Clothing and Recycling: You should know this and these game changers are already working with it
We are all familiar with recycling: paper, bottles, but also our clothes can be recycled in this way. But what exactly is this “clothing recycling”? How exactly does it work? And what must be considered from the outset during production so that fashion does not end up in the trash but is designed to last in the spirit of circular fashion? We clarify and also tell you which brands already recycle clothing.
What is meant by “clothing recycling”?
One approach to making fashion more sustainable is clothing recycling, which is also an attempt to counteract the throwaway society. The premise is that reusing reduces the negative environmental impact as the materials go through multiple uses – and in the best-case scenario, can be recycled indefinitely. That sounds very logical and simple at first, but if you look at the process, which actually begins with the design and is a process with many sub-steps through collecting, sorting, recycling (dismantling and further processing), it becomes clear: recycling is really nice complex! And especially not the all-purpose solution to the sustainability problem in the fashion industry.
Because one of the biggest challenges is that, contrary to popular belief, not all materials can be recycled. Inferior fibers or those that have been heavily treated (chemically or mechanically) to stress or damage them, as well as blended fibers, complicate the process considerably. Therefore, they are often further processed as so-called “downcycling” into inferior products such as painter’s fleece or mattress fillings.
Good to know:
- From upcycling is always spoken when something is upgraded.
- From recycling is always spoken when something is reused.
- From downcycling is always spoken when something goes through a loss of quality.
Clothing Recycling: The Status Quo
If we look at the numbers, the status quo of recycled clothing looks pretty manageable. According to a 2022 study by management consultancy McKinsey called “Scaling textile recycling in Europe – turning waste into value”, less than one percent of textile waste is currently recycled into new clothing. At least one fifth could be used for this. They even go further, and according to Karl-Hendrik Magnus (Senior Partner and Head of the fashion industry consultancy McKinsey Germany) “taking into account the full technical recycling potential, between 18 and 26 percent of textile waste could be reused for the production of new clothing as early as 2030. And thus save four million tons of CO₂ and create a profitable industry.” A hopeful outlook that there is a lot of development potential for the fashion industry and its brands, designers and suppliers.
Recycling in fashion: You should know these important terms
1. Sort pure type:
But first of all we have to face the problem of the vast amounts of textile waste. Because without proper and, above all, pure textile management, qualitative recycling cannot be implemented. That means: Ways have to be found to pre-sort old clothing right from the start – similar to what we know from deposit systems. Because it is important for the dismantling into individual components and further processing that all textiles are treated with the right process.
2. Fiber to Fiber Recycling:
This process is rated as one of the most sustainable, which above all ensures the value and quality of the textiles. The fibers often have to be enriched with others in order to be able to be further processed in a stable manner and to remain of high quality. In the end, however, this again leads to mixtures that are then less easy to separate. A vicious circle. Fiber-to-fiber recycling is a closed loop. Therefore, despite further processing, it is not expedient in the long term to use recycled polyester from PET. This is because new PET bottles could easily be produced from it (in a closed cycle). The whole thing is also known as close-the-loop recycling and relies on no further material having to be added. In contrast, in open-loop recycling, other substances are added for stabilization and quality assurance. The best example are fabrics that contain a proportion of recycled components.
3. Design for recycling:
This means that recycling has to be taken into account right from the design stage. Which brings us back to circular fashion, which sees circular design as one of the most important opportunities for sustainable fashion. In concrete terms, this means that the focus is on recyclability to ensure that the process can be carried out easily and without pollutants. For example, all chemicals in the manufacturing process must be eliminated and replaced with environmentally friendly alternatives.
Rethinking: Recycling in fashion requires new technologies and transparency
So we need new technologies and systems that, above all, look at resale, upcycling and recycling separately. The latter are often used interchangeably. Companies like the Swedish producer Renewcell are already working flat out on innovative processes for circular recycling. One of the technologies called “Circulose Pulp” makes it possible to break down used cotton and other cellulosic textiles and turn them into new, biodegradable raw materials. This can then be used by the fashion industry to make biodegradable fabrics. In 2022, they even opened the first textile-to-textile recycling factory in Sweden, offering chemical recycling on a large scale. And of course transparency also plays an important role here. Only those who know where the clothing comes from beforehand and which individual components it consists of can ultimately guarantee that the product is really 100 percent recycled. In the best case, this can also be certified by independent textile seal providers such as Oeko-Tex. But here too there are challenges that they have to be treated differently than new goods. For example, 20 percent of the main textile material has to be recycled in order to get the Oeko-Tex Standard 100.
EU textile strategy: this is what you need to know about recycling plans
In March 2022, the EU decided on a series of measures that affect textile value creation. In this way, materials should become more repairable, recyclable and more circular with the help of minimum values that apply equally to everyone. Together with the introduction of digital product passports, work is also being done at the legislative level on a transparent supply chain and the circular economy that is aimed for by 2050. The exciting thing is that these regulations apply to anyone selling in the EU. This means that everyone who sources substances from other countries and regions that are not in the EU must also ensure that the new legal changes are implemented.
Recycling process: These methods exist
Leaving aside upcycling and downcycling, there are the following types of recycling. Because depending on the starting material, different efforts have to be made to break down the fibers into their individual components. Either way, this often results in a loss of quality. Therefore, textiles are not infinitely recyclable and are used as a final step by downcycling natural products that do not require high quality of the material to produce. Substances that have been chemically treated in advance (bleaching, dyeing, coating) must also be freed from them in extra steps before they can be processed further.