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H&M, Adidas Back New Effort to Turn Used Clothing Into Renewable Resource

A raft of fashion and textile stakeholders, including boldface brands such as Adidas and H&M, have banded together to participate in the European Union-funded “New Cotton Project,” a first-of-its-kind consortium that seeks to prove that circular, sustainable fashion is not just a pipe dream but a real possibility.

The New Cotton Project revealed Tuesday that it’s embarking on a three-year mission to collect and sort cellulose-rich clothing and textile waste, “regenerate” it into new fibers and then spin it into different types of fabrics for Adidas, H&M and H&M’s subsidiary brands, which include & Other Stories, Cos, Monki and Weekday. When they’re no longer useful, the garments will be collected by apparel take-back programs to “determine the next phase in their life cycle,” the project noted. Clothing that can no longer be worn will be dispatched for another round of recycling, contributing to a circular economy where resources are recaptured rather than go to waste.

Finnish startup Infinited Fiber Company, whose proprietary technology mines the cellulose in textiles to create fibers that look and feel like cotton, will marshal manufacturers such as Inovafil, Tekstina and Kipas to turn its fibers into yarns, woven fabrics and denim, respectively.

Other companies involved include Frankenhuis, which will sort and pre-process the textile waste, South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences, which will develop a “technical solution” for the continuous processing of textile-waste fibers for treatment, and REvolve Waste, which will wrangle data on textile waste to determine the availability of feedstock in Europe and how to grade it. RISE Research Institutes of Sweden will handle the sustainability and “techno-economic” analyses for the project, along with eco-labeling of the resulting fabrics and garments.

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Fashion for Good, an innovation platform based in Amsterdam, will facilitate stakeholder cooperation, while Finland’s Aalto University will evaluate the “created ecosystem” to determine the most feasible business model for the initiative.

The New Cotton Project, its organizers said, is a “direct response” to a burgeoning problem: Apparel brands produce nearly twice as many clothes today as they did two decades ago, and the upward trajectory shows no signs of slowing. By “recapturing” the valuable raw materials in discarded clothing and transforming them back into high-quality, cellulose-based fibers that can be spun into new yarn, woven into new fabric and stitched into new clothes, the project hopes to provide not only a solution for textile waste but also an alternative to the industry’s dependence on virgin materials.

“We are very excited and proud to lead this project, which is breaking new ground when it comes to making circularity in the textile industry a reality,” Petri Alava, co-founder and CEO of Infinited Fiber Company, said in a statement. “The enthusiasm and commitment with which the entire consortium has come together to work toward a cleaner, more sustainable future for fashion is truly inspiring.”

Fashion’s biggest purveyors, eager to deflect criticisms of their environmental profligacy, have pivoted to recycling as a way to resolve the central tension between growth and sustainability, albeit with middling success to date. Despite the proliferation of take-back schemes that promise to reincarnate customers’ castoffs, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that just 1 percent of materials used to produce clothing is recycled into new garments.

While the project has considerable investment underpinning it, including 6.7 million euros ($7.9 million) in funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, its success hinges on the speed and extent to which it can scale.

The project’s announcement follows news that Re:newcell will be supplying H&M with thousands of metric tons of Circulose fibers derived from textile waste. H&M’s four-year partnership with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel will also be coming to fruition early next month with the first products—a sweatshirt and matching sweatpants from Monki—produced using reclaimed polyester from separated cotton-and-polyester-blended clothing.