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Adidas and H&M’s Circular Fashion Debut is 18 Months in the Making

Adidas and H&M have bowed the first “circular” garments to emerge from a European Union-backed project designed to pilot and scale textile-to-textile recycling.

The items—an Adidas by Stella McCartney tracksuit and an H&M jacket-and-trouser combo—are not just “beautiful pieces of clothing” made from post-consumer recycled man-made cellulosic fiber, according to the New Cotton Project, but they’re also proof that the fashion industry is able to move away from the take-make-dispose model of production.

Their debut as part of an installation at the Fashion for Good Museum in Amsterdam coincides with the release of two white papers by Aalto University, one exploring the potential of circular business models and the other presenting a blueprint of the “ecosystem” of brands, manufacturers, innovators and researchers that made everything possible.

This is another milestone for the three-year initiative, now at its mid-way point, after beginning in 2020 with the idea that circularity had to be a radically collaborative effort in order to succeed. Current data suggests up to one-quarter of European post-consumer textiles could become fodder for new fiber production.

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“The New Cotton Project might not be the ultimate solution to all of the sector’s ailments, but it represents an initial step toward it as the project is an attempt to bring a technical experiment into a commercial-scale experience through a partnership between 12 partners,” Aalto University researchers Natalia Moreira and Kirsi Niinimäki wrote in one of the papers. “This industrial collaboration and partnership place all of its members at the same level and collaboratively tries to find common grounds to reach the final endeavor.”

Members of the consortium include REvolve Waste, which provided data and insights through textile-waste mapping; Frankenhuis, which prepared post-consumer textile streams as feedstock for chemical recycling; and Xamk, a scientific institute that optimized a pre-treatment process for the collected textiles. Infinited Fiber Company pumped out the fiber known as Infinna, which Inovafil, Kipas and Tekstina spun and dyed into yarn and woven textiles. Adidas and H&M handled design and manufacturing, while Aalto University, Fashion for Good and Research Institutes of Sweden, better known as RISE, continue to be on the frontlines of analysis and communications.

The project’s first 18 months, Moreira and Niinimäki wrote, surfaced several “unforeseen difficulties,” from moving textile waste between countries to challenges implementing large-scale machinery to process fibers. Another issue, due to the unpredictability of the feedstock, was the development of “market-oriented” collections with high potential for color variation between lots. Non-cellulosic inputs were another barrier: the recycling process, stakeholders found, was unable to accept more than 12 percent of non-cellulosic fibers, though this number could increase as Infinited Fiber Company hones its technology. This also meant that the pieces that Adidas and H&M designed had to be assembled using threads and trims made with cotton and other cellulosics. While all of these led to production delays and quantity compromises, ultimately the project prevailed through its “innovative” business model, which allowed companies of all sizes to “embrace sustainable practices together through shared risk.”

“Built on the same principles of a natural ecosystem, a circular ecosystem is being proposed to generate a similar balance throughout the supply chain,” Moreira and Niinimäk said. “This is important because it promotes communication and cooperation between various business associates in this long-term partnership.”

The “final stage” of the New Cotton Project will focus on continued data collection, further academic papers and a life-cycle assessment, all of which will be shared with the wider industry in the spirit of transparency, open knowledge and, most important, change.

“Now it is time to challenge the current business logic and construct new business models which can enhance a new kind of sustainability transition,” the researchers wrote in the white paper about alternatives to linear business models. “Sustainable growth and embracing circularity are ever so important for the environment, the consumer, the supply chain and the workers. Learning more about the topic, promoting change and proposing new ventures can help lessen the remaining distance within the industry and lead to more transparency and satisfaction for all parties involved.”