A bundle of discarded jeans at the Renewcell pulp mill in Sweden.

Alexander Donka

The fashion industry has a well-known problem with waste.

Almost all (roughly 97%) clothing eventually ends up in landfill, according to McKinsey, and it doesn’t take long for the latest clothing to reach its end of life: 60% of clothing produced ends up in landfill within 12 years. months from the date of manufacture.

In the last two decades, the trend in clothing manufacturing has accelerated enormously with the advent of fast fashion, multinational production and the introduction of cheaper plastic fibers.

The multi-trillion dollar fashion industry contributes significant greenhouse gas emissions, between 8% and 10%. total global emissions, according to the United Nations. That’s more than all international flights and ocean shipping combined. And as other industries make progress with carbon reduction solutions, fashion’s carbon footprint is predicted to grow – predicted to account for more than 25% of the world’s global carbon budget by 2050.

The clothing industry wants to be taken seriously when it comes to recycling, but even the simplest solutions have not worked. According to sustainability experts, up to 80% of Goodwill clothing ends up going to Africa because the US secondhand market can’t absorb the stock. Even local waste bins send clothes to Africa due to domestic supply chain complexity and overflow.

Turning old clothes into new has barely made a dent in the industry so far. Currently, less than 1% of textiles produced for clothing are recycled into new clothing, costing an estimated $100 billion annually. McKinsey Sustainability.

A big problem is the mixing of textiles that is now common in the manufacturing process. With most textiles in the fashion industry mixed, it is harder to recycle one fiber without damaging another. A typical sweater can contain several different types of fibers including a blend of cotton, cashmere, acrylic, nylon, and spandex. None of the fibers can be recycled in the same pipeline as is economically done in the metal industry.

“You would have to separate five intimately blended fibers and send them to five different recycling scenarios to recover most sweaters,” said Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at the company Levi Strauss & Co.

Clothing recycling challenge sparks startups

The complexity of the fashion recycling problem is behind new business models that have emerged from companies including Evrn, Renewcell, Spinnova and SuperCircle and some major new commercial operations.

This year, Spinnova partnered with the world’s largest pulp and paper company, Suzano, to turn wood and waste into recycled textile fibers.

“Increasing the rate of textile-to-textile recycling is at the heart of the problem,” said a spokeswoman for Spinnova. “There is very little economic incentive to collect, sort, shred and press textile waste, which are the first steps in the recycling loop,” she said.

Textile waste is by some measures a bigger problem than plastic waste and has a similar problem.

“It’s a really cheap product, the output is not significantly high value, and the cost of identifying, sorting, aggregating and collecting the items is much higher than what you can get from a real recycled output,” says Chloe. Songer, CEO of SuperCircle, which offers consumers and brands the option to have a variety of finished products mailed to its warehouses for sorting and recycling — and credit toward the purchase of items from its CEO-run recycled sneaker brand Thousand Fell.

“Unfortunately, impact costs money, and it’s important to figure out how to do it so it makes business sense,” Songer said.

Shoppers carry Zara bags on Fifth Avenue in New York on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Circular economy Zara, Adidas, Levi’s

Levi Strauss is making progress in its attempt to create a circular economy with its iconic blue 501 jeans, now made with 40% Renewcell fibers and 60% organic cotton. And it’s not just what you see on the outside of the jeans, Dillinger said. The red label, back patch, stitching and inner label were all made from cotton that people don’t think about when recycling jeans. In the case of 501, because the final garment is blended with only organic cotton, the recycled jeans and cotton become clean inputs, Dillinger said, back into recycling systems that have the potential to close the loop.

But that’s the exception to the rule today. He pointed to promotional T-shirts that runners receive for 5Ks, which are typically made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester, or a fleece sweater made for children that contains both cotton and polyester to comply with fire safety requirements. ubiquitous products and contribute to the challenge of recycling mixed materials.

“You have all these structural, behavioral and material challenges, and somehow we’re failing to get the message out that this is urgent,” Dillinger said.

