Circular Professional Clothing
There are many sustainability challenges in the professional clothing value chain, including water consumption, microfiber pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and human rights risks. From the perspective of a buyer/user of workwear, the most visible challenge is waste – it is estimated that in the UK 90% 1 of professional clothing is sent to landfill or for incineration after use.
In response to this, as part of the ProCirc project and in partnership with the Professional Clothing Industry Association Worldwide (PCIAW) Business in the Community (BITC) convened a Community of Practice for procurers of professional clothing and organisations in the supply chain. The objectives of this group were to identify a set of procurement principles for circular workwear. The key insights were published in May 2021 report, Uniform Approach: Improving the Sustainability of Professional Clothing.
Integral UK Limited, a fully owned subsidiary company of JLL, was the first organisation to trial adopting a selection of these procurement principles. BITC provided bespoke advisory support, funded through the ProCirc project, to help Integral apply these to their live tender.
Integral had already begun the procurement process when they saw BITC’s offer to provide support. A group of six suppliers had already been shortlisted and had been sent an initial Request for Information which asked open text response questions on the supplier’s sustainability policy and on their recycling initiatives, as well as asking them to list sustainable products that they can provide. In their responses, the suppliers answered the questions in different ways and addressed different sustainability issues, making it very hard to compare responses
Recommending the use of two circular procurement principles
BITC recommended that Integral asked the suppliers questions across two of the circular procurement principles from the Uniform Approach report. These principles were selected based on the stage of procurement. As the tender was already underway it could not be fundamentally changed (for example, by moving to a circular business model such as a service-based contract), in addition, the suppliers had a short turnaround. The principles selected were best practice end-of-life treatment and circular material selection. Two aspects of circular material selection were considered:
- are recycled materials are used in products
- are the products made of a single fibre as this maximises the recycling potential.
These two questions resulted in three topic areas being addressed in the tender, with two questions on each. Integral was already using a balanced scoring assessment for tenders with a weighting being given for sustainability issues, however, for the pilot, this weighting was increased to 30%.
Each issue area included a question with a yes/no response to the desired minimum specification (with a maximum of three points being awarded for each of these questions), as well as a question on how the supplier has taken an innovative approach to go beyond the minimum spec with a view to improving this over the course of the contract (with a maximum of five points being awarded for each of these questions).
Review of supplier responses
BITC provided a review of the supplier responses, including the follow-up information that was requested, comparing the level of circular maturity between what each supplier was offering and what is considered to be best practice in the industry. Integral completed the process by carrying out their own scoring, taking on board BITC’s comments and using the expertise of their parent company JLL’s Workplace Sustainability Leader in supporting the assessment.
Integral ultimately selected Safpro – who scored highest in the sustainability questions – as their supplier for workwear and PPE. Interestingly, while Safpro were the existing supplier, as a result of their responses to the new questions that were added to the tender, they offered two new circular solutions which were not previously offered:
- Implemented a workwear collection and return-for-recycling system in Integral’s facilities, providing the enabling infrastructure for the closed-loop system which Integral wanted
- Offered circular polo shirts provided through Project Plan B which are designed and manufactured in a way that allows them to be 100% recyclable. When end-of-life garments are returned for recycling, these polo shirts are identified by a QR code on the label, this overcomes the common barrier of separating recyclable garments. The material in the polo shirts is then turned back into raw polyester which is woven into fabrics to be made into new clothes. This is known as closed-loop recycling and is a more effective use of the fabric than the vast majority of textiles recycling in which the material is essentially downcycled for lower value uses, such as insulation material or furniture stuffing that is non-recyclable and will ultimately end up going to landfill.
3,000 fewer polo shirts to go into landfill
Both of these options were taken up by Integral. Once their stock of old polo shirts is used up, Integral will be ordering the circular polo shirt for all their mobile engineers. This will result in circa 3,000 circular polo shirts being procured each year which can be recycled into new garments, rather than being downcycled and eventually ending up in landfill or energy-from-waste incineration.
As well as reducing the number of garments that will potentially go to landfill or for incineration, using closed-loop garments reduces the need for new fibres to be sourced (with associated environmental impacts) and improve transparency in the supply chain. As sourcing and producing virgin fibres is a carbon-intensive process, closed-loop recycling will reduce emissions in comparison. Once the transition to the new polo shirts is complete, and assuming that they are returned and closed-loop recycled at the same rate that they are procured (3,000 per year), then this has the potential to result in a carbon saving of 11 tonnes of potential CO2e savings per year, equivalent to 15 return journeys from London to New York*, in comparison to the shirts going to landfill or energy-from-waste and an equivalent amount of virgin material being produced.
Key lessons learnt
- Suppliers commented that making some PPE products out of recycled fibres is not possible to achieve safety standards – when asking questions about the use of recycled fibres across the product portfolio it may be appropriate to exclude such items.
- Be ambitious. Do not enter the procurement process with preconceived ideas about what is and is not viable in the market.
- Set clear market signals to suppliers about what is important to your organisation. Ask focussed questions.
- Try new things, review the results, look for opportunities to improve the process, and do it better next time. If it doesn’t work out as planned, you can fall back on your previous procurement decision-making criteria.
innovate to sustain and repair our planet
* Calculation methodology:
WRAP’s Carbon Waste and Resources Metric provides a figure of 14,760kg.CO2e savings/tonne for closed-loop recycling of textiles as an alternative to landfill.
3000 polo shirts x an average weight of 0.25kg = 0.75 tonnes.
0.75 x 14,760 = 11,070kg / 11 tonnes of potential CO2e savings if the polo shirts are closed loop recycled vs landfilled.
Pure Leapfrog’s flight emissions calculator – based on average historical British Airways data form 2021 – provides a figure of 0.7 tonnes of CO2e per passenger for a return economy class ticket from London Heathrow to New York JFK.
11 tonnes CO2e / 0.7 tonnes CO2e per flight = 15 flights
1 WRAP (2012) ‘A review of corporate wear arisings and opportunities’.
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