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Are Closed Loop Textiles the Future of Fashion?

Earlier this year, two Swedish School of Textiles students created a white T-shirt using only Re:newcell fibers recycled from blue jeans. Tests found the garment to be comparable with other high-quality fibers when it came to dyestuff absorption, tenacity (in both wet and dry conditions) and withstanding high abrasion.

“We believe that we will see two types of fashion [in the future]: fast and slow,” Norlin said. “Fast fashion will have a short lifetime but a very efficient recycling system, thereby not requiring much virgin resources. Slow fashion will not be as easy to recycle but will have a very high quality, which means that it should not need to be recycled very often.”

She added, “The closed loop is essential for the fast-fashion loop going forward, while slow fashion will not be as dependent on the closed loop.”

Speedo, a PVH Corp. licensee, has dived headfirst into the circular economy, too. Through a partnership with Italian yarn marker Aquafil, the storied swimwear brand is converting scraps from the cutting table back into Econyl, a synthetic textile made using other such waste as abandoned fishing nets and old carpets.

“We were looking for a nylon fabric that was not only recycled, but recyclable. Until now, it was not possible for nylon and spandex fabrics to be recycled as the technology did not exist to separate the two fibers,” said Kristine Lebow, Speedo U.S.A.’s senior director of merchandising and design. “I have been personally motivated for a long time to be able to recycle swimwear and in a ‘what if’ conversation with our product development team and Carvico, our fabric supplier, it came to light that Aquafil had just developed the extraction and regeneration process and were looking for a brand to partner with.”

Masami Shigematsu, softlines development senior director, continued, “Typically when fibers are recycled the end result is a downgraded version of the initial product. What makes the Econyl fiber so exciting for Speedo is that Aquafil is able to regenerate the nylon to its original structure.”

Japanese company Teijin, meanwhile, has figured out a way to recycle polyester products multiple times without reducing the quality. Dubbed Eco Circle, the closed-loop system relies on secondhand polyester apparel instead of petroleum—claiming to reduce CO2 emissions by 77 percent—to make new fabric that’s just as good as what the discarded clothes were initially made from.

“We encourage participating companies such as fashion and sports apparel brands to develop recyclable products made mainly with polyester, so that they can be collected and recycled with Teijin’s chemical recycling technologies for polyester to produce raw material equivalent to that made from petroleum,” offered Ricky Miyatake, Teijin’s general manager of sustainability programs.

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What’s next?

Seattle-based start-up Evrnu asserts that in the future, all clothing should be created “by first considering its final life.” Until that day comes, the company’s patent-pending technology creates a regenerative supply of bio-based fiber through the renewal of old cotton clothes.

“We’ve developed a technology that breaks down post-consumer cotton garments to the molecular level and are able to engineer a pristine new fiber that’s a finer denier than silk and stronger than cotton; it’s not rayon, lyocell or cotton—Evrnu will be a new generic fiber classification,” explained Stacy Flynn, who co-founded the company in 2011 with Christopher Stanev, a textile chemist and engineer.

“The way we make the fiber cuts negative environmental impact by 70 percent, compared to any other fiber alternative,” Flynn shared, adding, “It also has more available dye sites so it loves color. We’re looking at a massive reduction in resources needed for dying Evrnu fiber and the potential to use natural and botanical-based dye systems very efficiently.”

But, as Cunningham of the Circular Textiles Program highlighted, recycling technologies need investment in order to scale and commercialize.

“Brands need to step up to the plate and not only demand these new materials but put material (post-industrial, pre-consumer and post-consumer) back into the system,” she stressed. “In the long term, we see that working with recycled content will protect against inevitable resource scarcity and the price volatility that comes with it; that is, recycled fiber will be a stable, low cost alternative to virgin.”