closed loop textile recycling
The company’s giant recycling facility in Germany receives hundreds of tons of old clothes a day. Can it find a way to turn those old clothes into new garments and make its business model sustainable?
Two hours south of Berlin, in the colorless fields of Wolfen, H&M works with a massive textile sorting and recycling facility, one that might prove to be the unlikely looking future and redeemer of fast fashion. Around 25 to 30 trucks a day drop off an average of 14 metric tons of unwanted remainders from Europe’s closets, gathered from recycling bins at H&M’s thousands of locations on the continent. In Wolfen, this detritus of seasons past is industriously sorted for reuse, resale, and recycling, a relatively new trinity for the mass-produced clothing industry.
With 4,200 stores around the world, H&M is the second-largest clothing retailer in the world (after Spain’s Inditex, which has 7,000). Its 2016 revenue is in the neighborhood of $20 billion. It takes a lot of $50 blazers and $10 T-shirts to get to that number, and the company tends to be the prime example of fast-fashion feeding unsustainable consumer habits and environmental damage. And while it clearly has no plans of stopping (the company’s growth target is to increase stores by 10 to 15% annually) it’s also investing heavily in fabric recycling innovations, in the hopes that it can continue to grow while creating a closed-loop system, where most (if not all) of the raw materials for its clothes come from fibers that were already used.
A main feature of this plan is a partnership with a solutions provider called I:CO, which oversees this 13-football-field sized plant, which was opened by their parent company, SOEX, in 1998. (SOEX is a German textile collection and recycling group; I:CO is one of their subsidiaries.) Since 2009, I:CO, which is short for I:Collect, has run the Wolfen plant and since 2013, when H&M began garment collecting, everything left in their European stores has been trucked here. I:CO manages H&M’s in-store cast-off collecting all over the world, and runs two similar facilities—in the U.S. and India—for making zero-waste use of clothes, shoes, and textiles that would otherwise likely end up in landfills.
“For us, the way forward is to create a closed loop for textiles where clothes that are no longer wanted can be turned into new ones, and we don’t see old textiles as waste, but rather a resource,” says Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s sustainable business expert. The company first began to explore aspects of sustainability with the introduction of some organic cotton back in 2005, but the notion of circular production within their supply chain has really taken off just over the past few years, beginning with the 2013 launch of their in-store garment collecting initiative (you can now leave old textiles at any H&M store in the world).
But keeping clothes out of landfills, while laudable, is more of a first step on the way to the main goal, which is changing the company’s supply chain to a so-called closed loop, thus making far more use of non-virgin fibers (as in, fibers that come from already-worn garments). The H&M Foundation is in the midst of a four-year partnership with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), and has committed $5.8 million to develop the technology to recycle blended textiles into fabrics fit for new clothing. Fibers like cotton-poly are currently un-recyclable into wearable new material, a major obstacle to scaling up the company’s fiber-to-fiber recycling operation and closing that part of the production loop.
I:CO doesn’t know the exact amount of cotton-poly it collects, but the amount of blended textiles it has been receiving has been on the rise, so finding a way to recycle these into fiber that can be used for new clothing is a problem that needs to be addressed. In 2015, the company joined forces with luxury group Kering to partner with Worn Again, a UK-based textile research firm. Worn Again is trying to address problems like the shortening of natural fibers, which occurs when fabric is re-spun. Right now, when clothes you buy are marked “recycled,” that’s only 20% true. The rest is virgin fiber, which has to be combined with the recycled stuff to make a wearable textile. This is the problem that the scientists at HKRITA are trying to solve.
Both in speaking to its executives and in its exhaustive, public annual sustainability reports, H&M remains committed to finding a way to make all kinds of fiber-to-fiber recycling a major part of their closed loop materials, even if there is no target date yet in sight. In the meantime, at least, the company has produced 1.3 million garments with closed loop material in 2015 (it’s one of the biggest users of recycled polyester and organic cotton in the world) and H&M seems well aware that a future blended textile recycling capability is a key way to decouple their growth from new materials. “There’s resource scarcity on one hand, and we have huge waste on the other,” says Brännsten.
