EP31: The SCIRT project: on developing a True Cost Model to quantify circularity in the Fashion and Textile Industry 

Welcome to Episode 31 of Ellie Talks, your gateway to sustainable fashion and textiles. In this episode, we’re joined by Anse Smeets, a circular economy researcher at VITO, a Flemish independent research organization in the field of cleantech and sustainable development whose goal is to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. It is also the coordinator of the Horizon 2020 research project SCIRT.  

Join us in this episode where we discover how the SCIRT project aims to make the fashion and textile industry more sustainable and circular by developing a True Cost Model. By focusing not only on the financial aspect but also on the socio-economic costs, the True Cost Model provides a more realistic image of the ‘true cost’ of a garment. The tool aims to facilitate stakeholders across the value chain in making more conscious decisions.

Five Highlights of the Episode:

  1. Importance of a Systemic Approach: To transition to a truly sustainable and circular fashion and textile industry, we must consider all aspects of the process, including the financial but also socio-economic factors.  
  2. Information is Key: To make conscious decisions, we require reliable and understandable data. The true cost model serves as an excellent tool that facilitates such decision-making. 
  3. Choose your Partners Wisely: Partners in a project must complement each other regarding knowledge and expertise. Only then can they provide real added value. 
  4. Sustainability is more than a buzzword: It’s crucial to grasp the complexities of sustainability to take meaningful steps towards making the fashion and textiles industry more sustainable and circular. 
  5. Learn from others: The insights gained from a project like SCIRT must be embraced by others within the industry. Only by scaling up these learnings can a real impact be achieved. 
Afbeelding met tekst, Lettertype, Graphics, logo

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

© photo: SCIRT   

A personal introduction to Anse Smeets

Anse shares the importance of her role as a mother and her commitment to making positive, conscious contributions no matter how small, both personally and professionally. Anse’s commitment to sustainability extends to her professional work at VITO, where she aims to bring scientific rigour and nuance to sustainability discussions.

“Sustainability is more than a buzzword”. Recognizing the complexity of sustainability issues, Anse advocates for a systemic perspective that considers socio-economic contexts. She stresses the need for a just transition to sustainability that is financially viable, and she finds fulfilment in VITO’s approach to addressing these challenges. 

Exploring SCIRT: Systemic Circularity and Innovative Recycling of Textiles  

Anse introduces SCIRT, which stands for System Circularity and Innovative Recycling of Textiles, a collaborative effort supported by the European Commission involving 18 partners from various sectors, including industry frontrunners as well as academic institutions.  

The research project, initiated in early 2021 and set to conclude this November, focuses on textile-to-textile recycling, a vital aspect of the circularity transition. Anse emphasizes the necessity of recycling solutions to recover valuable materials from end-of-life garments. 

Afbeelding met zwart-wit, grond

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

© photo: SCIRT  

Anse explains that while extending product lifetimes through design, repair, and reuse is crucial, recycling fills the gap when garments reach their end-of-life stage.  SCIRT aims to investigate the supply-demand mismatch: even though there is a large inflow of recycled clothing and the demand from the brands for more recycled content in their garments is growing, the two appear to have difficulty finding each other, often due to quality reasons.  The trajectory of the research and innovation project involves comprehensive testing of various recycling technologies, from lab-scale experiments to industrial runs. Through this process, the project aims to develop scalable solutions that can be implemented on a larger scale. 

One of the project’s key objectives is to showcase garments with a high recycled content, working closely with renowned brands such as Petit Bateau, Bel & Bo, Decathlon, Honest, and Xandres. Anse underlines the significance of engaging those brands in the project. By collaborating with a diverse range of brands representing different market segments and product types, the project aims to comprehensively address the complexities of the fashion market.  

Next to the complementarity of the brands, also the expertise and knowledge among the partners in the project is very important, ensuring the systemic aspect of the project as well as the representation across the entire value chain. From recycling, production and knowledge partners, each participant brings unique expertise to the table. Specific expertise is essential within the consortium, ranging from policy recommendations to customer interventions, all aimed at advancing sustainability in the fashion industry. 

Crucially, the SCIRT project adopts a systemic perspective, considering also the broader societal and economic implications. Anse underscored the importance of exploring relevant business models, customer involvement, and the role of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in realizing a true sustainable future for the fashion industry. 

