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Circular economy in Europe – How to avoid the waste of scraps from the industry

In Italy there are companies and cooperatives that can inform the fashion system on the value of use, instead of possession, of garments and textiles

Reportage from the meeting Green Fashion: Italian Fashion becomes sustainable and circular, hosted online by EconomiaCircolare.com the 25th of February 2021.

Recycling textile fabric waste

According to data from the European Environment Agency (EEA), the textile industry is the fourth sector for use (and dissipation) of water and raw materials. Recycling is thought to be the solution to avoid waste, and it falls under a list of laws towards the achieving of a European system based on a circular economy. There are cities in Italy in which there’s the possibility to collect textile fabrics for recycling, but this collection is still made by volunteers, being them social cooperatives or privates, who have come to make a living from it. Things will change by the first of January 2025: by this date, throughout Europe, the collection of textiles will become mandatory, whereas in Italy this obligation takes effect from the first of January 2022.

Extended producer responsibility textiles

Today it is estimated that each European citizen buys almost thirty kilograms of textiles per year, but with the advent of fast fashion, the quality has dropped. As a result, the value of the collected material has declined on the market, in recent years. For textile separate collection cooperatives emerged difficulties in covering the costs of personnel or fuel for vehicles, with what is collected. The introduction of laws about this kind of collection in Europe, with their obligations, will create an increase in the amount of material collected – therefore, due to the law of demand, the price of this material will drop. The laws that legislators are thinking about to structure the supply chain want to lead the sector to a system of EPR, extended producer responsibility. The responsibility of producers lies in the design part of the product for which the textiles will be used. In the past, when ragmen and other forms of collectors were born, they worked garments made of natural fibers. Today, to sustain the number of garments requested by the market, part of the fibers are either synthetic or a blend of synthetic and natural. Therefore there is no convenience in their recycling, or difficulties arise in the process. Designers would have to think of an eco-design for garments – which will have to meet the problem of microplastics or water waste, to name some of the issues linked to the discharge or reuse of non-natural materials – to ease the recycling supply chain.

QUID 09
Progetto Quid is the ethical and sustainable fashion brand of the Quid social enterprise

Separate collection of textile waste

In Italy, the amount of textile separate collection is 135 thousand tons per year (about two and a half kilos for each citizen). «If we were to arrive at eleven kilos, which is the amount of garments known to be thrown away by people, we would arrive at 660 thousand tons. Today we are struggling to manage 135 thousand tons. Applying the calculus to Europe, where we are 450 million people, means to produce 5 million tons of material per year, to be managed» explained Andrea Flutterro, president of the Italian CONAU, national consortium of used clothing and accessories. CONAU is a social cooperative, in which a third of employees are people with «a history of fragility». The cooperative self-supports and self-sustains itself by collecting textiles to be discharged or recycled. Thus textile separate collection becomes an opportunity to create employment. The recycling supply chain was born in a spontaneous way because there was a market value for the products resulting from the recollection process. When there will be an EPR system, of extended producer responsibility, and an increase in quantities, the chain will be governed as already happens for the recycling of electronic products or packaging. For cooperatives as CONAU, which collect textiles (clothes, or tablecloth, mops or dishcloths, etc) «it is important that they are clean, because otherwise the rest of the recollection would be ruined. You can put things more or less smooth, more or less worn, but clean» pointed out Fluttero. If they were items to be sent to destruction, their status wouldn’t matter, but for separate collections, it makes the difference.

CONAU Italy

Textiles in disuse can be given to cooperatives as CONAU or, if they are made of wool or cashmere, to enterprises of ragmen. Since the middle of the 19th century, in the Tuscan city of Prato emerged the figure of the cenciaiolo (dialect for ragman), is to say a person who recollected wool items fallen into disuse to extract a second-hand yarn, to be spun a second time. At the time, the British had the monopoly of the wool market, given that wool was a raw material in England, unlike Italy. Ragmen find a way to lower the price of wool, recycling items. «If the old ragmen focused on the fact that the finished product was ‘as if it were new’, now the new generation emphasizes instead the fact that it is recycled», said Giuseppe Allocca, founder of Lofoio (which in Tuscan dialect sounds as «I make it»). He reinvented his family business, renewing the craft of the cenciaiolo with verve.

Progetto Quid

A textile can be a fabric intended for fashion. It can happen that, once the fabric is produced, it is valued of no more interest or use by the company who ordered it. Textile fabrics can then be discharged, sent to cooperatives as CONAU, or to realities as Progetto Quid (winner of the Responsible Disruption Award within the Green Carpet Fashion Awards 2020). Quid is a social enterprise born in Verona in 2013 «created precisely to encourage and to help the inclusion of all those categories that I like to call with a history of fragility. We consider the word, fragility, more inclusive than all the categories and superstructures that are used to categorize people» said Silvia Scaramuzza, a company representative. As Quid creates value benefitting from the “limits” of its employees, it benefits from the limits of the fashion system, taking advantage of the surplus or leftovers generated in the year. «Every year, QUID recovers between 200 and 300 kilometers of fabric to create collections, then sold in ten mono-brand stores and on ecommerce». To design collections, Progetto Quid’s style office reviews before what they have in stock, then it proceeds on the pattern of the garments. «The fabrics, designed for quality fashion, are sewn and prepared keeping in mind their durability. The idea is to work on the quality of the product: we keep to the two collections per year. One consequence is that we don’t have huge quantities of the exact same garment: we work on variations, from six to thirty patterns, no more. Thus the variants can be many, allowing a greater involvement of personal taste» explained Scaramuzza.