The multiple tons sorted in Wolfen on any given day are still minor compared to the 85% of discarded clothes that sent to landfills (the rest are donated), yet the operation requires seven hundred employees, most of whom work in the 24-hours-a-day business of sorting. I:CO says that salaries start above the German minimum wage, which is 8.50 euros an hour. They’re also offered health benefits on top of normal health insurance, like free physiotherapist visits in Wolfen, likely useful given that each person sifts through more than 6,000 pounds of clothing per eight-hour shift.
The sorting process is based on 350 different criteria which determine whether your old jeans will be re-sold, partly re-used (zippers are handy that way), or fully recycled. Nothing that is fit for reuse, Brännsten stressed, would be recycled. Reuse extends an item’s lifespan, thereby lengthening the time it takes to go around H&M’s circular production loop.
But everything in Wolfen is used, in one way or another. The most worn-out cotton items head to a shredder, where they are gradually broken down and repackaged into inviting bales of fluff, and become wipes and cleaning cloths. The absurd amount of dust produced by the sorting, shredding, and baling is sucked up into brickettes and sold to the paper industry. The reusable clothes—and about 60% of what ends up in Wolfen is still wearable—are sorted by type, fabric, color and quality, packed in 130 to 175 pound bales, and shipped to any of 90 countries (predominantly in Eastern Europe and Africa) for re-sale in used clothing stores.
Customers who drop off clothes receive incentives, in the form of discounts or vouchers per bag of clothing. The idea is to make it as compelling as possible to get rid of clothing that would otherwise be trashed, and the incentives vary by H&M brand and home country regulations. In the U.S., a bag with at least three items (from any brand, and this can include stuff like old sheets) nets you a 15% discount coupon at H&M, while the same bag at the more upscale & Other Stories is rewarded with 10% off. Meanwhile, the proceeds from used clothing re-sale do not feed the company’s bottom line, but are donated to local charities and the H&M Foundation, which splits the funds between social and recycling projects, including the HKRITA partnership.
At the stores themselves, the Conscious Exclusive collection gives organic and partially-recycled clothing a fancier vibe, while the affordable Conscious line might be in your closet already. Close the Loop, an understated recycled denim and knit line for men and women debuted earlier this fall, and is made with 20% post-consumer cotton and wool from I:CO’s India plant. The company uses about 20% sustainable materials overall—using organic cottons, linens, and leathers, recycled polyamides and polyesters, and now, recycled cotton and wool.
So far, the company has collected about 34,000 tons of waste, or the weight of 178 million t-shirts, according to Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability. Of course, the equivalent of 178 million t-shirts over three years sounds less impressive next to the 550 to 600 million garments the company produces annually (this is based on outside estimates; H&M does not release production numbers). Its sheer size means “we will get criticized,” Brännsten says, throughout their ongoing move toward fuller sustainability.
And certainly, the criticism the company receives for its unsustainable production pales in comparison to its issues with garment production and worker protections. While H&M has publicly committed to fair living wages and working hours for its garment workers, human rights activists on the ground tell a different story. The Clean Clothes Campaign reported last spring that Bangladesh factories who work with H&M were behind schedule on badly-needed improvements (like fire doors) and vendors in Cambodia and India were coercing pregnant employees to get abortions, lest they instead be fired. Any advances the company makes in terms of recycling science certainly must be balanced with a continued push toward worker rights and worker safety, or the quest for sustainability in its supply chain will be meaningless.
Ultimately, the company “need[s] to ask I:CO, instead of the cotton field,” for new material, says Brännsten, noting that one effect of the company’s size is the potential of its influence over supply chains. In Wolfen, the U.S., and the India, already zero-waste facilities, the goal is to move away from down-cycling (the paper brickettes, wipes, cleaning cloths), maximize fiber-to-fiber recycling, and source all cotton sustainably by 2020. Developing cotton-poly recycling will likely speed up if and when H&M’s competitors get on board, too, Brännsten conceded. “It will not be called ‘recycled’ in the future,” she says, “because that’s the polyester that you get.” Walking through Wolfen, under hundreds of suspended sacks of discarded clothing, it’s believable that they are on their way. Now, for its efforts to outstrip the criticism of its business, what it needs most is a hard and fast timeline for that circular future.
