China produces one third of the hundred billion odd garments that are bought each year, and to the casual observer, the Parawin facility on the outskirts of Ganzhou, southern China, looks like pretty much any other clothing factory in the country. It employs around 300 staff, roughly divided into pattern cutters and tailors. But this otherwise typical factory is part of a pilot project that could provide a model for a more sustainable fashion industry.
With just over 1.2 million inhabitants, Ganzhou is not among China’s biggest cities – ranking around 100 in terms of population. Still, that makes it almost as populous as Dallas, Texas. Clustered high rises in various stages of development dominate its skyline, cranes suspended above them, testament to Ganzhou’s soaring growth rates - currently around 12.5 per cent annually.
This growth sits on 2000 years of storied history, with the center of Ganzhou still dominated by a fortified wall that dates all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Old men whip spinning tops by the riverside and groups practice Tai Chi in shaded parks. It feels like a city at the intersection of old and new.
The same could be said of Parawin. Two years ago, the factory teamed up with Italian company Aquafil to set up a pilot project aimed at bringing scrap material back into the supply chain. Aquafil is pioneering a circular system that turns discarded nylon into ECONYL regenerated nylon. They use everything from old carpets that would have ended up on landfill to so-called ghost gear - lost or abandoned fishing nets that drift on ocean currents, accounting for 10 per cent of all ocean plastics. The company is also turning its attention to pre-consumer waste in garment manufacturing.
Recently, some of the world’s leading brands – Prada among them – signed up to a “Fashion Pact” committing to achieving net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. And consumers are increasingly making sustainability a key consideration in what – and indeed when – they choose to purchase. Still, few consumers realize just how much textile waste happens before their clothes even reach them: a whopping 15 per cent is lost as offcuts.
Mochang Gong is a pattern cutter at Parawin. The 23-year-old operates a computer-aided design (CAD) pattern cutting machine that processes swathe after swathe of mostly nylon fabric. “The machines we use now can maximize the use of the fabrics. But even so, there is still a large amount of fabric being wasted,” he explains.
Scrap nylon like this typically ends up in landfill, where it can remain for decades, slowly releasing methane - a potent greenhouse gas. Whilst nylon has a number of industrial and homeware applications (from automobile airbags to fitted carpets) much of the eight billion pounds of nylon fiber produced every year is used in the fashion industry. It’s a typical example of a linear supply chain based on extracting a raw material, making something out it and then simply throwing it away. Aquafil’s partnership with Parawin is about replacing this linear supply chain with a circular system where offcuts are turned into brand new products.
“Last year, we set up a recycling system for some of our scraps, which means they won’t have to go to landfill,” says Mochang Gong. “It’s not only our factory - more and more environmental protection projects like this are being implemented in China.”
For now, the project is diverting a tiny proportion of the total volume of offcuts Parawin produces, but it is a model that could be upscaled, according to Aquafil China’s Sales & Marketing Manager Yunxia Li. “We hope more and more factories can send us their nylon scraps so that we can create a real reverse supply chain,” she explains.
It’s not just about the factories however - offcuts cannot be repurposed unless the brands that are responsible for them establish systems and partnerships that will effectively bring the offcuts back into the supply chain. One obvious challenge is the need for brands to protect their intellectual property. But this isn’t an insurmountable problem, especially when an intermediary company like Aquafil uses a chemical process to break the scraps down into their molecular building blocks before turning them into ECONYL regenerated nylon.
Ultimately, the goal is to create a closed-loop system where nothing new is put in and nothing is taken out - including the energy used in the manufacturing process. That’s still a long way off, but when an iconic luxury brand like Prada commits to using ECONYL’s upcycled nylon thread in some of its most iconic products, there’s reason to hope that other fashion industry players will follow suit.
Hannah Reyes Morales: As a prolific photojournalist, Morales focuses on individuals caught in situations created through poverty and inequality. Her award-winning work has been published in the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Guardian and, of course, National Geographic.