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Fashion's latest trend? Why H&M, other big brands are investing in garment recycling

Less than 1 percent of clothing material today is refashioned to produce new clothing. This is one potential solution.

The fashion industry has a pollution problem. If the industry continues on its current pathway, it could use more than a quarter of the carbon budget associated with a 2 degrees Celsius pathway by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

These skyrocketing emissions are compounded by the fact that the fashion industry has dramatically low rates of recycling, which creates a dependence on virgin materials. Worldwide, 87 percent of material used for clothing production is landfilled or incinerated after its final use, and less than 1 percent of material used to produce clothing is recycled to produce new clothing.

"The way we recycle clothes hasn’t changed in a century or more," said Elizabeth Cline, author of "The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good" and a well-known fashion journalist. "It’s really limited to shredding clothes and weaving them back new threads."

Chemical garment-to-garment recycling uses chemical solvents to break down old garments into virgin-quality fibers.
The mechanical recycling processes of which Cline speaks degrade fiber quality, resulting in lower-value end uses or the need to mix recycled fibers with virgin ones.

And for many post-consumer garments, reuse is not an option. For textile waste generated in Europe, for example, an average of only 5-10 percent was suitable for reuse within the continent, according to Swedish research institute Mistra Future Fashion. In order to stem the global flow of textile waste, an alternative to reuse must exist. 

Welcome to the lab

Enter a new technology: chemical garment-to-garment recycling. This process, which has seen a flurry of research efforts in the past five years, uses chemical solvents to break down old garments into virgin-quality fibers. Chemical recycling processes can separate blends of types of fabric while retaining fiber integrity, a feat which mechanical recycling processes are incapable of. In addition, solvents used in the process often can be collected after usage and re-used continuously. 

"We make it possible to make clothes out of clothes again. Most of the recycled materials you encounter in fashion today are recycled not from textiles but from things like plastic bottles or nylon fishing nets," said Harald Cavalli-Björkman, head of communications for Re:newcell. "Those materials are great, but they solve waste problems in other industries, not in fashion." 

fabric threads

Re:newcell, a Sweden-based company, has developed a process that uses a polymer recycling process to dissolve fabrics such as cotton and viscose to create "circulose pulp," which then can be extruded into new fibers and spun to create yarn.

Re:newcell is one of a handful of companies, including U.S.-based Evrnu, Italy-based Aquafil and U.K-based Worn Again Technologies, that are pushing innovations in chemical garment-to-garment recycling processes forward. These companies are at the forefront of a technological revolution that could significantly increase recycling rates within the fashion industry.  

This type of technology can be a boon for the environment as well as the economy, said Tasha Lewis, an associate professor in the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design at Cornell University.

"This should reduce demand for pesticides, petroleum and water — to name a few potential environmental benefits," she told GreenBiz. "There may also be new job creation [and] businesses around the collection, sorting and processing of post-consumer textile waste for large-scale recycling."

But the companies pioneering the technology, by and large, are still in the research and development (R&D) and pilot phases. Several barriers remain that block large-scale use, such as finding steady sources of materials, adequately preparing materials for recycling and finding the capital needed for large new plants.

Garment recycling may make the current overproduction seem acceptable, just as plastic recycling makes single-use plastics seem acceptable. Neither is acceptable.
"I think the collection and sorting processes for the post-consumer textile waste needed to drive these technologies at scale are still lagging behind," Lewis said. "In my research, we also had to do a bit of detective work to find out a particular fiber content for a garment since many used garments are missing content labels. This could also slow down processing."

Preparing garments for recycling (which requires removing trims and taking garments apart at the seams) introduces another variable that costs time, Lewis said.

Cavalli-Björkman also pointed to recyclers’ ability to source raw materials as a barrier. Although, he added, that’s not for lack of textile waste.

"We know that more than 20 million tons of cotton is wasted every year," he said. "The trouble is making all of it available for recycling at a reasonable cost."

In the meantime, Re:newcell is searching for investors to put money behind scaling up its technology, which requires much higher capital expenditures than a run-of-the-mill software startup. Put simply: "We need buildings and machines," Cavalli-Björkman said.

