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Fashion fit for the future: The skills needed to drive clothing's circular transition

By Guest Contributor


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Image: Volha Flaxeco, Unsplash

How the rise of reuse and repair models will change the landscape of the Dutch clothing industry.

Countries around the world are racing to make plans to curb climate breakdown by 2050—with some spotlighting the circular economy as a means to this end. Let’s imagine a scenario thirty years in the future where circularity, supported by government regulations, has transformed the clothing industry: reuse and repair have come to the fore as key strategies for rerouting textiles away from landfills and back into active use.

Imagine it's the year 2050. The Netherlands has achieved what the government took to task 30 years ago: a fully circular economy. Supported by government regulations, businesses in the clothing industry have prioritised reuse and repair as key strategies for rerouting textiles away from landfills and back into active use. Up to 80 percent of textiles sold annually are now collected for repurposing, and local reuse is increasing steadily. Garments change ownership from one consumer to another; some undergo repair and maintenance to be resold. As a result, the second-hand market is rocketing, and repair, maintenance and cleaning services are becoming more and more successful. Employment in the clothing industry is 25 percent higher than 30 years ago, with almost 25,000 new jobs related to repair and maintenance having emerged. About 17,000 jobs have shifted from first-hand sales to second-hand sales.

Back to 2021. According to the new report, Putting Circular Textiles to Work, this scenario can become a reality in the Netherlands —if the industry prioritises equipping workers with new skills and boosting those already present in the clothing value chain, like repair and maintenance.

Written by Natalia Papú Carrone (Research Analyst) and Lena Bäunker (Communications Officer), edited by Ana Birliga Sutherland (Communications Officer and Editor) from Circle Economy for FashionUnited

A fully circular economy for fashion may seem unattainable to people working in the industry today—to date, the Dutch clothing industry is embedded in complex, global value chains that remain largely linear. According to the World Economic Forum, the industry accounts for around 5 percent of global emissions, and the equivalent of one truckload of clothing is burnt or incinerated every second. At the same time, workers around the globe are subject to unethical working conditions pervasive in the sector. And yet, the hunger for new clothing is growing: in the Netherlands alone, residents purchase an average of one new garment per week (*source: the Putting Circular Textiles to Work report).

Skills needs for circular reuse and repair models

Clearly, the journey towards a fully circular clothing industry is long. And a shift towards circularity in the sector will have a vast impact on the workforce, as the transition entails changing roles across the value chain. (Future) professionals in the Dutch clothing industry are thus presented with difficult questions about the future: What skills do I need to drive the adoption of circular practices? What jobs and education levels will be in demand in the clothing industry—and how do I fit in?

Boosting circular models focused on reuse and repair would see the greatest benefits for the labour market, increasing job creation in the industry by 25 percent. But for these job opportunities in the Netherlands to materialise, clothing professionals need to acquire new skills or further develop underutilised ones.

Jobs that already contribute to the circular economy today—including jobs in repair, maintenance, collection, sorting and resale of clothing—will become crucial. To understand what skill sets are required to work in these fields, 2,289 job listings from 2019 have been analysed, presented in the table below.


Manufacturing skills

  • Clothing assembly
  • Manual or mechanical repair activities
  • Use of sewing, ironing and other machinery

Logistics and procurement skills

  • Transportation
  • Delivery skills
  • Stock control
  • Procurement management

Managerial skills

  • Business administration
  • Finance
  • Scheduling

Waste management

Industrial cleaning

Handling and load-carrying skills

Managerial skills

  • Facility and task management
  • Human resource management

Logistics and procurement operational skills

  • Freight forwarding
  • Stock control

Machinery use and maintenance skills

Logistics and procurement skills

  • Transportation (forklift truck driving)
  • Stock control
  • Packaging and processing

Manual or mechanical upkeep of the clothing resold, including cleaning activities

Sales and service skills

  • Retailing
  • Wholesaling
  • Telephone skills
  • Greeting customers

Sustainability awareness and knowledge

While some of these skills are already present in the Dutch labour market, many more people will need to acquire them for the clothing industry to become fully circular by 2050. And since most skills are practical rather than theoretical, Vocational Education and Training (VET) can act as a key mechanism for ensuring a skilled workforce for the circular economy transition—as it equips professionals with the knowledge, skills and competences required by particular occupations and the ever-changing labour market.

