Those unwanted textiles, however, could be reused, upcycled or recycled.
If you have dropped off a bag of clothes at your local Goodwill or in a clothing bin operated by a nonprofit such as Planet Aid, you may not realize how important textile recycling is in keeping those items out of landfills. Recycling is different from simply reusing clothing; it’s about dealing with textiles that are torn, stained or otherwise unwearable. Large nonprofits have the capacity to send unusable textiles to either nonprofit or for-profit recyclers. The common goal is extending textiles’ useful lives, which means keeping them out of landfills.
As an industry, textile recycling is in its infancy. That’s true even though textiles are shredded for reuse in products such as carpet padding or mattresses, or as rags; chemical processes that create new fibers from old ones are not yet available at scale. Growing calls for sustainability, though, might be the catalysts for change.
Adam Baruchowitz is founder and chief executive of Wearable Collections, a for-profit company that has collected and processed unwanted clothing in New York City since 2004. According to him, 6 percent of the city’s residential waste stream is textiles, and only 15 percent of that material is collected by agencies like his, either charities or for-profits. Wearable Collections keeps 95 percent of what it collects out of landfills, reaching an estimated 20 million pounds, in total, by the end of 2020.
“Textile recycling is a noble idea, but it’s also an industry. Textiles are a commodity, with a market value and a price,” Baruchowitz explains. “Collector” companies such as his gather unwanted textiles and deliver them to massive sorting facilities, where workers sort textiles into baskets for seasons, gender and grade, A to E.
The statistics, Baruchowitz says, mirror industry standards. Roughly 50 percent of what his company collects are wearable items, which are shipped to redistributors worldwide, who in turn resell to other companies or individuals for secondhand use. About 45 percent of Wearable Collections’ collected textiles are shredded for use into rags or low-grade fiber products. Less than 5 percent of what it collects is unusable in any form.
He says both industry and consumers bear responsibility for increased consumption and waste and will have to collaborate in dealing with the consequences. On the industry side, Baruchowitz points to globalization and “fast fashion,” a term describing inexpensive clothing produced rapidly and in mass quantities, in response to the latest trends.
“The fashion industry’s pursuit of lower prices has benefited from cheap labor across the globe,” he says. “These lower prices have enabled customers to buy more, at faster speeds. The fashion industry used to produce new looks at two to four intervals each year. Now, fast fashion companies create new lines based off trends, released in as speedily as a weekly basis.” Made for impact, not longevity, these products have short life spans. Yet customers, he says, now expect that type of speed, variety and price.
Many retailers and manufacturers already support recycling. Eileen Fisher, for example, will accept its old pieces through its Renew program. Ann Taylor participates in the Give Back Box program, which provides free shipping. North Face’s Clothes the Loop program accepts used apparel and footwear of any brand, in any condition.
But demand for recycled textiles is low. Baruchowitz says that to make the industry more competitive, clothing consumers and companies must demand more recycled content. “Sometimes I have to pay to have stuff shredded. That will change if consumers demand that a percentage of what they buy as new clothing is hybrid, including virgin and recycled content. Or if the government mandates certain content percentages,” a move that no country seems to have yet undertaken.
A leader in fast fashion, H&M is a global brand with more than 4,000 stores around the world. It’s also an active player in finding solutions to textile waste. “We need to rethink how fashion is made and used. That includes significantly reducing the need for virgin resources,” says Pascal Brun, global sustainability manager for H&M.
H&M’s garment collection initiative helps keep textiles in use, rather than in the landfill, he says. “By allowing customers to drop off used clothing in any of our stores around the world for reuse and recycling, and by recycling the collected recyclable cotton textiles into new fibers, we can offer products made with recycled cotton. Our aim is to constantly increase the use of recycled fabrics, and since 2014, we have offered collections containing 20 percent recycled cotton from collected textiles.” The company’s goal: all materials either recycled or sourced more sustainably by 2030.
Baruchowitz says that going forward, “to survive, sustainability will have to be part of business models.” He says younger consumers are pushing for that change. “Millennials and Gen Z, whose futures are affected by industry waste and pollution, they care.” Brun says H&M has also seen a large increase in customer interest in sustainability in the past several years.
Cotton Inc., an industry not-for-profit, sponsors the denim recycling program called Blue Jeans Go Green, which converts old denim into natural cotton fiber insulation. “Denim is made mostly from cotton, a sustainable fiber, which can be broken down to its natural state and transformed into something new,” says the group’s Andrea Samber
But the nonprofit can’t use everything it’s given; blended fiber can’t currently be recycled. “A challenge for both Cotton Incorporated and the industry is the inclusion of non-cotton fibers in the garments consumers, and the industry, contribute,” Samber said. “To be recycled through [our] program, the denim needs to be as high cotton content as possible, ideally 90 percent or greater.”
Brun cites the same limitation. “There is no technology for the recycling of blended fibers at scale, which means we cannot make new products from as many old products as we would like. However, our size and global reach means that we can take the most promising innovations to scale and help create the transformation our industry needs.”
Baruchowitz sees lots of room for innovation, both in terms of design and processing. “To be more vibrant, we need investment in better processing facilities, but the economics aren’t there,” he says. “We have to invent new products to use recycled production.”
One way that will happen is if product designers consider waste and pollution, while aligning with already available recycled textiles. As breakthroughs create new materials, manufacturers need to incorporate them. H&M, for instance, has started using materials from Bionic, which transforms recovered plastic from shorelines, waterways and coastal communities into textile components, and Econyl, which makes 100 percent regenerated nylon fiber from fishnets and other nylon waste. Econyl’s clients also include Adidas, Burberry and Stella McCartney.
A key player in the discussion, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is partnering with industry giants to create a change from a linear economy to a circular one, where virgin products are efficiently recycled back into marketable products. Such a transition doesn’t just reduce the negative effect of a linear economy; according to the foundation’s website, it also “represents a systemic shift that builds long-term resilience, generates business and economic opportunities, and provides environmental and societal benefits.”
H&M, a partner of the foundation, agrees. “The fashion industry needs to accelerate the transition,” Brun says. “The ambition is to find a process where nothing is wasted; where garments are collected and recycled into new collections over and over so that we use what’s already in the system instead of new raw material.”
While the industry is maturing, what is a conscientious consumer to do? Resell, and buy resold (therealreal.com, poshmark.com). Rent apparel (renttherunway.com, nuuly.com). And simply vow to consume less.