Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5 billion worth of T-shirts, pants, jackets and dresses last year. It also took 12,000 tons of clothes back. In a glossy, celebrity-studded video, H&M says: “There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”
Recycling has become a rallying cry in the apparel industry, with H&M as its most vocal evangelist. The Swedish firm launched a €1 million contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist M.I.A. to produce a music video called Rewear It that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling.”
Don’t miss The Circular Economy Gets Down to Business with Ellen MacArthur of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Cyrus Wadia of Nike and Kate Brandt of Google on Sept. 20 at VERGE 16.
With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy — an industrial system in which everything at the end of its life is made into something new, in contrast to today’s economy, where most consumer goods are produced, used and then thrown away.
“We have to change how fashion is made,” Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive officer of H&M, has said. “We have to go from a linear model to a circular model and we have to do it at scale.”
It’s not just H&M. American Eagle Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Co., Nike, the North Face, Patagonia and Zara all collect old garments (or shoes, in the case of Nike) in their stores, in some cases taking clothes from any manufacturer. Startups Ambercycle, Dutch Awareness and Evrnu are developing chemical processes to take cotton, polyester or blended apparel and transform them into new fibers. “Our ultimate goal is to harvest our raw materials from our consumers’ closets,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss.
That H&M is leading the charge for the circular economy is no small irony. The company’s low-cost clothes — it sells women’s T-shirts for $5.99 and boys’ jeans for $9.99 — are one reason why the apparel industry is growing so fast and drawing fire from environmental activists.
It’s been estimated that the global apparel industry generates as much as $2.5 trillion in annual revenue and that it will double in the next decade. What’s more, despite efforts to collect old clothes by retailers and nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the U.S. Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman and child, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated.
Eileen Fisher, the founder of the apparel company that bears her name, has called the clothing industry “the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” a claim that can’t be verified because reliable data on fashion’s global footprint is scarce. But there’s no doubt that vast amounts of water, energy and chemicals are required to manufacture clothes — up to 200 tons of water, for example, to make a ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In places where environmental regulation is lax, chemicals are routinely discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. The textile industry long has been one of China’s biggest polluters, and it has fouled rivers and ruined farmland in India, Cambodia and Bangladesh, as well.
Growing cotton, the most-used fabric in fashion, requires water and agricultural chemicals. (Organic cotton is an exception.) While cotton is grown on just 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of global sales of insecticides and pesticides, respectively, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — an alliance of retailers, brands and nonprofits — has been working for about five years to measure and reform the industry’s environmental footprint.
In the long run, the industry will need to take more radical action, particularly if it wants to sustain current growth rates, sustainability executives say.
For Nike to achieve its “moonshot ambition” of cutting its environmental impact by half while doubling its business, the company “will need to forget the linear and move to a circular model,” said Hannah Jones, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there.” Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, said the company wants to “decouple growth from resource use, so that economic and social development can happen, but within planetary boundaries.”
This will be a daunting task. Consumer behavior is one obstacle. Most people don’t bring their old clothes back to stores, despite incentives. In the U.S., H&M, Levi-Strauss and the North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20 percent on future purchases, but they are collecting far fewer clothes than they sell, executives admit. (H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold.) San Francisco is one of very few cities to offer curbside recycling of textiles.
Some insiders say the hype about closing the loop in fashion is outpacing actual progress. John Mowbray, founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, said: “There’s a hell of a long way to go for the industry to get to meaningful scale, despite what the marketing people are saying.”
To see why the job ahead is so hard, it’s essential to distinguish between recycling and closing the loop. Conventional recycling of clothes doesn’t create feedstock for new clothes. Instead, garments that can be worn again are sold in thrift stores or bundled for overseas bulk sales at just a few pennies a pound. (Even at those rock-bottom prices, the U.S. exported $705 million of worn clothing last year, sometimes to the detriment of local economies.) Clothes that can’t be worn again are resold as rags; downcycled for use in products such as insulation, carpet padding and stuffing for toys; incinerated for energy, or sent to landfills.
By contrast, a closed loop or circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” stated the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For the apparel industry, this means designing a system that will keep textile resources in use for a long as possible, and then recovering the materials at the end of life to make new high-value products. No company today is doing this on a commercial scale, but several are trying.
London-based Worn Again began “upcycling” a decade ago by turning textile waste — including discarded McDonald’s uniforms, Virgin Atlantic airplane seats and prison blankets — into clothes, shoes and bags. But founder Cyndi Rhoades soon realized that making consistent products out of a variety of materials was “a very difficult business.” She turned her attention to recycling cotton and polyester, which poses a different set of obstacles. Mechanical recycling of cotton lowers its quality as chopped-up fibers get shorter and less soft, while recycled polyester costs more than new. Harder still is recycling clothes made from a blend of fabrics, which must be separated.
