Sustainable Textiles – the circle is the destination

Colorful thread spools used in fabric and textile industry. The concept of sewing production

The textile industry is considered one of the most polluting and resource-intensive sectors of the economy. How can it be made more sustainable in Germany and Europe? The study ‘Circular Economy in the Textile Sector’ from GIZ and adelphi provides valuable insights.


‘Only nine percent of the global material flows are circular – and the trend is negative,’ explains Morton Hemkhaus, an expert in sustainable textiles at the Berlin think tank adelphi. ‘Circulation means more than the proper disposal of products,’ Hemkhaus adds. Products should be designed to be durable, contain no toxic substances and be capable of further processing after use.

‘The circular economy in the textile sector is in its infancy’

Morton Hemkhaus is one of the authors of the study ‘Circular Economy in the Textile Sector’, published in Berlin at the end of March. The authors examined the options for establishing closed fibre cycles in the apparel and fashion industry. The study analyses fibre cycles in Europe and Germany, describes the biggest drivers and obstacles, and evaluates selected technologies for recycling.

‘The transition to a circular economy in the textile sector is in its infancy in Europe and Germany,’ notes Morton Hemkhaus. A multitude of socio-economic, environmental and legal hurdles still stand in the way of large-scale solutions. There are a number of potential solutions and innovative recycling technologies that can improve the situation. ‘But none of them are ready for the marketplace. Successful commercialisation will require more financial and technical effort,’ says Hemkhaus.        

Chemical recycling as a sustainable alternative

Existing mechanical recycling for used textiles breaks down the fibres. This reduces the quality of the material to the point that virgin fibres must be added before recycling – cotton, for instance, requires up to 50 percent fresh fibre. ‘The quality and material composition of textiles is crucial to the economical recycling of fibres,’ explains Morton Hemkhaus of adelphi. New technologies for chemical recycling that do not require new fibres exist. They are not ready for the market, however, due to their energy consumption.

The study authors interviewed over 20 experts and evaluated the findings of an international symposium held during the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Congress 2018. Following the analysis, the authors develop options for the Federal Government to establish the circular economy in Germany. The study was commissioned by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

More projects in the work area "Circular Economy"

'The circular economy is still in its infancy' - interview with Morton Hemkhaus'