Adidas says it is on track to use only recycled polyester by the end of 2023 – currently at 96% – a year ahead of its original target. Meanwhile, the share of recycled polyester worldwide currently stands at 15%, according to an Adidas spokeswoman, who said changes in the supply chain were critical to achieving these goals.

Dillinger said regulators and consumers are just as important as supply chain partners.

“Civic engagement and the collective understanding that this is not only feasible but necessary has somehow not seeped into our collective social behavior,” Dillinger said. “Are people going to meet us with their behavior in the middle of the road, and then the regulations and the infrastructure to overcome that behavior? I don’t know. That’s the big unknown.”

Regulatory trends are a factor that Stacy Flynn, CEO Evrn — which ranked 37th 2023 CNBC Disruptor 50 list — keeps a close watch.

Flynn has developed a textile recycling platform, NuCycl, that can turn discarded clothing into new fiber, and says 90% of fibers, including cotton, nylon and polyester, perform the same or better in terms of cost and quality using existing equipment textile supply chain.

Evrn’s first big break was partnering with Levi’s to create the company’s classic 511 jeans in 2016, and it also launched pilots with Stella McCartney and Adidas. Late last year, she worked on a limited-edition collection with fast-fashion clothing giant — and consumerism flashpoint — Zara, using its recycled textile waste.

Zara has a stated goal of using only 100% organic cotton, recycled or sustainable materials in all of its clothing, and 100% recycled polyester and organic linens by 2025. However, it is not yet clear what that timeline is for all possible major brands.

“While there are many technological solutions to make clothing more sustainable, this technology does not yet match the scale and demand of the global fashion industry,” said a Zara spokesperson.

“To solve the system problem, consumption must be reduced, garment life must be increased (reuse, repair) and product design must incorporate sustainability (recyclable/designed for disassembly),” Flynn wrote in an email. “All of this goes against the current business model of fast fashion unless we can scale the solution.”

Waste legislation can help improve the textile economy

Flynn said the new legislation coming aboard will make manufacturers responsible for waste disposal and will help reduce the current price differential between virgin and recycled fibers/fabrics over time. Increased regulation in the EU has helped accelerate business models for textile recycling. The EU Waste Directive framework requires countries to separate all textile waste by 2025, and the EU Circular Economy Action Plan ensures circular economy principles are applied to all textile production, products, consumption and waste management.

In the United States, policy advocates have taken smaller steps toward recycled fashion and introduced some state laws. In California, SB 707 A bill was introduced in February to create a statewide recycling program for textiles.

In New York State, the Fashion Sustainability and Social Responsibility Act, also known as the Fashion law, would hold companies accountable for their recycling practices. It is currently supported by fashion brands such as Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, Everlane and Patagonia, as well as other organizations pushing for the bill’s passage.

Tricia Carey, chief commercial officer at Renewcell — a Swedish textile recycling company that opened the world’s first commercial-scale chemical textile-to-textile pulp mill — says she sees differences in consumer behavior in the U.S. and Europe when she travels between the two frequently.

“Consumers also need to look at how they dispose of clothing and make sure they’re doing it responsibly. It’s a bit of a return to the days when clothing was valued and not just thrown away,” Carey said.

Renewcell’s ambition is to recycle more than 1.4 billion T-shirts every year by 2030. Renewcell technology has its own limitationshowever, it can only recycle clothing that is made of cotton and up to 5% non-cotton material such as polyester.

Textile recycling companies such as Renewcell, Evrnu, Spinnova and SuperCircle see co-branding with major consumer companies as a key element in ensuring consumers understand the value of what they are buying and building brand loyalty.

“It’s about making smart purchasing decisions because your purchasing power is how you make your decisions. Look for brands that have strategies around sustainability… I think being loyal to those brands is very important,” Carey said.

But these new business models shouldn’t expect the biggest profit to be measured in recycling dollars, Songer said. “You can’t look at recycling and think you’re going to make a million dollars recycling cotton T-shirts, because you’re not,” she said. “You have to find another way to make economic sense, and those business models are going to be really interesting in the next few years.”

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