WornAgain

End of Life vs. End of Use: Circular Economy, Getting More From the Clothes That We Wear

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by Leslie Johnston

About 13 years ago, I was travelling in a beat-up “bakkie” (or, as we Americans call it, pick-up truck) through a dusty, northern Mozambican town. With a bucket on her head and a face lined from years of hardship, an elderly woman walked slowly down the road, quietly going about her business… while wearing a bright red Ohio State sweatshirt, complete with their mascot, Brutus Buckeye! This sweatshirt, probably discarded at one point in a Salvation Army depot in Ohio, found a new owner in the most unlikely place.

And while one can argue the merits of second-hand clothing imports and their effect on African apparel industry, the following conclusion is clear: When we discard our unwanted clothes, they do not go away.

Rather, the “lucky” ones go on to reuse, after being sorted, categorized, packaged, and shipped, often to faraway lands. This fascinating video shows what happens when these discarded duds arrive in India. “Maybe the water is too expensive to wash them,” says one of the sorters, perplexed by the state of the clothing sent by the West.

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Image: Still of the film Unravel, directed by Meghna Gupta

But what happens when a piece of clothing is too worn to be, well, worn again? Has it reached its end of life? Judging by the millions of tons of clothing ending up in landfills across the world, one would think so. But it doesn’t have to be.

Clothes that cannot be worn again can be taken apart. The “easy” way is via mechanical fibre recycling, which entails chopping the clothing into small pieces to create new fibre. But this process weakens the fibre, which still needs to be blended with a high proportion of new (or virgin, in industry speak) fibre. And only a small percentage of total clothing actually goes through this process.

But this process doesn’t work if your old t-shirt is made of blended fibres. And we absolutely love those stretchy, fitted t-shirts, which usually have a bit of elastane. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20% of the world’s clothing is made up of a cotton/polyester mix, which means these fibres cannot be “born again” as new fibre for clothing.

But perhaps not for long. Over the past few years, a number of research institutes and innovators (like Worn Again, Evrnu, re:newcell, Saxion University, Mistra Future Fashion, Deakin University, VTT, Aalto University and Tampere University) have been developing chemical recycling processes that can get more life out of those blended t-shirts. I have had the opportunity to speak with some of these guys to learn more about how such technologies can transform the way we use – and reuse – clothes. As Worn Again states, such technologies can create “Abundance for Everyone. Forever.”

In other words, there is no end of life. Only end of use.

But we’re not there yet. The processes for turning blended clothing into new fibre still need perfecting – and scaling – to help the industry eventually eliminate the concept of waste. So, in the meantime, there are some practical things that we – the customers who love stretchy t-shirts – can do.

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Image: Swishing Party, courtesy of swishing.com

Love our clothes! We can be inspired by the tips from the Love Your Clothes movement, helping us to think about how we buy, use, and pass on our clothing.
For every new piece of clothing we buy, we can gift or swap an old piece… give it to friend, take it to a charity shop, recycling centre, a “take back” scheme, or take it to swishing party.
Pull a Mark Zuckerberg. We should not be afraid to wear the same thing, every day, to work. Apparently, this also helps us to be more successful in our careers.
Check the labels. Until cotton recycling technologies really take off, a blended t-shirt (e.g. cotton and polyester) is harder to recycle than one that is of a single fibre – whether natural or man-made. Let’s go for that 100%.
Tell our friends…and kids. The clothing we love is taking its toll on our earth. At least 350,000 tons of clothing end up in landfills in the U.K. alone. In the US, just 15% of used clothing and textiles are diverted from landfill and incineration. We all have a role to play. Let’s spread the word and bring back our clothes.

And the more that we do that, the more we can give new life to our old clothes.

*This story first appeared on The Huffington Post

How H&M is Trying to Balance Fast Fashion with Revolutionary Recycling

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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?

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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

 

Nike and Levi’s pile on for ‘fast fashion’ culture reform

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Shutterstock luanateutzi Even clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

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

Pressure Mounts on Retailers to Reform Throwaway Clothing Culture

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H&M is among the retailers that collect old garments in their stores for recycling. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5bn 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.”

“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 €1m contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company that is developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist MIA. to produce a music video called Rewear It, that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling”. With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy – that is, 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, the 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,” says 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 $2.5tn 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 like Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the US Americans dispose of about 12.8m tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

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 has long 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% of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24% and 11% 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 reduce 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,” says 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, says 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 US, H&M, Levi-Strauss, and The North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20% on future purchases, but they are collecting far, 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, who is the founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, says: “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 US exported $705m 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 like 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,” says 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 recover 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 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. Says 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% reduction in water use,” says Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places like China, India, and Pakistan that are — or could soon be — water-stressed.

Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, says 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 says: “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 The Guardian