[All Photos: via I:CO]
*This story first appeared on Fast Coexist
Fast fashion is now the global norm. Producers make more and cheaper clothes and people buy more clothes more often.
It’s a pattern we’ve all become familiar with — department stores with endless variety, clothes that seem to wear out more quickly — but the sheer scale of the situation has reached unsustainable levels. The only way many brands are able to turn a profit is through enormous, ever-increasing volume.
To get a sense of the industry’s size, here are a few startling facts:
- Eighty billion pieces of new clothing are consumed each year around the world, a 400% increase from two decades ago.
- In the US, 14 million tons of textile waste, mostly clothes, are thrown out annually. That’s approximately 80 pounds per person.
- Eighty-four percent of this clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators, where it breaks down, emits greenhouse gases, and releases chemicals into the ground and atmosphere.
Recycling has often been pitched as a solution to the industry’s problems, specifically the problem of ever-increasing demand for natural resources such as cotton, rubber, oil, and leather.
But it turns out that recycling has a long way to go before it can make a meaningful difference in retail, which has been called the second dirtiest industry in the world after big oil for its agricultural impact, the pollution it causes, and the energy it consumes.
The goal, ultimately, is for the fashion industry to become “circular” through improved recycling methods, minimizing its environmental impact in the process.
“Circular for apparel means that when clothing reaches the end of its useful life we will return it and make new clothing out of our used garments,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told Global Citizen in an interview.
“Getting to circular will require many steps including technological innovation and retraining consumers to take back their clothing instead of sending it to the landfill,” he said.
True circularity is still a far ways off. As Alden Wicker of Newsweek recently wrote, “Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager.”
H&M is one of the pioneers of fast fashion and has invested heavily in a recycling program as a way to boost sustainability.
“We have set the vision of becoming 100% circular. In close dialogue with experts and stakeholders we will set time-bound milestones that take us closer to our goal,” said Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M in a press release. “To lead the change towards fully circular and sustainable fashion.”
Kibbey thinks that, while the model is currently insufficient, the investments are paving the way toward a good model.
“H&M’s current practices around recycling are a step toward retraining the consumers which, when combined with emerging recycling technologies, could create this circular model everyone strives for,” he said.
Why Isn’t Recycling Effective?
Currently, the vast majority of recycled clothes cannot be repurposed into quality fabric; a recycled shirt is more likely to become a windshield rag or floor mat then another shirt.
This happens for a few reasons. Modern clothing generally consists of hybrid fibers — polyester and cotton blends, for example — that are hard to separate and process. Fast fashion brands, in particular, use cheaper and often synthetic blends of materials that are hard to disentangle.
Recycling is further complicated by the chemical processes that were used to shape clothing and the chemical dyes that remain in garments. These chemicals can be difficult to remove and can degrade the quality of materials. Then there’s the erosion that occurs when wearing a piece of clothing over time.
So most clothes that are recycled don’t exist in a “closed loop.” Instead, they follow a downward trajectory, eventually ending up in landfills.
“When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” said Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
How Can This Be Changed?
As Kibbey noted, a lot of technological advances have to be made before existing clothing materials can be effectively recycled.
Machines have to be developed that can reliably sort through and separate different fabrics and then restore integrity to the fibers so that they can be reused for new clothes — something that Wicker notes is at least five to 10 years out.
There are stories of successful recycling systems being implemented and scaled by large corporations that suggest circular systems are attainable.
For example, Levi is working on jeans made from 100 percent post-consumer cotton.
And then there are big companies like Patagonia that break the pattern by controlling more aspects of production and ensuring that materials can be readily reused, while also promoting the long-term value of the products they sell.
There also seems to be a gradual awakening throughout the industry that future profits hinge on the ability to effectively recycle and for resources to remain viable.
The ideal solution would be for manufacturers to standardize materials production methods. If this happened, then recycling would become exponentially easier.
“Fashion and clothing are indeed a very high impact industry, but the industry is making considerable progress,” Kibbey said. “Nearly 40% of the industry is supporting the Higg Index to measure and improve the impacts of apparel and footwear products.
