Take-back schemes – what are they really?

Takeback blog

By Professor Kate Fletcher and Renée Cuoco

Last week, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, to which CSF is co-secretariat along with Hubbub, hosted a panel debate at Portcullis House, chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey. The purpose of this debate was to explore one question – what (if any) contribution do clothing take-back schemes offer to fashion sustainability?

The panelists:

  • Professor Kate Fletcher – Professor of Sustainability, Design, Fashion here at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, London College of Fashion
  • Dr Andrew Brooks – Author of Clothing Poverty, and lecturer in Development Geography, Kings College London
  • Trewin Restorick – CEO/Founder of Hubbub
  • Cyndi Rhoads – Founder of Worn Again
  • Cecilia Brannsten, H&M Project Leader for Sustainability
  • Adam Elman – M&S Director of Sustainable Business for Plan A

With each drawing upon their own expertise, the panelists offered a range of alternate views and enquiries into the question and this diversity of opinion also came through from the audience, as they shared their own thoughts on take-back schemes at the end of the debate – (illustrated in the info graphic above). Whilst both the debate and audience reaction suggests we are not all standing together when it comes to take-back schemes, it was clear that there are a number of points that need to be tackled for this discussion to move forward.

First, a few facts to keep in mind….

  • Take-back schemes necessitate a strong and effective reuse and recycling infrastructure, systems view and design intention.
  • Reusing clothes whether that be as whole garments or as fabric or even fibre is not free – it requires energy and sometimes water and process chemicals.
  • The waste management hierarchy reminds us that amount of energy and materials needed to carry through various strategies of reuse and recycling varies and it is desirable to preserve the products/materials in their highest value state (i.e. with greatest embodied energy) for as long as possible. So a hierarchy of strategies emerges: reuse of clothes as is; repair and reconditioning of clothes; recycling of raw materials.
  •  Mechanical recycling technologies have changed little in 200 years and the process of pulling fabric apart in order to reclaim constituent fibres reduces staple length and results in a heavier weight yarn. It strikes us that these technologies are ripe for innovation!
  •  Chemical recycling is possible through a number of routes. Viscose technology can use reclaimed cellulose material (like cotton for instance) as an input. Polyester and nylon production routes can both utilize reclaimed materials as part (or all) of the chemical substrate. In general all these routes result in a downgrading in quality of the raw material. However a proprietary polyester recycling route called EcoCircle has managed to recycle polyester without any reduction in quality.

From the discussion had at the APPG debate, we have pulled out several important points, which we must confront on the question around take-back schemes:

  •  There is a lack of openness about how take-backs are used, with little understanding about the destination for items brought back to store and what the impact of this full process is.
  •  Take-back schemes are currently being understood as a marketing idea rather than a technical or practical strategy, and this is evidenced by the fact that there are no clear or transparent systems for re-use or recycling materials.
  •  Currently, the technology is not on stream to deal with the waste in way to maintain fibre quality or without being downcycled, and still no account is taken of this in the push to speed up the cycle of discard and repurchase.
  •  It is concerning that there seems to be no place for a strategic role for design in the way take-back schemes are currently being used.
  •  Perhaps most worrying of all is that take-back schemes are being used to consolidate existing business models based on the logic of growth economics and not as part of a deeper and more systemic process of change that sustainability demands of the sector.

In order to move towards a place where we can all stand together, we must start to have much bigger conversations that reach far beyond recycling. If we can begin to address sustainability beyond its material basis, perhaps we can find the more radical shifts that we really need to contribute to fashion sustainability.