Is it Possible to Keep Spa Textiles in a Circular Economy Business Model?

ReBlend: Near Circular Textiles

OVERVIEW

The challenge. Manufacturing textiles is most often incredibly resource-intensive, putting great pressure on natural ecosystems, water supplies and water systems, and so on. Very little textile waste is salvaged or recycled as most ends up either in landfill or being incinerated

The solution. ReBlend brings together people from along the textile value chain to create recycled fabrics and then using those fabrics to produce things like clothing, towelling and furniture.

What makes it circular? ReBlend finds a use for post industrial as well as post-consumer textiles. Bringing more circular textiles to the market reduces demand for virgin fibres and strengthens a circular textiles future.

The benefits. By working on ‘low design’ products (eg towels) ReBlend can scale up the market for recycled textiles faster. By working with specific industries (eg healthcare), ReBlend can help divert specific and very large waste streams.

Anita De Wit at ReBlend is the right sort of person to bring leadership to the circular textiles movement. Her background in economics and sustainable business development lends itself well to pragmatic courses of action. Steering the textiles world away from linear production to circular, we need prudence and almost un-idealistic thinking as well as imagination and idealism. And for Anita, ReBlend is the perfect combination of a long-lived interest in fashion design and an enthusiasm for creating systems that balance people, planet and profit.

Stephanie Hodgson from Meetthe5Rs met with Anita in her Amsterdam-based workspace last month.

Anita regaled the history of her business, her current and many projects, and where she hopes to go with ReBlend in the future. This case study is about Anita and her team’s successes and struggles as they navigate creating recycled textile fabrics, garments and products.

Written By Stephanie Hodgson at MeetthefiveRs for The Sustainable Spa Association – Part Four of the Circular Economy Campaign Case Studies

Innovation for Textiles

The goal of ReBlend at the outset was simple: bring together people from different sides of the textile chain to make joint initiatives that would save textiles from incineration. Beyond that, the sky was the limit. They could join forces with furniture makers and other interior companies to make upholstery fabrics. They could also work with fashion designers to produce clothes. Anita does not seem to feel restricted by any preconceived notions of what ReBlend should be or should be trying to do.

What really intrigues me about this business, what I’ve come to really respect about it, is its open mindedness and willingness to welcome new proposals and partners. This allows ReBlend to take any direction it chooses, to have an impact where the opportunities to do so come knocking.

A pivotal moment was in 2014 when the ReBlend team worked with German students to transform 20 kilos of post consumer textiles into durable yarn. That yarn was woven into upholstery fabrics that a then-start-up used for its completely circular furniture. That start-up was Van de Sant and is now a thriving business that continues to source much of its fabric from ReBlend.

Check out van de Sant: Circular furniture manufacturing.

An issue, though, with regularly supplying circular fabrics to van de Sant or any number of other established businesses is that you need to have a steady supply of the stuff, ready and available for when these partner brands make an order. This usually means having stock but that, says Anita, is another problem. 

Having stock, having a supply of any material or product in excess of what is currently being ordered, leaves a business open to unsold inventory. That is a recipe for waste and goes against everything Anita and her team believe in. It is a bit of a conundrum: wanting to regularly supply an innovative, circular material to current and even prospective purchasers but not keep any unaccounted for supply to hand. Anita says they really did try a genuine ‘made to order’ approach but it simply did not work. 

“When people decide they want to have fabric, they want it tomorrow.”

Another issue they have come across is colour selection. In the beginning, ReBlend focused on very common, very popular colours like grey. However, it was clear fairly early on that they need a proper selection. They could not leave it up to interested parties to just imagine those fabrics in a range of other colours. They needed to produce actual samples in that range to be able to present to them.

Therein lies another issue: samples. When us consumers want a sample, we are given this tiny piece of fabric. But when a textile brand wants to be able to offer samples, they cannot then just go to their manufacturers and ask them to make a tiny sample. They need to put in an order and most of the time they face substantial minimum order requirements. So again, ReBlend is forced to produce a load of fabric that it is not necessarily going to use.

Rebuild and ReBlend

Covid has also presented challenges but in many ways it has offered unique benefits. While the pandemic has hampered demand in many sectors, it has also given many people the opportunity to learn more about the climate crisis, to reconsider the direction of their businesses and to make adjustments before the easing of lockdown.

ReBlend, too, has spent some of this time reevaluating its position. Of course the team wants to be more directly involved in the production of its fabrics and the application of them to special finished products. At the same time, it is clear to them that they need to bring the concepts up to scale. 

One way to do this is to bring in people who have access to a wider community of makers (i.e. agents) so ReBlend fabrics can reach more designers and manufacturers. It distances Anita and her team somewhat from the products they are part of creating but like for the parents whose children go off to college, it can be so rewarding to see your baby flourish on its own.

Anita has actually experienced this first hand, not only with fashion designers and design students. She has felt the complications around employing her fabrics to garments when working with Dutch health care professionals in developing an alternative to disposable protective smocks. 

They are still working through the transition from disposable to washable garments which is already complicated by sourcing textiles, agreeing on safe laundering procedures, laundering logistics and so on. Adding challenges like fabric weight and fit to the mix, she says it’s a slow process.

Keep it simple

Another possible way to scale up the use of their circular textiles is by limiting the design factor. Think about how many more decisions need to go into generating wearable, ontrend, long lasting fashion pieces compared to generating towels, for example. And this is precisely the direction ReBlend is now headed.

They have a prototype towel, which I got to see and feel, that is 70% post industrial cotton waste and 30% Tencel*. These can then be recycled again 2-3 times. The next step, however, is completely replacing the Tencel fibres with post consumer recycled cotton, making the towels 100% recycled.

* The TENCEL™ branded lyocell fibers that ReBlend uses are produced by environmentally responsible processes from ethically sourced wood.

Towels are great because they can be produced with little design input and they reach so many industries. Consumers, directly, yes. Also the hospitality industry, the spa industry, the hair and beauty industry, too list but a few. These connections were first in my mind when speaking with Anita, in particular my own connection with the Sustainable Spa Association which I have developed a circular economy campaign for: #SpaWasteNotChallenge.

To learn more about the #SpaWasteNotChallenge, click here

ReBlend fit perfectly in the #SpaWasteNotChallenge campaign. In response to this we extremely proud to announce that together, MeetthefiveRs, The SSA and ReBlend have a proposal to encourage spas into a pilot scheme to enter a circular business model for towels by sending in their old cotton textiles and purchasing new recycled towels. Those spas would then be able to close the loop on that key waste stream. #SpaWasteNotChallenge

The same pilot scheme will also run for van de Sant with a closed loop hospitality furniture pilot exclusively through The Sustainable Spa Association.

We will soon share the outcome of this new partnership as it unfolds. Until then, check out ReBlend here.

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