the skills to utilize it, as we are moving towards a more sustainable and circular textile industry. The transparency of the production value chains, as well as reliable and comparable data, were seen as a prerequisite for making more sustainable choices during the life cycle of a product. Making this possible starts already from the product design phases. The data regarding the environmental impacts of products is increasingly relevant for consumers, as well as for companies. With data, the clothing brands are able to make better and more sustainable choices and designs regarding the lifecycles of their products, and also in developing services for longer lifecycles. All actors in the circular textile value chains are valuable as producers and users of data. Consumers, for example, have experience-based information regarding the durability, maintenance, and repair needs of products. This knowledge could be used by clothing brands in order to design more sustainable products.


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

Hannamaija Tuovila, Research Scientist, VTT