LOFOIO
Lofoio collaborates with the cenciaioli from Prato, who have been recycling textile waste since 1850

Lofoio Prato

One of the benefits of a garment produced following quality standards is that the composition materials declared on the label are controlled, or are supposed to be. This helps recycling companies, as Lofoio, to catalog the received material for what it is. In the case of cenciaioli, they recycle only wool or cashmere but, in the label of their products, it can happen to read that the garment is composed 98% by cashmere and 2% by others. To explain that 2% Allocca illustrated the chain: first comes the selection of the garments and their division by colors; then the removal of zippers, buttons, pockets, patches, for the shredding; at the end, the redoing of the yarn. «Sometimes something has been inserted into the original fabric, maybe to reinforce it, like polyester: the 2% is just an estimate of various materials that could end up in the fabric, also during the recycling process. There are more or less precise ways to understand if the material received is pure. To be sure, an estimate is made. Sometimes it can be as much as 95 pure and 5 others, etc.».

Textile waste collector

But the majority of times a garment fallen into disuse is thrown away in textile separate collection bins, managed by cooperatives as CONAU. They collect textiles on behalf of the municipality, which then repays the operators through the transfer of the material collected. Then, tons of collected material is bought by companies, called selectors – generating work with the cooperatives that carry out the collection and with the companies that do the selection. They extract the part that can be reused and organize it, before reselling it, as if it were the warehouse of a textiles producer. «There is a first choice, which in jargon is called the cream, then a second one and even a third. The division is based on the kind of garment (pants or shirts), the size or the colour and also on the price range» specified Fluttero. Selectors companies are based in the markets in which they can purchase the final product. In Italy, they concentrate in the area of the Campania region. It said that, here, companies were born from the end of World War II, when Americans sent ships of aid, among which ones of dismissed clothes. In Campania today there are hundreds of selectors companies, with up to three or four hundred employees, who buy from all over Europe, besides Italy. They buy where there is the convenience of the price and where there is the material that their customers need. Then they sell in different parts of the world. Near Italy, this form of trading has consolidated in North Africa (Tunisia) and Eastern Europe, where there are companies that serve local markets. The cost of labor varies with the region, and with it the price of the ending product. Italian selections are sold on markets with a purchasing power that differs from the one of North Africa. These products, whose life is extended, compete with «products of very low quality and low price: if I can pay the equivalent of €1 to buy a sweater and I buy it used and it comes from a European selection (perhaps made on site in North Africa) I have created work in North Africa and I have a low price that is equivalent to the price of a new product of very low quality».

Redistribute textile waste

There are market studies that argue that in the years to come recycled and second-hand clothing will replace, if not exceed, the quantities of fast fashion. Textile separate collection cooperatives, that manage to sustain themself today with the quantities (and their price) on the market, will have to face a change by 2025, following the European laws on textiles, and this change needs to be organized in order not to create economic harm to cooperatives. The European effort towards circular economy needs experiences like Quid and Lofoio to redistribute the textile waste. But it also needs a reorganization of the system: «it is not possible that we continue to produce a huge amount of clothing of textile products without thinking about the management of the end of life of these products» said Fluttero. The reorganization of the system needs to be communicated with clarity to citizens, who are also consumers, because with their choices they can push producers and those who manage the market to orient their business models towards sustainability. Cooperatives as CONAU, and companies like Quid and Lofoio, can be considered the symptoms of a response to the demand for education on the importance of use instead of possession.

IMAGE GALLERY

CONAU was founded in July 2008 to provide representation to companies operating in the collection of used clothing and accessories. The associated companies and cooperatives represent all the links in the supply chain – collectors, intermediaries, sorters and processors – and handle more than half of the total amount of the textile fraction of municipal waste (CER 20.01.10 and 20.01.11) collected annually in Italy.

Progetto Quid is the ethical and sustainable fashion brand of the social enterprise Quid, which creates limited edition clothing and accessories. Collections come to life from surplus fabrics made available by fashion and textile companies. Winner of the Responsible Disruption Award, within the Green Carpet Fashion Awards 2020.

Lofoio is a company of knitwear craftsmen in Prato, Tuscany. It was founded by the twins Sara and Giuseppe Allocca, after taking over their aunt’s former business of wool and cashmere recycling, which has been in the Prato textile industry for years.

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