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Why Sustainable Chemistry Is Key to the Success of a Circular Fashion Industry

Image credit: ZDHC

Earlier this year, the Global Fashion Agenda released the CEO Agenda for the fashion industry, which highlights the “efficient use of chemicals, water and energy” as a core priority for immediate implementation. However, while chemical management is listed high on this agenda, time and again, the importance of this topic is not reflected in key conferences and events.

Perhaps we don’t see “effective chemistry” headlining sustainability events because people find the topic complex or confusing. Whatever the reason, sustainable chemistry is an urgent issue and must be included as part of a holistic approach to finding circular solutions for the fashion industry.

In a closed-loop system, materials will be used and reused for long periods of time. This will give new life to the enormous amount of textile waste currently burned and dumped each day. A circular model holds great promise, and yet complications could arise when materials no longer deemed ‘waste’ are recycled.



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How, for example, can we ensure consumer safety when a rain jacket is repurposed into a pillow, or shoes turned into sunglasses? Currently, there is little control over chemical ingredients. As Dr. Michael Warhurst, executive director of CHEM Trust, told Chemical Watch, “a few scandals in this area could massively damage the cause of the circular economy.”

This is where effective input chemistry can play a part. If safer chemicals are used at the beginning of the production process, then the final output, supported by good processes, will be safer, too. By controlling the input chemistry, we can ensure that products used beyond their original purpose won’t have a negative impact on human and environmental health.

Since 2015, I have led the ZDHC Foundation and its Roadmap to Zero Programme. Our goal is to eliminate or substitute priority hazardous chemicals in products and their manufacture. Today, we are a collaboration of 92 contributors (24 brands, 53 value chain affiliates, and 15 associates) within the sports, fashion, luxury and outdoor industries.

We are working to shift the dial in a tangible way; however, more research and innovations are needed. The Pulse of Fashion Report 2018, released last week, confirms this. It says that while brands are taking more steps to improve the sustainability of their supply chains, frontrunners have begun to plateau:

“At a certain point, companies realize that improvement levels off, as they reach the limits of available technologies and infrastructure. To unlock the next level, companies must collaborate with other stakeholders, driving systemic change through bold leadership and creating innovation ecosystems that lead to the disruptive technologies truly needed.”

Unless we raise the subject, flag the demand for innovations for substitutions and outline the commercial benefits of using safer chemistry, progress will continue to be slow. Chemicals are key for product performance and style; they colour fabric and make our clothes waterproof, shiny and soft. And they will continue to be used.

Transitioning the industry towards safer chemistry cannot be achieved by one actor alone. Our tools are only as powerful as those that use them. While the urgency of sustainable chemistry is already noted in reports, the urgency of this issue needs be reflected at events, in boardrooms, and throughout the supply chain.

As Gwen Cunningham, Circle Textiles Program Lead at Circle Economy, says, “While the why of circularity is understood, the how is still largely unknown.”

To ensure new measures taken to transition the industry to a circular model are successful, sustainable chemistry must be included in this approach.


Frank Michel is Executive Director of ZDHC.

[Read more about Frank Michel]


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