“Some companies have just released ambitious goals such as Nike’s goal to double its growth and halve its impact,” he said. In Kibbey’s view, Inditex (Zara) and H&M have made bold statements toward circularity.
“There is still a long way to go but I’m optimistic the industry that brought us into the industrial revolution will lead us into the sustainability revolution.”
What can you do in the meantime?
The best thing you can do is buy less and higher quality clothes. This approach has a few benefits. First, it allows you to hold onto clothes for longer, generating less waste and reducing your environmental impact. Second, it signals to companies that they should be developing more sustainable models. If all consumers adopted this approach, then fast fashion would rapidly change.
If you’re interested in taking a more active role, here’s some advice from Kibbey:
“Ask questions of all of the companies you buy from about their efforts to improve the social and environmental impacts of their products,” he said.
“If you aren’t satisfied with the answer you get from a sales associate or a person answering questions on their website, they probably aren’t part of the solution.
“Tell them you won’t shop with them any longer until they do better. Buy products with certifications such as Fair Trade, Blue Sign, or GOTS. They are a great start towards finding and supporting sustainable products. “
When it comes to deciding whether or not to recycle your clothing?
“At the end of the useful life of a garment people should recycle because it will mean the clothing will have the best chance of an afterlife and will likely avoid the landfill even if it doesn’t end up on another person,” Kibbey said.
“They should not recycle solely to free up their closet to buy more items–today that is totally unsustainable,” he said. “When we get to a circular future, that will be normal and sustainable.”
*This story first appeared on Global Citizen
Visitors who stepped into fashion retailer H&M’s showroom in New York City on April 4, 2016, were confronted by a pile of cast-off clothing reaching to the ceiling. A T.S. Eliot quote stenciled on the wall (“In my end is my beginning”) gave the showroom the air of an art gallery or museum. In the next room, reporters and fashion bloggers sipped wine while studying the half-dozen mannequins wearing bespoke creations pieced together from old jeans, patches of jackets and cut-up blouses.
This cocktail party was to celebrate the launch of H&M’s most recent Conscious Collection. The actress Olivia Wilde, spokeswoman and model for H&M’s forays into sustainable fashion, was there wearing a new dress from the line. But the fast-fashion giant, which has almost 4,000 stores worldwide and earned over $25 billion in sales in 2015, wanted participants to also take notice of its latest initiative: getting customers to recycle their clothes. Or, rather, convincing them to bring in their old clothes (from any brand) and put them in bins in H&M’s stores worldwide. “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fibre, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” H&M said on its blog.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s a gross oversimplification. Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager, Henrik Lampa, who was at the cocktail party answering questions from the press. And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.
Picture yourself with a trash bag of old clothes you’ve just cleaned out of your closet. You think you could get some money out of them, so you take them to a consignment or thrift store, or sell them via one of the new online equivalents, like ThredUp. But they’ll probably reject most of your old clothes, even the ones you paid dearly for, because of small flaws or no longer being in season. With fast fashion speeding up trends and shortening seasons, your clothing is quite likely dated if it’s more than a year old. Many secondhand stores will reject items from fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.
If you’re an American, your next step is likely to throw those old clothes in the trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.
When natural fibers, like cotton, linen and silk, or semi-synthetic fibers created from plant-based cellulose, like rayon, Tencel and modal, are buried in a landfill, in one sense they act like food waste, producing the potent greenhouse gas methane as they degrade. But unlike banana peels, you can’t compost old clothes, even if they’re made of natural materials. “Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing,” says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “They’ve been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths.” Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air.
Meanwhile, synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, have the same environmental drawbacks, and because they are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.
Despite these ugly statistics, Americans are blithely trashing more clothes than ever. In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. The EPA estimates that diverting all of those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.
Trashing the clothes is also a huge waste of money. Nationwide, a municipality pays $45 per ton of waste sent to a landfill. It costs New York City $20.6 million annually to ship textiles to landfills and incinerators—a major reason it has become especially interested in diverting unwanted clothing out of the waste stream. The Department of Sanitation’s Re-FashioNYC program, for example, provides large collection bins to buildings with 10 or more units. Housing Works (a New York–based nonprofit that operates used-clothing stores to fund AIDS and homelessness programs) receives the goods, paying Re-FashioNYC for each ton collected, which in turn puts the money toward more bins. Since it launched in 2011, the program has diverted 6.4 million pounds of textiles from landfills, and Housing Works has opened up several new secondhand clothing sales locations.
