Achieving re-use at scale in the fast moving consumer goods sector

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Braiform Achieving re-use at scale in the fast moving consumer goods sector

Braiform is a global leader in garment hanger reuse. Products are returned to reuse centres where they are sorted, repackaged and distributed back to garment-producing regions, preventing them from ending up in landfill.

Much of the discussion for companies looking to thrive in a circular economy relates to business model innovation – fundamentally changing the way we design, source materials, manufacture and sell. However, anyone trying to catalyse change within a business knows that this can never happen overnight. New practices are often taken on as pilot projects, prototypes or incremental tweaks, testing the water for a wider rollout if the numbers stack up and others are on board. It takes ambition to make these changes at scale, and garment hanger provider Braiform is one example of such ambition, moving from a throughput model to one that achieves 80% re-use – almost unheard of for such a low-value product.

While you have fixed costs the factories need to be fed. You are paying for the machines whether they are making product or not. You have to make a decision to fulfil orders with re-use products

- Dr. Jim Collingham

Braiform is amongst the largest garment hanger suppliers in the world, handling billions of hangers each year. In the past, the company was a key player in the initial manufacture of these products, but fifteen years ago the decision was made to sell off all production facilities and commit to a dedicated re-use supply chain. Today, Braiform are the global leader in garment hanger re-use.

Dr Jim Collingham, Re-use Programme Manager for EMEA, explained why this bold step had to be taken: “while you have fixed costs the factories need to be fed. You are paying for the machines whether they are making product or not. You have to make a decision to fulfil orders with re-use products”.

This loop works as follows: after being contracted by a new partner, Braiform develop a new garment hanger solution, which starts with supplying virgin product into the market. Manufacturers buy these hangers and deploy them before shipping their products. The garments are distributed and during purchase, the retailer collects the hangers, sending them back to distribution centres with deliveries. They then return to one of three main re-use centres in Sheffield, and the United States, where they are sorted, repackaged and distributed back to garment-producing regions.

Those hangers that cannot be re-used are shredded and used to make new products. As Braiform know that the polymer is pure, they can sell this material to a compounder and it returns to virgin production. Last year, 30 million hangers were made from the company’s own waste stream.

In 2014, 540 million hangers were collected, with a large proportion – 430 million – being re-used.

Even the best re-use systems require top-ups to keep the model working. Now, Braiform use relationships with injection moulding production partners around the globe to manufacture the virgin hangers, rather than owning the factories and equipment themselves.

Re-use of low value goods such as packaging is notoriously difficult, which makes the scale of the Braiform operation impressive. In 2014, 540 million hangers were collected, with a large proportion – 430 million – being re-used. Taking into account sizers and other accessories, the company re-used over 1 billion products in 2014.

When asked what steps could be taken to improve an already successful re-use process, design emerges as a key factor. Jim explains how in Europe, hangers have become a clear part of the retailer’s brand, with each one applying their own colour, shape or graphics to set their products apart. This has a significant impact on re-use opportunities, as the versatility of the product is limited. What’s more, some retailers can have hundreds of different types of hanger in their stores, making the sorting process complex and expensive. The situation is different in North America, where retailers have not adopted this trend; hangers have a more uniform style and therefore stay in circulation much longer, being re-used dozens of times. Because they stay in useful circulation, it makes sense to design them to be more durable, so these hangers are often made of polypropylene and shaped for continuous use. Braiform understand these different approaches, and approached the issue through designing a modular hanger with a removable plaque, to enable European retailers to apply a satisfactory level of branding whilst not limiting the products re-use potential.

Jim is also aware that material choice is an area for improvement. Most hangers today are made from polystyrene, and while Braiform are investigating bioplastics, they are currently around 75% more expensive. There are a number of new materials on the market that give more sustainable options to wood, but they haven’t passed performance tests to date. So whilst alternatives are being identified, Braiform will be cycling polymer for the time being.

Legislative barriers exist too, as is often the case with re-use businesses. Legislation in Turkey for example that make the importing of hangers difficult and time consuming of re-use products going back into the country, a strong garment producing nation.

This bold shift has offered clear benefits for the company. Firstly, moving to re-use has meant that Braiform are largely removed from fluctuating oil prices, enabling them to remain competitive and improving client relationships. As Jim explains, “with commodity prices, retailers want benefits from low prices, but are not as understanding when prices go up”. The re-use model has also created jobs. Employing just over 500 people, Braiform provide more people through re-use that it did previously with manufacturing, and more than if dealing in recycling alone. This model is also less reactive to the fashion seasons, with the workforce remaining stable and consistent throughout the year, rather than creating unhelpful peaks and troughs.

By moving from take-make-dispose to the inner loops of the technical cycle, Braiform are demonstrating the multiple benefits that circular business models can bring: materials cost saving, greater resilience from price volatility, closer client relationship and new jobs.

For more information see http://www.braiform.com/