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If you have a supply chain, it will need to become circular.

But to succeed at making this transition, don’t try to do it alone.

This is the first of a series of 10 insights from co:collective on how your business can join the sustainable economy.

First, a foundational definition

Our current economy is a linear system: extract, make, use, toss. And it is now clear from multiple studies, reports, metrics, and lately by just sticking your head out the window and breathing in the wildfire smoke – this system is breaking down. In other words, we are reaching the limits of the planet’s ability to regenerate itself and continue to sustain life, including human life, and so this extractive, linear system needs to be re-designed to be a circulating system that wastes nothing.

I have spent the last 18+ months helping a startup with a breakthrough technology in materials regeneration (basically recycling, but involving fancier chemistry) to get up and running. I have learned a tremendous amount about the opportunities and challenges that companies in the textile industry face as they try to embrace circularity. Some of the facts and figures about the problem are unique to that industry, but the general principles of both the problem and the solution apply to most products and most industries.

Circular supply chains require a new perspective on what sustainability means for your business

The problem (in textiles)

Today nearly 90% of all the clothing and other textiles produced globally are either burned or landfilled at the end of life. The average number of times a piece of clothing is worn before it reaches “end of life?” 7. Blended fabrics i.e. fabrics that are a blend of plastic fibers and natural fibers make up a huge percentage of all fabrics – I’m confident you’re wearing some right now – and until now they have been basically impossible to recycle.  When you see clothing labels that say “recycled polyester” today, it generally means that plastic bottles were used. This is problematic, because the waste stream for plastic bottles is already circular. So by making clothes out of bottles, you take bottles out of a circular system and put them in a linear system that ends in burning or burial. This wasteful behavior can’t continue simply because we are quickly depleting some of the basic raw materials needed to make modern clothes – notably, oil. So textile to textile recycling is what is sorely needed.

One solution (in textiles)

A quick Google search will turn up a variety of clothing brands who have tried to circularize their own supply chains by offering to take back used or unwanted clothing in their stores. To date, these efforts have resulted in lots of column inches of press coverage, but tiny volumes of actual recovered and recycled clothes. Going it alone just doesn’t work.

But a scalable solution for textiles is now within sight. As I mentioned, we have been working with a textile to textile recycling startup with a breakthrough technology. However, to capitalize on this technology, the current linear supply chains of virtually all clothing manufacturers and brands need to become circular – and major components are just missing, both upstream and downstream.

The unlock

We realized that to make this happen, the recycling company needed to partner with other existing companies that would help them intercept textiles from the waste stream, sort them and prepare them for recycling. They also needed to make new connections downstream with yarn spinners, fabric suppliers, clothing brands and ultimately, with consumers.

To define and complete our client’s full “circle”, we teamed up with a group of internal and external experts to help them map the universe of potential partners and identified some of the key partnerships and collaborations to provide the necessary feedstock upstream of their plants, as well as the ideal customers for true textile to textile recycled polyester downstream. Work continues now to identify the logistics and technology partners necessary to maintain the chain of custody of their recycled polyester product so that, in the future, the textiles created remain in circulation and become more feedstock for the industry, rather than going to landfill – circulating.

A final word

You might be thinking, okay a recycling company needs a circular supply chain… well, yeah. But think of it this way: our client’s circle forms a part of many other circles that are now forming: in the future, there will be a circle for every clothing manufacturer and brand in the world, every yarn maker, every fabric supplier and many of these circles will intersect and overlap. These interconnected circles will develop in your industry, as well – an ever-evolving circulatory ecosystem.

Circular supply chains require a new perspective on what sustainability means for your business

Key takeaways

Don’t do it alone – define your circle. Re-engineering your own supply chain may not be necessary – the companies you need to partner with to fill the gaps may already exist if you know where to look.

Start experimenting now – get ahead of the legislation. Regulations called “producer responsibility” laws are coming that will make it much harder for you to allow your products to be thrown away at the end of their useful life.

It’s just the beginning. In the coming years the next challenge will be actually redesigning many of the products we produce in the world to be much easier, faster and more efficient to be taken apart and re-created into something new. But that is a story for another day.

By Ty Montague

Co-Founder, Chairman, and Chief Purpose Officer

Ty and his partners founded co:collective in 2010 as a strategic and creative transformation partner that designs generative organizations with purpose at their core. He is an author and frequent speaker on the topics of innovation, sustainability, business transformation and the power of purpose. Ty spends most of his time working within co:’s sustainability offering, partnering with clients to define their sustainability strategy and embrace circular business practices.