But that’s only 0.3 percent of the 200,000 tons of textiles going to the dump every year from the city. Just 690 out of the estimated 35,000 or so qualified buildings in the city participate.
Smaller municipalities have tried curbside collection programs, but most go underpublicized and unused. The best bet in most places is to take your old clothing to a charity. Haul your bag to the back door of Goodwill, the Salvation Army or a smaller local shop, get a tax receipt and congratulate yourself on your largess. The clothes are out of your life and off your mind. But their long, international journey may be just beginning.
Made to Not Last
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, charities overall sell only 20 percent of the clothing donated to them at their retail outlets. All the big charities I contacted asserted that they sell more than that—30 percent at Goodwill, 45 to 75 percent at the Salvation Army and 40 percent at Housing Works, to give a few examples. This disparity is probably because, unlike small charity shops, these larger organizations have well-developed systems for processing clothing. If items don’t sell in the main retail store, they can send them to their outlets, where customers can walk out with a bag full of clothing for just a few dollars. But even at that laughably cheap price, they can’t sell everything.
“When it doesn’t sell in the store, or online, or outlets, we have to do something with it,” says Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail and marketing for Goodwill Industries International. So Goodwill—and others—“bale up” the remaining unwanted clothing into shrink-wrapped cubes taller than a person and sell them to textile recyclers.
“What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?”
“Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
This outrages people who believe the role of thrift shop charities is to transfer clothes to the needy. “What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?” read a Fashionista headline earlier this year. The story hinted, “Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
“People like to feel like they are doing something good, and the problem they run into in a country such as the U.S. is that we don’t have people who need [clothes] on the scale at which we are producing,“ says Pietra Rivoli, a professor of economics at Georgetown University. The nonprofit N Street Village in Washington, D.C., which provides services to homeless and low-income women,says in its wish list that “due to overwhelming support,” it can’t accept any clothing, with the exception of a few particularly useful and hard-to-come-by items like bras and rain ponchos.
Fast fashion is forcing charities to process larger amounts of garments in less time to get the same amount of revenue—like an even more down-market fast-fashion retailer. “We need to go through more and more donations to find those great pieces, which can make it more costly to find those pieces and get them to customers,” says David Raper, senior vice president of business enterprises at Housing Works. Goodwill’s strategy is much the same, says Meyer: “If I can get more fresh product more quickly on the floor, I can extract more value.”
This strategy—advertising new product on a weekly basis—is remarkably similar to that of Spanish fast-fashion retailer Zara, which upended the entire fashion game by restocking new designs twice a week instead of once or twice a season. And so clothing moves through the system faster and faster, seeking somebody, anybody, who will pay a few cents for it.
If you donate your clothing anywhere in the New York City area and the items aren’t sold at a secondhand store, they’re likely to end up at Trans-Americas Trading Co. Workers at this large warehouse in Clifton, New Jersey, receive and process about 80,000 pounds of clothing a day.
When Eric Stubin, owner of Trans-Americas, president of the Council for Textile Recycling and president of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, takes me on a tour of the warehouse, he pauses while a forklift scurries around the corner with a bale of garments and neatly stacks it in a tall, dense wall of clothing, before shooting back around the corner to grab another from a semi that’s backed up to the loading bay. Workers stand in front of conveyor belts making split-second assessments as they mine the castoffs for valuable pieces. Sometimes, they find a gem—a pair of vintage Levi’s, an ugly Christmas sweater, an army jacket—and toss it into a small bin full of other covetable items, which Trans-Americas can sell at a markup to vintage stores in Brooklyn. But that’s just about 2 percent of what they get. The rest is sorted into broad categories, like T-shirts, pants or cold-weather items, then divided again by quality and material.
