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Meet IIIEE researcher Naoko Tojo

Photo: IIIEE researcher Naoko Tojo

Textile – a growing sustainability challenge

We are buying more clothes than ever before, but there is still no efficient system to close the material loop. What if we handed over responsibility of our discarded clothes to the producers – would it lead to a quality rise in our wardrobes? IIIEE researcher Naoko Tojo has looked into textile – a growing sustainability challenge – from waste prevention point of view.

Since 2000, textile consumption in Sweden has increased by more than 40%. After some time in our wardrobes, we throw half of it away as waste, which ends up being burned in incineration plants where energy is recovered for district heating. Some 20% of what we find in our wardrobes is given away to charity on a global second hand market.

Since the 1990s, Sweden has developed a waste collection and recycling system that today is applied to many sectors. Consumer goods packages, batteries, electronic devices and cans are among the products that Swedes are used to separate from the rest of the waste stream after consumption. A special feature of the system covering these products is that the producer of the product bears full or partial responsibility for end-of-life management of his/her product.

This policy principle, making the manufacturer of the product responsible for its lifecycle aiming to close the material loop, is called the extended producer responsibility (EPR) and was named by IIIEE researcher Thomas Lindqvist. In addition to improve waste management system – better collection, material recycling and environmental sound treatment of the residues – a key reason for engaging producers is to provide them with incentives to change their product design. In this way, problems at the waste phase can be minimised when products are designed.  

The system has been adapted to various product types in many countries, but textiles have so far not been included at a larger scale. In Nordic countries today, textile incineration and landfill is in one end of the scale and the textile second hand-market in the other, but in between them there is a big gap. Textile material re-use and recycling is almost not practised in the Nordic countries. Why?

– One of the reasons is the diversification of materials used in our clothing. Earlier the materials used were mostly natural fibres, such as wool and cotton, and there was a functioning and economically viable recycling system. Collectors used to go around the houses gathering old clothes for material recycling. At a recycling plant gathered textiles were separated in accordance with colours and were sold for manufacturing of new products. With the large variety of synthetic materials as well as use of mixed materials such as cotton and polyester, however, this old system disappeared, explains Naoko Tojo, continuing:

– On the other hand, you could say that since used textiles are no longer toxic and the material burns well, textile has no end-of-life managing problems. It is easy to get rid of.

– So disappearance of textile recycling per se did not alert policy makers and civil society that much. However, production of textile entails the use of a lot of toxic substances, causing various environment and health problems in countries where textile are produced. The problem was exasperated when “fast fashion” came in and production increased. In addition, there is an increasing shortage of production resources leading us towards a ‘peak cotton’.

One way of addressing the problems related to production and consumption is to tackle it as a part of waste prevention strategy.

Prevention of textile waste is becoming increasingly important, and it is also the name of the report that Naoko Tojo together with IIIEE researcher Beatrice Kogg and colleagues from Copenhagen and Helsinki presented to The Nordic Council in 2012. Their report compares textile flows on the markets in Sweden, Finland and Denmark, identifying possible government interventions for textile waste prevention, with the EPR system as a possible model.

– Waste prevention can be addressed both in terms of quantity as well as of quality. For the former, reduced consumption is a fundamental strategy. Not only through us consumers changing our behaviour, but market actors also need to change. They can for example be led in a more sustainable direction by being encouraged or forced to offer products of better quality, thus with a longer life span.

Clothes can also be shared in different ways and a growing circular economy as well as a attitude shift to consumption are assets in working towards a more sustainable consumption. Repairing, altering and mending can be encouraged in order to prolong life of many textiles. When products finally are no longer of use, the material can still be reused for various purposes. For these, new business models are needed as well as innovative government policies.

– There is a growing interest and awareness about these issues. Some early movers among the market actors, such as outdoor clothing producers and retailers, started to take back their products. There are other producers who have been engaged in selling second-hand products of their own makes, says Naoko Tojo.

– However, in order to move further, many questions still need to be answered: How should the responsibility be divided between different actors? How can we re-use material without damaging the second hand market? Can we create a market for collecting, cutting and refining textile materials in order to close the material loops? If it can be done in a sustainable way, it may be a good idea to assign the producers responsibility for collection and recycling of textile waste. Nordic governments, including Sweden, started to develop new legislation. We hope some of our work on textile, as well as experiences gained through the research in other product areas, could contribute to the development.

Text and photo: Sara Bernstrup Nilsson


Prevention of Textile Waste

IIIEE researchers: Naoko Tojo and Beatrice Kogg
Project period: January – May 2012
Budget 300 000 DKK
Funding body: Nordic Council of Ministers
Academic partners: Copenhagen Resource Institute (CRI), Denmark; National Consumer Research Centre (NCRC), Finland; Environice, Iceland
Read full report here


More reading on IIIEE researchers:

Carl Dalhammar: The potential of ecodesign: Increasing efficiency by requirement
Thomas Lindqvist: Policy instruments and business models for closed material loops – Lamp collecting systems in need of improvement
Yuliya Voytenko: Closed loops in the sharing city?

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