Acquiring skills for (new) circular jobs that will be high in demand

Within the repair, sorting and resale sectors, a range of new and additional circular jobs are expected to be high in demand as the entire industry moves towards circular business models.

1) (Re)manufacturing Designers

In an industry focused on reuse, (Re)manufacturing Designers will be essential for creating value out of a new, increasing and ever-changing material stream of used textiles. Key activities in this role include assessing the 'reusability' of incoming clothing as well as understanding which parts of clothing could easily be disassembled and used in the remaking and refurbishment of other parts of clothing. Skills needed include creativity, planning, and knowledge about fabric properties and functionality. Since the incoming material stream is unpredictable, (Re)manufacturing Designers also need to be able to deal with uncertainty.

And: (Re)manufacturing Designers must be supported by a large number of skilled trade workers for (dis)assembly, repair and maintenance activities—such as tailoring or sewing. Although some of these skills are already cropping up in the Dutch labour market, their presence is limited and will require growth.

2) Resale Collection Managers

The rise of (online) resale platforms will be essential in giving brands and businesses visibility and a platform from which to operate their reuse models, while giving consumers a functional marketplace from which to browse and buy used items. This may give birth to a new job: Resale Collection Manager. MOTIF's State of Skills Survey 2020 revealed that skills needed in the apparel industry will include merchandising and buying data analysis, 3D design, as well as knowledge of automation and technology integration in logistics processes. At the same time, having an understanding and knowledge of sustainability and circularity will be crucial—which most times lies at the core of the resale models. Financial and business development skills will also become increasingly important for this role.

And: Due to the potential for a diverse workforce in the resale labour market, as well as a tendency for customer services to prioritise client needs, Resale Operational and Facility Managers will also need to have good listening skills and value inclusivity.

3) Textile Sorters and Collectors

Sorters will be essential in developing more nuance, in terms of new parameters and categories, in the sector. They will be responsible for differentiating materials and stocks from specific brands and for sorting according to the repairability of garments. Those seeking this job must have knowledge of different material compositions, brands and their subsidiaries, and be able to judge the re-wearability of clothing items and their potential for repair. Additionally, as textile collection systems change, it can be expected that less technical knowledge will be required, while physical strength and fluent communication skills will become more relevant in a more localised system.

When looking at managerial roles within textile sorting facilities, there is a large opportunity to attract people with a distance to the labour market—calling for an increase in Social Work Managers. This role would require excellent people management skills, a good variety of social skills and an understanding of the needs of different vulnerable worker groups.

4) Innovation Managers

Interdisciplinary skills that enable collaboration across disciplines, departments and organisations are essential for the transition to a circular clothing industry. Roles that act as linking pins between diverse stakeholders, such as innovation managers, will thus become increasingly important. Some of these jobs are characterised by a need for transversal skills—including digital, green and social skills—in addition to more precise knowledge and skills in logistics, sales and administration, design and marketing.

The Putting Circular Textiles to Work project is led by Circle Economy in collaboration with HIVA, and supported by the Goldschmeding Foundation. The report that inspired this contribution sets out to define a current baseline for jobs and skills pertaining to the clothing sector in the Netherlands. In addition, they collaborated with Amsterdam-based social enterprise Makers Unite to explore skills gaps for their current and future business models. The organisation, which works with skilled newcomers to the Netherlands with a refugee background to create sustainable, upcycled products, hopes to convert to a fully circular business model that fosters social inclusion. In addition to modelling the employment impacts of the increased reuse and repair scenario discussed in this article, it analyses the effects of changing consumption patterns and scaling recycling and local fibre processing.

Images: Photo by Volha Flaxeco on Unsplash & photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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