H&M encourages scale

But some investors are already forging ahead. According to Re:newcell, Swedish brands H&M and KappAhl have invested significantly in the company. Cavalli-Björkman said these companies have opened doors for Re:newcell in the industry and helped accelerate its scaling process.

In addition to H&M’s venture arm, officially known as H&M CO:LAB, the nonprofit H&M Foundation also has played a significant role in accelerating garment recycling technologies. To date, the H&M Foundation has invested 6 million euros in the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), a research facility developing separation and recycling solutions that target textile blends.

Since collaborating with the H&M Foundation in 2016, HKRITA has succeeded in developing a novel method for recycling textiles that uses water, heat and a small amount of chemical solvents. In September 2018, HKRITA opened a pre-industrial scale facility in Hong Kong that makes use of the technology.   

Clothing heap

"All work of the H&M Foundation strives to impact the entire fashion industry, not just H&M," said Erik Bang, innovation lead for the H&M Foundation. "Hence we don’t take any ownership in the technologies we develop, instead we will through HKRITA give the separation & recycling technology away for anyone to use."

HKRITA will be allowed to license the technology to other companies that can use it. This approach, Bang said, is how the H&M Foundation believes it can maximize impact.

The nonprofit’s support of advancing this technology comes from a need to ameliorate fast fashion’s devastating environmental effects. "The industry will not be able to meet the growing demand of fashion from a growing world population and global middle class relying on natural resources," Bang said. "There is simply not enough land or water available in a long-term perspective of 10-20 years."  

Understanding the tradeoffs

Not everyone in fashion is convinced that garment recycling will fully circularize the industry, though.

"Garment recycling may make the current overproduction seem acceptable, just as plastic recycling makes single-use plastics seem acceptable. Neither is acceptable," said Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion design and sustainability at Parsons. "We need a drastic reduction in the production of clothing overall: a strategic degrowth of the fashion industry that is commensurate with the planetary emergency we are now in."

In order to minimize its environmental impacts, the fashion industry must combine investments in garment recycling, which can reduce use of virgin resources, with a strategy to reverse growth, Rissanen said. "If all of the industry output is eventually recycled but the industry output grows overall at the same time, I’m not too hopeful about our future," he said. 

Another potential complication of widespread usage of garment-to-garment recycling is greenwashing. "If we end up with a variety of processes and companies that are not standardized or connected to one another, we may end up with confusion in the marketplace and some 'greenwashing' around the types of recycled materials that are being used for new garment manufacture," Lewis said.

"Companies will only invest in sustainability when sustainability is driving efficiency," Cline added. Combined with a focus on end-of-life solutions for textiles needs to be a focus on the beginning of life stage, through better regulations on how textiles are used and sourced, she added.

In addition, Cline points out that more research and life-cycle assessments are needed to fully understand the energy required to recycle textiles.

But in an industry where the average number of times a garment is worn decreased by 36 percent from 2002 to 2017, garment recycling is a light of hope for many large fashion retailers.

I think the collection and sorting processes for the post-consumer textile waste needed to drive these technologies at scale are still lagging behind.
Aquafil, for example, the Italy-based company that makes Econyl nylon, told GreenBiz that their nylon, made primarily from recycled nylon carpets and fishing nets, reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 80 percent compared with nylon made from oil. The company recently has partnered with brands such as Napapijri to create a take-back and recycling program.

After a minimum of two years of purchase (in order to promote mindful consumption, says Aquafil), customers send the jackets back to Napapijri, and the jackets are recycled into Ecoynyl nylon. Furthermore, customers receive a voucher to purchase any new Napapijri jacket made from recycled material. Aquafil says Ecoynyl Nylon can be recycled again and again without sacrificing fiber quality.

"We want to help brands leave linear production models and become closed loops unto themselves — keeping their material footprint to a minimum by circulating a certain amount of physical material in an endless cycle of design, use, recovery, design, use and so on," Cavalli-Björkman said.

He pointed to the paper recycling industry, which has burgeoned over the past three decades to a global recycling rate of 58 percent, according to the Global Forest and Paper Industry, after initial doubts that the technology could be effectively scaled.

"There’s no reason we couldn’t or shouldn’t get to at least the same level in fashion," he said.  

This article has been updated to correct an error about the process Sweden-based company Re:newcell uses to create "circulose pulp." It uses a polymer recycling process, not chemical solvents.

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