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Study Debunks Sustainable Fashion Myth

Nearly 90 percent of consumers want their clothing brands to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly. But they are picky about the kind of recycled-fiber clothing they will buy.

That fact has not been lost on the fashion industry, responsible for 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and 20 percent of global waste water. With that in mind, more and more brands are incorporating recycled clothing into their merchandise to be a better partner in combatting climate change.

That was the finding from a study at the University of Delaware undertaken by Ally Botwinick, a graduate student, and her faculty adviser Dr. Sheng Lu, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies. They shared their findings in a March 2 webinar hosted by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association in Washington, D.C.

The study started last summer, using the market intelligence platform StyleSage to look at which retailers were heavily invested in recycled clothing and what kinds of clothing they were making. “This market is becoming more and more mainstream and popular among a lot of retailers,” Botwinick said.

Major retailers are eagerly plunging into this new fashion arena. “Adidas, Lululemon and Everlane have a large portion of their clothing offering recycled materials,” Botwinick said. “We are also seeing a lot of fast-fashion brands like H&M, Gap and Nike incorporating recycled into their clothing.”

Research showed that 54 percent of Adidas’ clothing and 22.7 percent of Lululemon’s apparel are made of recycled materials. Cos came in third with 19 percent of apparel made from recycled material and Everlane was close behind with 17.5 percent.

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Even luxury brands including Burberry, Prada and Gucci are integrating clothing make with recycled inputs into their fashion portfolio. Burberry offers a nylon hooded duffle coat with 70 percent of its content being recycled. It sells for $2,890.

Prada sells a double jersey sweatshirt made of recycled polyester fibers for $1,490. And Gucci has Off the Grid, a sustainable line incorporating luggage, hats, footwear and clothing made in part from recycled carpet and fishing nets.

Popular recycled fibers

The most popular fibers used in sustainable clothing are recycled polyester, recycled nylon and recycled cotton. “Polyester is more durable and has similar quality aspects to regular polyester. It is a good substitute for regular polyester,” Botwinick said.

Recycled nylon is the second most used recycled material, often coming from old fishing nets plucked from the ocean. “We are seeing this being used a lot in bathing suits,” Botwinick said. “More and more companies are choosing to use recycled nylon in their products instead of regular nylon.”

The third most popular fiber is recycled cotton. Recycled cotton is less popular because it must be blended with new cotton fiber in order to have the same qualities of regular cotton.

Clothing, color and cost

Certain clothing categories more commonly incorporate recycled material than others. Outwear and shorts are popular items for recycled material while sleepwear and dresses aren’t. “With sleepwear, people are more concerned about comfort,” Botwinick said. “Dresses are usually bought for social occasions when consumers prioritize style and aesthetics.”

Because of the varied hues found in recycled fibers, most manufacturers prefer to dye their garments black, gray, neutral or white – the four most popular colors for recycled clothing. Dark colors make it easier to obtain a uniform shade in the fabric.

Surprisingly, the study showed that recycled clothing is priced at about 50 percent less than a regular garment, unless it is a luxury brand. “This debunks the myth that sustainable clothing is more expensive,” Botwinick said.

That may seem counterintuitive because it is expensive to produce recycled clothing, Lu said.  Recycled material may be cheaper than other raw materials, but because it often comes from different sources, it leads to higher transportation costs.

Also, manufacturers often have to invest in specialized machinery to make the garments. “It is very hard for these manufacturers of recycled clothing to take advantage of economies of scale,” Lu noted.

Consumers often believe recycled apparel is of secondary quality, which may be the reason retailers charge less for those garments. But studies show that garments described as sustainable are more appealing. “It seems the term sustainable sells, but recycling doesn’t,” Botwinick said. “We need to change the consumers mindset that recycled is just as high quality as regular clothing.”