Circular textiles are on the rise in the Amsterdam Area

The textile industry is among the world’s most harmful industries. Textile production pollutes rivers, uses excessive amounts of water and chemicals, and labour conditions are often very poor. All this only so we can fill our wardrobes for very little money. Happily, there are many initiatives that give us hope by trying to do things differently and better. Stef le Fèvre from the City of Amsterdam talks about what’s happening in the Amsterdam Area and what we can do to make a positive impact.

Babette Porcelijn shows with her book ‘Verborgen Impact’ that reducing CO2 emissions and other impact on environment must begin with our own consumption of food, clothes and consumer goods. “This means we can make an impact locally, too,” says Le Fèvre. “For example, by organising the collection, sorting and processing of used textiles in a responsible manner and by striving for transparency in the chain and for processes that follow circular principles as closely as possible.”

Le Fèvre is a strategic advisor for waste chains at the City of Amsterdam and working on collecting and responsibly processing textile; since these are part of the City’s remit. “The City currently collects 12.8 million kilos of textiles annually,” says Le Fèvre, “but the potential based on an AMA study is 26 million. The countrywide target is even higher, but we also know that that will result in us receiving fewer rewearable and not easy to recycle textiles. Not that that means we shouldn’t do it. On the contrary, we have to work on finding ways to make the chain circular. Clothing can stay clothing for longer. So we are able to repair, reuse, swap, buy less and buy higher quality. My personal goal is to only buy clothes when I need to replace something. We also need to find ways of dealing with non-reusable textiles: make old threads into new ones so that old textiles are used to create new, reusable textiles. That might sound easy, but it isn’t. It requires every part of the chain to work together.”

Can you name any circular initiatives in the region that really stand out for you? 

“A lot is happening. There are many designers, fashion brands and initiatives who – each in their own way – are looking for answers and want to help change the textile world. For example, there’s House of Denim, a foundation that campaigns for more sustainable jeans. And in Zaanstad, Wieland Textiles, Loop a Life and the municipality of Zaanstad are working on developing a high quality automated method of sorting of unwearable textiles. This is a wonderful development in the chain of collecting and recycling textiles, because it gives insights in the composition of textile, you can sort by color, texture. Based on this, further production steps can be taken, as long as the sales come.

Waag runs the Textile Lab, which, among other things, considers the tech aspect: how can technology and the use of open-source tools support and improve the textile sector? They have taken the initiative to work together with Pakhuis de Zwijger, Metabolic, Dyne and BMA Techne on a circular chain and to involve residents and entrepreneurs. The municipality of Amsterdam is part of this.

“There is also a pioneering group of sustainable and circular hotels (video in Dutch), comprising some 10% of Amsterdam’s hotel beds. They pay attention to circular purchases of bed and bath linen, with the laundries that own this line. And Fashion for Good, supported by the C&A Foundation and other parties, recently opened an exhibition on the Rokin about the fashion industry and has launched a startup programme in Asia.

“The Ware Westen campaign is aiming to transform Amsterdam West into a sustainable fashion district. The company Palais de L’eau won a local prize for its circular baby towels. The founder was able to use the prize money to open a pop-up store on Kinkerstraat, which gave her the opportunity to raise awareness about circular textiles and recycling among shoppers there.

“Of course, the question remains, how can you really connect all these initiatives, where necessary and make a positive impact? A clear march route helps in this. What are the strengths of this region, and how can the Amsterdam Area complement other – from origin textile areas – regions in the country and beyond? We can’t solve everything in one region and also not in one country. European cooperation is important for establishing a circular textile chain, and we can contribute to that from this region.”

What is the key to success?

“Working together: encouraging cooperation with other regions and finding a form of cooperation that does justice to the complexity of the chain, the different interests and areas of expertise. The momentum is there. National policies (page in Dutch) for circular textiles are being put in place. However, in 2018, the City of Amsterdam adopted a proposal to become a frontrunner in circular textiles and so there are many initiatives already. Making these visible and subsequently work on impact, that’s the key to success.

“Within my expertise I am able to do this. Municipalities can approach textile collection differently. In Amsterdam, we are finalising the budget for the collection and processing of textiles this year. It will include measures for renewing collection and processing routes to contribute to a circular chain. And in any case, in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area we can as governments ensure the textiles we buy are as circular as possible. We already act according to this principle, but it does require know-how and expertise to know what to ask for and to expand on what’s possible. To do so, we make good use of the expertise from our network.

“Labels and certifications can help, as can measures such as a required minimum of circular textiles and also subsidising circular textiles. We also need to help other forms of design and retail concepts scale. It’s crucial that we dare to intervene in the system to create need for circular products. In order to do that, we need the support of the national government and the EU.”

Aantal feiten op een rij

Based on a survey of around 50 respondents, performed by students at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, the average Dutch wardrobe contains 173 items of clothing, of which around 50 mainly remain untouched. On average, Dutch residents buy 46 new items of clothing a year and discard another 40. Of these 40 discarded items of clothing, only 16 are reused or recycled. We own seven second-hand items on average per person. Compared with our European neighbours, Dutch people buy fewer items of clothing than residents in Denmark, Germany and England.

Approximately 10,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1 kilo of cotton. That’s easily 2,500 litres per t-shirt and more than 7,000 litres for a pair of jeans. All that water is taken from rivers, lakes or subterranean water reserves. This can cause water scarcity for local populations and damage the soil.

Worldwide, there are various initiatives for leasing (including the Amsterdam Area-based Mud Jeans), renting or swapping clothes.

Read more about the Amsterdam Economic Board’s Circular Economy Programme.