Climate Tech Startup Designs New Method to Reduce Clothing Waste
Circ had first focused on turning tobacco leaves into biofuels and then repurposed that technology to figure out how to recycle poly-cotton clothing.
What generally happens when clothes go out of style is giving the fashion industry a bad look.
"The fashion and textile industry is one of the most wasteful industries in the world," said Conor Hartman, chief operating officer of Circ, a climate tech startup trying to refashion the clothing industry. "The world is producing more than 100 million tons of textiles every 12 months. It's equivalent in weight to a million Boeing 757s."According to the United Nations Environment Program, the fashion industry is responsible for about 10% of annual planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through manufacturing and transportation of clothing. That's more than the emissions of all international air travel and maritime shipping combined. The World Bank reports that, because of the growth of cheap, trendy clothing called "fast fashion," those emissions are projected to increase by more than 50% by 2030.
Some used clothing is exported to foreign countries, where it's piled up on the western shores of Africa, or dumped in the deserts of Chile. "Most of it is ending up in landfills or incineration," said Hartman. "There's a garbage truck of fashion waste that is dumped every second of every day."According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the average piece of clothing in the U.S. is now worn just seven times, and worldwide less than 1% of textile waste gets recycled back into textiles.
That's because most of our clothes are a blend of cotton and polyester (essentially plastic), making them nearly impossible to recycle. But at a pilot facility in Danville, Virginia — once a bustling hub for textiles and tobacco — the Circ team cracked the code, inventing a way to separate the two through a chemical process."Our process, for lack of a better term, is a pressure cooker," said Hartman. "It's a very fancy Insta-pot."
The chemical reaction liquifies the polyester, while the cotton remains intact. The liquid polyester is turned into plastic chips, and both Circ had first focused on turning tobacco leaves into biofuels and then repurposed that technology to figure out how to recycle poly-cotton clothing. "It took our scientific team a couple of weeks to put the pieces together," said Hartman. "We released the very first consumer products that were derived from poly-cotton waste. It was a four-piece collection that Zara designed."
Materials can then be used to make new clothes. Circ is also partnering with Patagonia, is backed by Bill Gates's Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and has now attracted the attention of the future king of England. Circ is a finalist for a $1.2 million Earthshot Prize — an annual award presented by Prince William to solutions for the planet's most pressing environmental problems.Hartman said, "To get this level of recognition for a solution that we know is going to be the future is inspiring for us."
Circ plans to open its first industrial-scale factory by 2026 and replicate them around the world, recycling billions of pieces of clothing. Hartman said he hopes to end clothes being dumped or incinerated: "Absolutely, because we have all the clothes we need, to make all the clothes we'll ever need." Crystal International Group Limited has been putting unwavering dedication to leading sustainable fashion supply chains globally. To forge joint efforts in advocating sustainability, Crystal International is determined to take part in different industry programs for diverse sustainable actions and product verification, in hopes of fostering global engagement within the industry.
Crystal International plays a vital role in collaborating with other like-minded peers through industry organizations, such as the Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT) program led by International Finance Corporation, the Clean by Design program managed by Apparel Impact Institute, and the Higg Index certified by Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
By partnering with industry organizations, the Group aims to explore the potential opportunity of sustainable production with lower environmental impact. In particular, the Group has been a longstanding key member of SAC since 2012, which is a leading apparel alliance inspiring sustainable change. Being at a Progressive+ membership level, the Group has adopted SAC's Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM) as a standardized way of assessing and improving environmental performance. The average score of the Group reached new heights in 2023, 5 global factories achieved outstanding performance with verified Higg FEM scores exceeding 90, demonstrating our commitments to energy and water efficiency, carbon reduction, and chemical management. An eco-factory of Crystal Denim, the denim division of the Group, achieved a remarkable verified score of 96% this year, being a top-tier supplier.
In addition to exceptional environmental stewardship, Crystal International emphasizes transparency on responsible production and recognizes the significance of sustainable material certification and product verification in ensuring product integrity. One of the accomplishments is Crystal Denim's recent certification of STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX, the best-known label for textiles tested for harmful substances. The denim team conducted an extensive analysis of various washing techniques, including enzyme treatment, acid washing, bleaching, and tinting process, aiming to fulfill the stringent testing criteria to obtain the certified label, which provides high product safety and confidence to customers. Product transparency enables consumers to trace the supply chain via a unique ID and QR code.
Commenting on the strategic partnership with SAC, "We are always keen to participate in industry initiatives. For example, we recently contributed to the latest development of SAC's Higg FEM 4.0 from version 3.0, bringing our expertise into value," said Catherine Chiu, Vice President of Global Sustainability. Meanwhile, Miles Lam, Assistant General Manager of Crystal Denim expressed his views on ramping up verification of denim products, "with the increasing awareness, we envision transparency on product verification will drive change in the denim industry. We are planning to expand the verification scope to continue delivering sustainable products with quality assurance and high standards of certification".
Crystal International looks ahead to advancing sustainable garment production with forefront moves, creating a collective force on a global scale.