Cradle to Cradle Approach in the Fashion Industry

The fashion industry – one of the top five most polluting industries, has a significant impact on the environment. The textile and apparel supply chain ultimately ends with the consumers discarding the products. A significant amount of post-consumer waste is generated owing to the shortened lifecycles of apparel products. This can be reduced by implementing a cradle-to-cradle model. Fashion designers, brands, and apparel manufacturers are focussing on sustainable fashion, reducing the ecological footprint, and committing to a cradle-to-cradle approach.

Due to the nature of fast fashion and the number of seasons increasing to 50 from the traditional two of spring/summer and autumn/winter, there is much over-supply of fashion. Although almost all textiles are reusable or recyclable, a major portion (85%) ends up in landfills. Annually, the customer wastes approximately 460 billion worth of clothes around the globe. Demand for sustainability and ethical fashion is on the rise due to consumers’ environmental awareness.
Figure 1: Apparel life cycle

The Cradle-to-Cradle Approach

Cradle-to-Cradle® is a design concept inspired by nature, developed in the 1990s by Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, William McDonough and the scientists of EPEA in Hamburg. It refers to a production process where products are developed for closed-loop systems in which every output ingredient is safe and beneficial – either to biodegrade naturally and restore the soil (called a biological nutrient), or to be fully recycled into high-quality materials for subsequent product generations (called a technical nutrient).

Circular models maximise resources and minimise waste. The resources stay in use for as long as possible before regeneration into new products and materials, resulting in a reduction in waste and negative impacts.

The circular economy is based on four principles. These are:
  • Preservation of the natural capital
  • Optimization of the available resources
  • Risk reduction
  • Renewable flow of resources and products

1. Cradle-to-Cradle vs Cradle-to-Grave

Cradle-to-cradle and cradle-to-grave are terms used in life cycle assessment (LCA). Products or materials from any industry or country have the eligibility to apply for the Cradle to Cradle certification. The Cradle-to-Cradle Certified™ Product Standard takes a comprehensive approach to evaluate the design of a product, the practices employed in manufacturing the product and its use and reuse potential. It guides designers and manufacturers through a continual improvement process that looks at a product through five quality categories viz. material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. 

A product receives an achievement level in each of Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum category (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Example of a Product Scorecard | Source: https://www.c2ccertified.org

Related post: What is a sustainable garment

A comparison of the two models is shown in Table 1.

Table-1: Comparision of two models

Parameter
Cradle to Cradle
Cradle to Grave
Model
Closed-loop system
Linear, one-way
Product Life-Cycle
raw materials extraction and production à manufacturing à use à recovery/reutilization
Resources are extractedàproductsà soldàdisposed of in landfill or incinerator
Basis
natural laws, emulating the natural cycles-
mass production and marketing, which speed up production and wear and tear times
Benefits
·     Waste reduction
· Continuous flow of services, goods, and resources
· allows the necessary time and space for natural resource regeneration
· Companies may become less dependent on price fluctuations in raw materials markets

Flaw/ Limitation
·       Trust and integrity is vital. It might take more time than usual to establish a reliable supply chain
·       Difficulties in  modification of a product
·       Depletion of raw materials
Example
Nike’s eco-friendly shoes
Fast fashion

2. Cradle to Cradle in the fashion industry

Fashion brands are implementing a circular economy based on Cradle-to-Cradle in their business models. For effective implementation, fashion brands adopt inventiveness, creativity, versatility, and resilience. Brands set an example for both other brands and their customers by having the lowest possible footprint while offering appealing consumer products.
Closed Loop Textile Recycling
Figure 3: Closed Loop Textile Recycling | Source: Isaac, Roman. (2018)
Some examples of organizations in the fashion industry with a commitment to implement the cradle to cradle are Adidas, Asos, Decathlon, Eileen Fisher, H&M, Inditex, M&S, MudJeans, Target, and Tommy Hilfiger. Their objectives are similar- to focus on circular design, increase garment collection, and use post-consumer waste. Brands like Adidas and H&M are setting targets for themselves like committing to only using recycling plastic in their shoes and hoping to only use sustainable materials in its production by 2030 respectively.

Encouraged by the inclination of the young generation, brands and retailers are taking the responsibility of green practices seriously. A study by thredUP reports that millennials and GenZ are readily adopting resale products, which is making even traditional retailers embrace second-hand. Overall, the second-hand clothing market is expected to double in the next five years. Figure 3 depicts the growth in the resale sector over the next few years.
Figure 4: Second-hand Clothing Market | Source: https://www.thredup.com/

The fashion industry, on following the fundamental goal of the Cradle-to-Cradle system i.e. to ensure sustainable businesses maintaining a positive impact on people and planet, can have a major contribution towards future sustainability.


References



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