Afbeelding met persoon, Transparant materiaal, zwart-wit, glas

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© photo: SCIRT  

The True Cost Tool: Quantifying Societal Impacts  

Anse also touched upon a significant deliverable of the project: the true cost tool (which is set to be launched in the summer). This tool aims to calculate the societal impacts of garments throughout their lifecycle, beyond just financial costs. By quantifying environmental and social externalities, the true cost tool provides a comprehensive understanding of the true price of garments. 

Anse explained the concept of the true cost tool, linking it to a simple calculation that reveals the hidden costs associated with garment production, use, and disposal. Through this tool, stakeholders can understand the gap between the price paid for garments in-store and their true societal costs. 

Anse emphasized the importance of making these costs visible, in euros, particularly in a fast fashion industry often plagued by a race to the bottom in terms of pricing. The true cost tool serves as a decision support tool for designers and buyers, enabling them to assess the environmental and social impacts of their purchasing and design decisions in a very comprehensible manner. 

While the primary target audience for the true cost tool is currently designers and buyers, Anse acknowledged the potential value it holds for consumers as well. However, she highlighted the need for further development and refinement before it can be effectively utilized in consumer communication. 

Anse also touched upon the important role of the true cost model in advancing the circular economy in fashion. By highlighting the benefits of using recycled materials and reducing environmental impacts, the tool aims to incentivize sustainable practices throughout the entire industry. 

The conversation delved deeper into the concept of the true cost gap, which represents the disparity between the financial cost of garments and their true societal costs. Anse explained that while the goal isn’t necessarily to minimize the true cost itself, the focus is to narrow the true cost gap by addressing environmental and social impacts in garment production (for example by paying everyone in the supply chain a living wage). 

Afbeelding met kleding, persoon, buitenshuis, Menselijk gezicht

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

© photo: Vogue Business 

Navigating Challenges: Learning from setbacks 

Anse discusses the challenges inherent in research and innovation projects, acknowledging that not all goals are easily achieved. As part of the project, which involves transitioning technologies from lab to industrial scale, setbacks are inevitable. However, Anse emphasized the importance of learning from failures and disseminating these lessons to the wider industry and policymakers. 

Anse continues by highlighting another challenge faced by the project: transparency and data. The fashion industry’s global nature and limited supply chain visibility hinder efforts to gather firsthand data, essential for developing tools like the true cost model. This lack of transparency underscores the urgent need for greater industry-wide collaboration and data sharing to drive sustainability initiatives forward. 

However, despite these challenges, Anse expressed optimism about the project’s future. As SCIRT nears its conclusion, the focus has shifted towards industrial runs for garments featuring high recycled content. These garments, expected to be available after the summer, represent a significant milestone in the project’s journey. The next step is scaling up the project’s learnings beyond the pilot phase. While there are no immediate follow-up research projects planned, the aim is for industry partners and brands to integrate SCIRT’s findings into their operations, ultimately driving broader adoption of circular practices. 

© photo: SCIRT  

Important Lesson learned: True Cost per Wear  

To conclude, Anse shares that her journey into the true cost realm began with a crucial realization: it’s not just about designing circular products but ensuring they are worn extensively. The concept of “true cost per wear” emerged as a key metric, highlighting the importance of durability and longevity in garments. By focusing on quality and encouraging increased wear, each garment’s environmental and social impact can be significantly reduced. 

However, Anse emphasized that achieving this vision requires more than just good intentions—it demands data and communication. Transparency and access to accurate, comprehensive data are essential for driving meaningful change in the fashion industry. As it is aptly put, “garbage in, garbage out”: without reliable data, efforts to improve sustainability may fall short. 

Conclusion: A Call to Action for Sustainable Fashion  

In essence, SCIRT represents not just a research and innovation project but a catalyst for change within the fashion industry. By addressing key challenges and fostering collaboration, it offers a glimpse into a more sustainable and transparent future for textiles. Anse’s insights underscored the potential of the true cost model in driving positive change within the fashion industry. By providing stakeholders with a clearer understanding of the true costs associated with garment production, the tool paves the way for more sustainable decision-making and ultimately, a more equitable and environmentally conscious fashion sector. As Anse aptly puts it, the success of SCIRT lies not only in its pilot achievements but in its ability to inspire lasting change across the industry. 

Let’s connect!

If you are interested to learn more about the SCIRT project and explore collaborations, you can reach out via www.scirt.eu directly.

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