Forty percent of the clothing will be baled and shipped all over the globe to be resold as is. Japan gets the second nicest vintage items after the U.S. stores, South American countries get the mid-grade stuff, Eastern European countries get the cold-weather clothes, and African countries get the low-grade stuff no one else will take. In the 1980s, secondhand clothing began flowing into African countries that had dropped their protectionist economic policies. And because it was cheaper and seen as higher quality than domestically produced clothing, it dominated the market. By 2004, 81 percent of clothing purchased in Uganda was secondhand. In 2005, according to an Oxfam report, secondhand clothing made up half of the volume of clothing imports in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, starting in the 1990s, textile industries in those African countries cratered.
Early last year, at a summit of East African heads of state, some of the regional leaders proposed a ban on the importation of secondhand clothing; English-speaking news sites such as Voices of Africa and CNN followed up by positing that old clothing from the U.K. and U.S. was creating a post-colonial economic mess. “Exporting low-quality clothing that has no value in our own society forges a relationship of dependency,” says Andrew Brooks at Kings College London. “You can call me idealistic, but I don’t really want to live in a world where people who are in the global south, the only clothes they can afford to buy are clothes you and I don’t want.”
Not everyone agrees. Georgetown University’s Rivoli, for example, says the secondhand clothing trade creates jobs in not only selling but also cleaning, repairing and tailoring. Karen Tranberg Hansen, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, has argued that secondhand clothing in countries like Kenya, Zambia, Lesotho and Uganda fills a different niche than the textile industry. “There are different segments of the population that have different desires,” she says. “It is not a direct competition.” Secondhand clothing, traditional clothing that is made locally, Asian imports—different people buy different things, she asserts.
But what everyone agrees on is that Africans buy cast-off clothing from the U.S. because they see it as high quality and good value. This might not be true much longer. The 2005 Oxfam report found that in Kenya up to a quarter of clothing in imported secondhand bales was unsalable due to poor quality. Since then, fast fashion’s market share has expanded, even as it has become synonymous with “falls apart after two wears” for Western consumers. It’s possible that Africans might eventually recognize that the secondhand fashion is just cheap, old imported clothing from Asia that made a quick pit stop in the U.K. and U.S. And like Americans, they might decide to just buy it new.
On the Brink of Collapse
Thirty percent of the clothing that comes into Trans-Americas is T-shirts and polos that will be cut into wiping rags for auto shops and other industrial uses. Another 20 percent of the clothing—the ripped and stained items—will be shipped out to processors that will chop it up into “shoddy,” to be used in building insulation or carpet padding or floor mats for the auto industry. These are the least profitable types of clothing recycling for Trans-Americas.
The surge of fast-fashion garments poses a problem for Trans-Americas too. “More garments are made with polyester [or] poly-cotton blend,” Stubin says. “If you have clothing that is lower quality, you’re going to end up with more wiping rags and more material for the fiber market. The market for fiber is pennies these days. Half of the clothing we sell for less than the acquisition value.”
Though it’s better to downcycle clothes—turn them into less valuable consumer goods like auto-shop rags—than to send them straight to the landfill, it’s not a complete solution. Those rags will still find their way to the landfill after a few uses; insulation will be thrown in the dumpster when it’s torn out of a wall or old car. Everything is broken down further and further until it eventually reaches the landfill.
The cost to the planet isn’t just what the stuff does when it’s put in the ground, though that’s bad enough. The wasted resources it took to create a textile are devastating for the planet. “When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” says Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
International companies like Adidas, Levi’s, Nike and H&M don’t want you to stop buying their products, but they also don’t want to give up on their fast-fashion business models. “The holy grail for sustainability in fashion is closed-loop sourcing,” Marie-Claire Daveu of the global luxury holding company Kering told Vogue. (Kering owns companies like Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, among many others.) “Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers.”
Closed-loop technology, where a product is recycled back into almost the same product, is a tantalizing prospect for sustainability advocates, because it essentially mimics the natural process of life. A plant grows out of dirt, dies, is incorporated back into dirt, and then another plant grows from that dirt. Rain falls, moves through the forest and into a river, flows to the sea, evaporates into the sky and falls again. There’s no waste. If closed-loop technology could be achieved for fashion, nothing would ever go the landfill—it would just be endlessly looped through textile factories, garment factories, stores, your closet, secondhand retailers, textile recyclers and back to textile factories again. Polyester thread would be created, woven into a textile, made into a garment, broken down into pure polyester and woven into a textile again. Same for natural fibers.
But commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still five to 10 years away, at best. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there is closed-loop technology for pure cotton that could take a garment, break it down and reweave—but once cotton is dyed, treated or blended with other materials, the process no longer works. Treated cotton, linen, silk and wool can be mechanically chopped up for recycling, but they yield a low-quality, short fiber that must be mixed with virgin fiber for clothing. At 20 percent reused cotton, H&M’s recycled denim line released last summer pushed the limits of what’s possible today—a higher percentage of recycled cotton results in a lower-quality textile that tears too easily to be wearable.
A hopeful note appeared in May when Levi’s debuted a prototype of jeans in partnership with the textile technology startup Evrnu, made with 52 percent chemically recycled cotton from old T-shirts. Evrnu says its technology isn’t sensitive to certain dyes, and it hopes to eventually make jeans from 100 percent post-consumer cotton waste. But there’s no timeline available yet for when these jeans will become available.
Closed-loop recycling of synthetic textiles like elastane-nylon blends is even further away from commercial feasibility. The technology exists to chemically process polyester into its core components and spin it back into polyester thread, and Patagonia is already using it to recycle its clothing. But Patagonia is doing it out of principle, not for profit; the process is prohibitively expensive and finicky, requiring high-quality polyester textile (Patagonia’s own fleeces) as an input, instead of the cheap polyester textiles typically used by fast-fashion retailers.
Then there are popular blended fabrics with both polyester and natural fibers that, currently, can’t be closed-loop recycled at all. Because the manufacture of polyester textiles is soaring—from 5.8 million tons in 1980 to 34 million in 1997 and an estimated 100 million in 2015— we won’t be able to handle our output of old clothing until that problem is solved.
H&M knows this, which is why in February it handed out $1.1 millionthrough its charity, Conscious Foundation, to five “innovation teams” working on textile recycling technologies. One team will be working on a process to dissolve old cotton clothing into a cotton-like material that can be spun into new fibers. Another is developing a microbe that can digest polyester, even if it’s blended with a natural fiber, and break it down into its basic components for resale back to polyester manufacturers.
These processes need to be developed in tandem with a sorting technology that can easily tell apart pure cotton, synthetic fabric and blended fiber, or recognize that a jacket has cotton on the outside and polyester on the inside. “If we’re going to try to get 24 billion pounds out of the landfill, we can’t be hand sorting,” says Jennifer Gilbert of the international secondhand clothing collection company I:CO.
There’s a special sense of urgency to these brands’ efforts to close the loop, which would create a new and—hopefully—profitable market for old textiles. In the past year, the market for secondhand textiles has tanked, pushing this entire system to the brink of collapse.
At the moment your old clothing is baled for sale to a textile recycler, it ceases to be discrete items whose value is determined by the label, quality or trendiness. Instead, it becomes a commodity with a per-pound price governed by global supply and demand. In the past 18 months, that price has dropped to a few cents per pound, shoved down by the strength of the dollar, weak demand due to unrest in the Middle East (where much of the secondhand clothing is processed), upward economic mobility in Eastern European countries and a fire in the largest secondhand market in East Africa.
Some percentage of that price drop could be attributed to a steady increase in the supply of lower-quality secondhand clothing, as charities race to process more clothes faster. “The used-clothing industry is going through an extremely difficult period both here in the U.K. and globally,” Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association in the U.K., told Sourcing Journal in April. “Yet consumption of new clothing is continuing to rise, with clothing prices still generally much lower than they used to be. Continuing downward pressure on prices for used clothing is inevitable for some time to come.” With little financial incentive for recyclers, collection rates have dropped by 4 percent in the past year, after rising steadily during the years after the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
If clothing quality continues to fall, demand from the international market drops even further and the closed-loop recycling technology doesn’t come through, we might have a secondhand clothing crisis. And then there wouldn’t be any place at all to take your cheap, old clothes.
*This story first appeared on Newsweek