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Post-Consumer Textiles Aren’t Waste—They’re a ‘New’ Commodity

Post-consumer textiles are cropping up as an increasingly viable raw material for an apparel industry looking to lessen its overuse of resources, but for the uptake to have any real impact, it’s going to take a shift in perspective.

Firstly, it will take learning to stop referring to post-consumer textiles as waste.

“There’s a lot happening when it comes to thinking about post-consumer textiles…I’m trying to stay away from the word ‘waste’ because it will no longer be waste. It’s going to be a commodity,” Karla Magruder, founder of Fabrikology said speaking on a sustainable manufacturing panel at the Textile Exchange Textile Sustainability Conference in Milan Tuesday.

Sustainability-minded factories and organizations focused on post-consumer clothing items collect these goods from waste collectors, sort and shred them into fibers, spin them into yarns and turn them back into new—though less impactful—apparel.

It’s a concept that hasn’t yet settled with many in the industry who may still consider these otherwise landfill-bound materials as substandard when it comes to quality and performance compared to virgin or organic materials.

“People are still trying to understand what is post-consumer and what impact it has on the environment,” said Deepak Goel, director of India-based Geetanjali Woollens, which has been working in post-consumer textiles for four decades.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 21 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste finds its way to landfills each year in the U.S. alone. And with a process like Geetanjali’s, which creates new yarn from rescued textiles without using any dyes or chemicals and doesn’t use any water up to the yarn stage, there’s a clear case for post-consumer textiles’ positive impact—though not enough brands have embraced the option.

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“All these old clothes that you throw away, if the brands don’t support post-consumer recycled textiles, eventually people like us are going to stop recycling,” Goel said. “Then what? We make a new Australia in the middle of the Pacific? In 10 years’ time we can make a new Australia with the amount of waste we have.”

The risks are many for the apparel industry since clothes aren’t going out of fashion and consumers’ keenness to buy more stuff can only be changed so much. It’s going to take a shift in the supply chain, from the factory right up to the C-suite.

“We produce 10 million-11 million meters of product and 3 percent goes to waste,” said Andreas Crespi, managing director of Italy’s Eurojersey Spa, which specializes in warp knit fabrics.

Recycling is paramount, whether the industry is ready or not, and the mindset shift will require figuring out how to move from something the world has long considered waste into thinking of post-consumer textiles as a resource.

“We call it waste because we don’t give a value to what we have,” Crespi said. “We can’t continue like that.”