The problem with many fashion take-back programs is that they might as well be a black box. Do the clothes end up being donated? Downcycled into stuffing? Dumped in the global South? With little supply-chain traceability and far less transparency in this area, it’s—for the most part—difficult to tell.
Patagonia has a specific destination for its discarded T-shirts, however. Its new Tee-Cycle collection takes cellulosic-rich customer crewnecks—think cotton, hemp and linen—and turns them into new ones. The outdoor brand is working with one of fashion’s current circularity darlings: Finland’s Infinited Fiber Company, which uses its patented technology to chemically break down textile trash at the polymer level. Reconstituted into a fiber known as Infinna, the result is said to look and feel just like virgin cotton.
Tee-Cycle T-shirts are a 30/70 blend of old toppers and Patagonia factory offcuts, the certified B Corp said, adding that this helps reduce textile industry waste and lower carbon emissions compared to using the conventional stuff. It’s now exploring ways to increase its use of post-consumer recycled clothing, and not just in T-shirts. Ultimately, the company said, it wants all its products to “live in a circular model” so it can reduce its reliance on virgin materials.
“We are really excited about the Tee-Cycle and our partnership with Infinited Fiber because we are starting to close the loop for recycled materials,” Kate Hadeka, product line manager, Patagonia, told Sourcing Journal. “For the first time, we have a take-back program for used clothing that directly feeds our supply chain. We are hoping to lead by example and help to solve the textile waste issue and promote circularity for the apparel industry.”
The collection is also Fair Trade Certified sewn in Mexico, meaning that the garment workers who made it there are paid an additional premium that they decide how they want to spend. (The company said it’s doing this as it seeks a “permanent solution” to make sure everyone earns a living wage.) Screen-print inks, Patagonia noted, are PVC- and phthalate-free.
Tee-Cycle comprises four men’s styles and two women’s styles in muted neutrals with names like garden green and plume grey. Decked out in botanical and geometric designs—the latter evoking the fan blades of a wind turbine—each tee costs $49 apiece.
Signs suggest that these are only a start. Last June, Patagonia signed a multiyear agreement to secure access to Infinna, though it didn’t provide details about the value or volumes the deal entailed. Infinited Fiber Company, for one, is ready for its glow-up. It’s pouring $420 million into a commercial-scale plant in the town of Kemi on the northern shore of the Baltic Sea. At full capacity, the factory is expected to pump out 30,000 metric tons of fiber, creating enough fiber to make 100 million T-shirts. It has already presold several years’ output to everyone from Adidas to Zara.
“Patagonia is an industry pioneer in sustainable clothing and practices,” Infinited Fiber Company key account director Kirsi Terho said last year. “Their environmental standards and requirements for sustainability are top of the league. We are humbled by their stamp of approval for Infinna as the circular alternative to virgin cotton going forward and we’re very proud of the long-term commitment they have now made to using Infinna in their future collections.”