There has been a steady increase in the use of textiles in the past decades. At the same time, the average number of times a product is used has decreased. It has been estimated that the total consumption of clothes will continue to grow by 63 per cent by 2030 due to population growth and the increasing wealth of the Asian middle class. In practice this equals more than 500 billion new T-shirts.
Our consumption of natural resources exceeds the ecologically sustainable level. The sector now faces a new kind of challenge as it has to address the question of how to meet the future demand while guaranteeing adequate resources for future generations.
In Finland, approximately 70 million kilos of textiles are disposed of every year. Most of these textiles are discarded by consumers. Discarded textiles can be reused either as such, or they can be recycled into fiber or raw materials that are used in other sectors. However, only a small fraction of discarded textiles is recycled at the moment, whereas the majority is used for energy.
The circular textile economy has vast global business potential. The German automotive industry, for example, has used textile waste as an insulation material and in the composite parts of vehicles. Textiles are good for many different types of uses thanks to their versatile properties, and they can also help to reduce the mass of vehicles and consequently reduce traffic emissions.
A separate collection of textiles will become mandatory in the EU area in 2025. However, the collection as such does not solve the issue of over-consumption. The discarded materials must be seen as valuable raw materials and new, cost-effective uses should be discovered for them.
There is comprehensive expertise and strong determination in Finland to promote the circular textile economy. The work of developing new, more ecological fibers to complement the currently used textile fibers has been ongoing for a long time. In the future, Finnish cellulose- and wood-based fibers could be used to replace cotton in a number of applications.
Innovations that will enable recycling old clothes into fibers using chemical methods are also close to commercialization. It is a long way from textiles into reuse as clothing, but these Finnish innovations can help to meet the constantly growing demand of natural resources in a sustainable manner in the future.
The megatrend of the circular textile economy offers Finnish innovators an excellent opportunity to stand out in international competition. Finding solutions for global challenges means that cooperation will be needed between the various sectors, as well as new innovations for how to use recycled textiles.
The publication (in Finnish) on circular economy by the Finnish Textile and Fashion organization features accounts by Finnish businesses in the textile and fashion industry on the ways to keep materials and products in use as long as possible thanks to new innovations and business models.