Recycling has become a growing practice in the fashion industry’s attempt to transition to more sustainable methods. From Microplastics to waste reduction, we take a closer look at the good and bad of recycling in fashion.
The equivalent of one garbage truck of discarded clothes is dumped in landfills every second. Fast fashion has instilled a sense of disposability on our garments by drowning consumers in ever-changing trends and micro-seasons to boot. Our relationship with clothes has changed so drastically in the past two decades, that we have now reached a point of true crisis in the industry. Garments used to be personal investments, items intended to serve you for a long time and even be passed on to future generations. Unlike your Terra Thread eco-friendly backpack, most clothes are actually designed to wear-and-tear almost as fast as they are produced. With sustainable brands occupying only an estimated 1% of the industry, many consumers have lapsed into replacing their clothes more regularly and buying into one of the world’s most aversive industries: Fast Fashion.
Recycled Fashion: Timeless or Fleeting Trend?
With a growing awareness and concern towards the major impacts of the industry, we have seen many developments and transitions to more sustainable and ethical practices. One approach which has become the most prominent of all is recycled fashion. Industry leaders like Patagonia are currently creating 84% of their polyester fabrics with recycled polyester. This has obvious benefits, like requiring significantly less resources and removing plastic and waste from landfills. Recycling for materials has even been integrated by fast fashion giants like H&M, they now have a conscious line which uses at least 50% more sustainable materials, a combination of organic cotton and recycled plastic. It seems like recycling could play a vital role in the industry’s transition to becoming more sustainable and responsible. However, recycling is a multifaceted solution offering various different approaches and in turn, its own consequences. It is worth investigating this practice to determine whether recycling can uphold as a timeless look, or perhaps it is just another fleeting trend.
All synthetic fabrics and fabrics made from recycled polyester and nylon release miniscule fragments of plastic every time they are put through a wash cycle. These are commonly known as Microplastics and have become a growing concern for scientists, environmentalist and conscious citizens alike. The reason being that water treatment plants are unable to filter out these nasty particles, which means that they eventually end up in our natural ecosystems. Microplastics are ingested by animals like fish where they accumulate and can lead to several serious complications like the blockage of intestines and exposure to harmful chemicals. This is also how these particles ultimately infiltrate OUR food and water sources, and why humanity is now quite literally eating all the plastic it has created. Marco Lambertini, International Director General of WWF (World Wildlife Fund) spoke on the matter and said: “…Not only are plastics polluting our oceans and waterways and killing marine life - it’s in all of us and we can’t escape consuming plastics. Global action is urgent and essential to tackling this crisis.” WWF commissioned a study titled How Much Microplastics Are We Ingesting?: Estimation of the Mass of Microplastics Ingested at the University of Newcastle. The study found that people could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card sized portion of Microplastics, in just one week. The more you wash a synthetic fabric and the older it gets, the more Microplastics are released. It is an unavoidable aspect of synthetic fibres like polyester, and one which is not spoken about nearly enough by brands who base their sustainability on recycling.
Why Aren't we Recycling Actual Clothes?
A New Textile Economy: Designing Fashion’s Future, a study executed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Circular Fibres Initiative, found that only 12% of textiles and materials from clothes are actually recycled. The recycled fabrics created by brands like H&M, mostly come from plastic waste like water bottles and not necessarily from old pieces of clothing. The reason for this is that the fabrics we use to make clothes consist of complex combinations of various fibres, often times natural as well as man-made. Recycling fabric is difficult, because separating these fibres is extremely time consuming, labour intensive and usually very expensive. The methods which are currently in practice have their respective limitations. Mechanical fibre recycling can be used to separate blended fabrics, but it results in a much lower quality, making it more of a down-cycling system. Other methods require several processes and additional chemicals, which often makes it too expensive. Ultimately this has limited the fashion industry’s ability to become fully circular by means of recycling.
Designing for Recycling
Terra Thread’s sustainable bag collection is created with certified Fairtrade organic cotton and all accessories and zippers are lead-free to offer conscious consumers bags which are fully recyclable, biodegradable and free from harmful chemicals. This is because our products are designed with people and the planet at the forefront every step of the way, including what happens to them once they have reached the end of their lifespan and need replacing. It is this way of full-circle thinking which needs to be applied when creating any and all products. This is particularly applicable to recycling in the fashion industry, because currently the vast majority of our clothes are not designed to be recycled. If we want recycling to facilitate a circular and sustainable system of production, it must be incorporated from the very beginning. To put this as plainly as possible, we must design clothes which are intended to be recycled. Here are some examples of brands who are getting it right:
Girlfriend Collective creates beautiful, colorful garments from recycled plastics, fish nets and more. What sets them apart from others is the fact that they offer to take back old pieces from their line, which they then recycle into a new garments. They also address the issue of Microplastics coming from synthetic fibres by offering a Microfiber Filter which can stop these tiny particles from entering our ecosystem
- Canadian sustainable brand Frank and Oak have implemented various practices to off-set their carbon emissions and reduce waste creation. They address the fact that an estimated 13 million tonnes of clothing ends up in landfills instead of being recycled. In response to this, Frank and Oak encourage consumers to drop off unwanted and used clothes at their stores after which they collaborate with different non-profits to redistribute them amongst those in need.
A Challenge to Textile and Apparel Brands
Progress is being made. Textile Exchange and Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action have launched the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge, calling on textile and apparel brands to take action and join the 85 brands and suppliers who have already committed to reducing their use of virgin polyester. The initiative aims to increase the use of recycled polyester from only 14% to 45% by 2025 and subsequently reduce the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. Major players like Adidas and Banana Republic are amongst the brands who have already accepted the challenge, leading the way in what will hopefully be the making of a truly circular and sustainable fashion industry.
Transitioning to more sustainable practices takes time and it is a process. Making use of plastic which would otherwise be sitting on landfills for the next few hundred years is a great way to start cleaning up our planet. We need innovative brands and individuals to address the mountains of waste humanity has created. However, we also need to address the systems which are continuing to create more waste and look to develop a truly sustainable industry.