Closing the loop: Increasing fashion circularity in California

| Report

Updates were made after the original publication to reflect latest data as of August 2022. While magnitudes have changed, overall directional implications and conclusions remain the same since the original March 2022 publication.

The fashion value chain is predominantly linear and global. It has put the apparel industry on an unsustainable path.

In 2021, Californians bought and wore 780,000 tons of apparel.1 As a result, 740,000 tons of materials used to produce this apparel will eventually enter landfills—covering an area more than five times the size of the City of Los Angeles.2 More than 97 percent of the textiles used in this clothing are virgin materials. Less than 1 percent of the materials worn today will resurface in clothing manufactured tomorrow (Exhibit 1).3

About 740,000 tons of end-of-life apparel textiles in California are expected to be landfilled, only about 5,000 tons of which will be closed-loop recycled.

Such waste requires transformative change. The key lies in circularity—specifically, in building a closed loop for recycling materials back into the manufacturing process, reducing both waste and reliance on natural resources.

To date, California has seen relatively little investment in (or research into the benefits of) closed-loop recycling of apparel, so progress on building collection, sorting, and recycling capacity to execute this process has remained limited. We launched this research to understand what effort building a closed-loop system in California will require, what stakeholders need to participate, and what initial impact the effort may have.

Our research shows that the effort promises to be very worthwhile.

California consumers want closed-loop recycling. Our survey results revealed the following:

A fully closed-loop apparel recycling system in California could potentially achieve a total holistic impact (economic, environmental, and social benefits) of $11 billion to $13 billion a year, based on our estimate of total holistic impact of approximately $5.5 billion to $6.5 billion from closed-loop recycling of polyester, which represents nearly 50 percent of apparel textile fibers thrown away by Californians (Exhibit 2).7 That translates into holistic impact of $3 for every $1 spent.8 Scaled up across the US, closed-loop apparel recycling could achieve a total holistic impact of $75 billion to 105 billion.9

Advancing closed-loop recycling of polyester in California could have a total holistic impact of $5.5 billion to $6.5 billion.

We identified eight core initiatives that could significantly advance fashion circularity for apparel made with polyester (100 percent or blended) in California and help unlock this holistic impact. Future efforts could build on these initiatives to address other textile materials:

  • Purchase recycled polyester to replace virgin polyester in apparel, probably at a premium, but with few other switching costs involved.
  • Promote and sell recycled apparel to shoppers, touting clothing “made with recycled polyester.”
  • Partner with apparel manufacturers to collect pre-consumer polyester waste, such as scraps and rejected apparel that manufacturers discard.
  • Partner with retail stores to collect pre-consumer polyester waste, such as unsold garments that are typically thrown away if not diverted for low-cost resale or donation to employees.
  • Partner with existing collectors, such as donation or consignment stores, to divert post-consumer polyester waste that would otherwise be downcycled or sent abroad.
  • Introduce and scale curbside textile collection in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and select Bay Area counties because the high cost of curbside collection makes it most viable in densely populated metropolitan areas.
  • Build a highly automated facility to sort and deconstruct polyester textiles because the inability of recycling processes to handle more than one type of textile waste and the potential for unsorted waste to introduce contamination make sorting necessary.
  • Build a chemical recycling facility to process polyester textiles because chemical recycling is critical to sustaining the quality of textile fiber over many iterations.

But any effort to build closed-loop recycling capacity faces a catch-22—the disconnect between the supply of and the demand for recycled materials. While benefits outweigh costs system-wide, both benefits and costs are distributed unevenly among stakeholders across the value chain. Unlocking the total holistic impact will require actions to level the playing field, such as forging public–private partnerships, enacting recycling-friendly policies, and encouraging vertical integration in the apparel industry.

The California apparel industry can start building closed-loop recycling capacity today to reduce waste and reliance on limited natural resources. We hope that this report will establish the opportunity at stake for textile circularity in California as well as the actions stakeholders across the fashion industry can take to capture it. Furthermore, we hope this report can serve as the foundation for further research and action across other materials and geographies, catalyzing even more positive economic, environmental, and social benefits.

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