Social indicators for Circularity: a must-have for a systemic era

REGENERATE Fashion, LLC 01/03/2021

The report ‘Fashion Threads’ that REGENERATE developed in partnership with independent media Modefica, and the Center for Sustainability Studies, FGVces, brings an innovative approach to the circular economy concepts by using social indicators to assess the circularity potential of the three textile fibers analyzed – polyester, cotton and viscose.

This approach was established through the awareness that economies on the Global South are the main producers of raw material for the fashion value chain, and hold a great part of the negative effects of extractivism. 

The report focused on Brazil given that it is the 4th largest producer and the 2nd largest exporter of cotton, and in 2017, was the 10th largest world producer of Textiles.  

To get an idea, Brazil has the largest complete textile chain in the West, and in 2018, the country’s fashion industry employed 1.5 million workers directly. 
Several social issues are related to this worker sector, (informally known as “factory floor” stage) including: unsafe workspaces, slave-like work, subcontracting, lack of protective equipment  for handling  pesticides and chemicals, child labor, among others.

Image credit: MMA Ministério do Meio Ambiente

The study affirms that these externalities not only bring social-environmental hardship, but also represent economic loss for companies, as people considered ‘poor’ remain trapped in the cycle of poverty, rather than entering the economy as  potential customers. 

…externalities not only bring social-environmental hardship, but also represent economic loss…

Other systemic problems, such as the increase in GHG emissions from landfills and dumps, occur due to the lack of a textile waste management policy that integrates the informal waste collection cooperatives. This would mean that waste generation and reduction strategies would potentially affect this informal sector by lacking inputs to carry out its work.

In that sense, maintaining the value of materials indefinitely can only occur if the textile industry considers workers, farmers and marginalized communities as a priority.

The Fashion Threads methodology

To establish the indicators used in the circularity analysis of the fibers, the team developed six theoretical pillars and identified two that have a social focus – Local Conditions: Internalizing Externalities, and Society: Justice and Social Ecology

From there, their circularity attributes as well as social indicators were defined, as follows: 

Supports Local Economy – Policies that facilitate recycling; Policies that facilitate organic farming; Import and export percentages of raw materials,fibers, textiles or finished product, and Potential adoption by consumer; 

Create Jobs – Number and growth rate of new jobs to be created from circular practices; 

Promotes Social Justice – Fiber’s potential to obtain social certifications; Diversity and inclusion within the industry, especially non-white women; Percentage of production in conflict areas; and programs for Informal employment (collectors and cooperatives).

Source: Fios da Moda Report

The potential degree of circularity of the fibers was evaluated based on these criteria, making use of complementary methodologies, such as bibliographic review of 31 life cycle assessment studies (8 of which national, and 23 international), interviews with experts, and development of alternative fiber scenarios.

Source: Fios da Moda Report

The bibliographic review was a basis to  develop the aforementioned social attributes and criteria  based on the Social Life Cycle Assessment methodology (SLCA for its acronyms in English Social Life-cycle assessments). The SLCA framework proposes categories of actors (stakeholders) that represent the groups of human beings most likely to be affected by the activities belonging to a product; and categories of impact (RUSSO GARRIDO, S. 2017). 

It is important to mention that, unlike the environmental impact indicators used in LCA, social impact indicators can be difficult to quantify due to the complexity of finding precise objectives and the challenges in determining which impact categories to include or how to measure some of them.

The study concluded that cotton is the fiber with higher potential to generate a positive impact on social development when applying a circular approach (compared to the other studied fibers: polyester and viscose). 

…the impact of fibers can be improved with public policies to encourage family and ecological agriculture…

Overall, the impact of fibers can be improved with public policies to encourage family and ecological agriculture, strengthened waste management systems – with an emphasis on the informal sector, diligent implementation of the National Policy for Solid Waste in the textile sector, and generation of technical jobs.

The study makes the Call-to-action to the whole fashion system: textile suppliers, retailers, recyclers, cooperatives, the government and consumers alike, to act together as they are all key agents for a circular transformation!

The report ‘FIOS DA MODA (Fashion Threads)’ was financially supported by the Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation) under the scope of the open call “Making the transition to a circular and inclusive fashion industry.”

To download the English version of Fashion Threads visit: https://reports.modefica.com.br/fashion-threads/

Se preferir ler a versão em Português, acesse: https://reports.modefica.com.br/fios-da-moda/