After several years of research, Worn Again joined forces (PDF) with H&M and the PUMA division of Kering to develop chemical processes that will capture polyester and cotton from old textiles that have been broken down to the molecular level. Said Rhoades: “The holy grail is a process that can separate blended fibers, recapture the raw materials and reintroduce them into the supply chain at a price competitive with their virgin counterparts.” The technology has been proven in a lab, but Rhoades declined to predict when it will be deployed more widely.
A partnership between Levi Strauss and Seattle-based startup Evrnu recently brought forth the world’s first pair of jeans made of post-consumer cotton waste. A preliminary lifecycle assessment of the product generated encouraging results, according to Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss.
“Cotton cultivation versus Evrnu, we’re looking at a 98 percent reduction in water use,” said Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places such as China, India and Pakistan that are — or soon could be — water-stressed.
Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, said its patented process purifies cotton garment waste, converts it to a pulp and extrudes it as a clean new fiber that is softer than silk and stronger than cotton. Evrnu expects to announce partnerships with two more retailers soon, one of which wants to make knit shirts out of textile waste. The other will focus on footwear.
Flynn said: “Our goal — and we’re not there yet — is to use no virgin product in the creation of our fiber, and create no waste.”
*This story first appeared on Greenbiz
A synthetic spider silk parka, luxury knitwear made from deadstock yarns, and one-of-a-kind pieces from unwanted locally sourced materials are the latest sustainable clothing options.
The Moon Parka is the first product successfully made of synthetic spider silk materials – the result of over 11 years of research, 10 design iterations, and 656 gene synthesis designs. Japanese advanced biomaterials company Spiber created the prototype outerwear jacket in partnership with The North Face, and expects to deliver the final product next year.
Named for the home of the most distant and harshest polar region mankind has reached, the Moon Parka was created thanks to biomimicry. Spiber’s researchers were inspired by the extremely strong and flexible threads that spiders produce with biological proteins. Over a decade of development led to the synthetic fiber used in the Moon Parka, called Qmonos, from the Japanese word for spider web. It is produced through an industrial fermentation process that involves micro-organisms producing proteins.
With the Moon Parka as a proof of concept for the spider silk fiber, Spiber hopes to revolutionize the apparel industry. The company has also set its sights on the automotive and medical device industries for future product development. Ford Motor Company researchers are also looking to biomimicry for inspiration, focusing on geckos’ sticky toe pads to improve adhesives and recyclability.
Meanwhile, despite a growing number of recycling, upcycling and chemical-separation initiatives throughout the fashion industry, a lot of existing textiles are going to waste around the world — so much so that UK waste-reduction charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) recently announced a three-year, €3.6 million commitment to reduce clothing waste across Europe.
Designer Eleanor O’Neill is doing her part with an even smaller initiative through her studio in England. The lone producer behind her Study 34 label hand-makes clothing using leftover luxury yarn. It is not uncommon for manufacturers to dispose of high-quality yarns if there is not enough left to produce a complete line of garments. O’Neill buys the remnants in bulk and produces limited knitwear collections.
“There are a number of suppliers in the UK who buy and sell end-of-line yarns which are really high quality and, apart from anything else, you can’t usually buy these luxury yarns is such small quantities elsewhere,” O’Neill told Ecouterre. “So I thought here is an outlet and I have a skill, let’s put them together and see how it goes! I think it’s important for a brand to offer something different.”
The sweaters in her newly released Autumn/Winter 2015 line range from £185-215 (US$285-330). O’Neill says that Study 34 pieces are made to last a lifetime with proper care.
“One of the aims of Study 34 is to convey to the customer how a garment is made in the hope that once they can see the time and skill that goes into making clothing it will encourage them to value it more,” she says. “It’s a sad fact but I think getting to a stage where people treasure and look after their clothes enough not to throw them out within a few months would be classed as a revolution right now.”
Yet, in this era of fast fashion, is using leftover raw materials enough? Recycling materials seems essential in reducing the fashion industry’s negative impacts.
Enter social enterprise Space Between. An initiative of Massey University’s School of Design, Space Between is using a designer-led approach and collaborating with local partners in New Zealand to address sustainability issues. Current and past students of the school are able to develop their entrepreneurial capabilities while reducing waste and resource depletion.
The clothing pieces are known as “The Fundamentals,” and are made on-demand, year-round rather than seasonally in batches. They are produced by Earthlink Inc, a non-profit organization that provides work for people facing workplace challenges. Space Between also partnered with New Zealand Post Group and corporate uniform manufacturer Booker Spalding to identify more sustainable disposal methods for end-of-life retail and postal uniforms, such as upcycling them into The Fundamentals pieces. Get more insight into the process here.
Jennifer Whitty, Senior Lecturer of Fashion Design at Massey University and director of Space Between, said the goal of the project is to “develop alternative connections between design, manufacturing systems, and consumption habits.” She hopes the partnerships will create a mutually beneficial local industry and alter the conventional designer-manufacturer relationship.
Space Between is also affiliated with university research related to waste reduction in the industry, under the banner Fashion Lab. They consider models of making zero-waste garments and aim to challenge the norms of consumption and retail.
*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands.