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Here’s How You Get Consumers to Care About Textile Recycling

Recasting textile waste as a desirable resource and replacement for virgin materials could be a major trend in fashion—and a solution to the planet’s massive throwaway clothing epidemic.

With the global middle class set to explode by 2030, per the United Nations, the current fashion system and consumer base are equally complicit in an overconsumption feedback loop that discards roughly 26 billion tons of clothing annually, or about 70 or 80 pounds per person. Most in the Western world simply have too much stuff; 30 percent of closets go unused, according to Patrick Duffy, founder of the Global Fashion Exchange, a platform promoting sustainability in fashion.

Many people are quick to toss their unwanted garments and buy new ones, creating a demand for virgin raw materials that’s straining our planetary boundaries. But a crop of innovators is tackling the challenge of recycled textile waste into fresh new fiber, moving the industry one step closer to producing garments much more sensibly and sustainably.

Textile recycling has been around for several years but recently some firms in this space have achieved the breakthrough of being able to recycle blended fabrics, “probably the biggest waste stream out there,” Luke Henning, CFO of Tyton BioSciences, told attendees at ReMode in Los Angeles this week. While many solutions on the market can recycle pure cotton or pure polyester, “separating polyester from cotton is a big differentiator,” he added, noting that doing so in a way that’s economically viable is the tricky part.

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Tyton BioSciences’s recycling technique is what Henning describes as “molecular scissors,” a subcritical water process in which the blended fabrics are placed in water that’s heated. Then, pressure is applied to prevent steam from escaping, which allows the molecules to be chopped up into their basic chemical components.

Patricia Ermecheo, CEO and founder of OSOMTEX, another recycler, said her company sources textile waste from charities and donation centers in the U.S. for processing in Central America. OSOMTEX works chiefly with larger brands; Ermecheo redirects independent designers to a company like FABSCRAP that can handle smaller volumes.

As of now, just 1 percent of clothing is recycled, noted Clare Press, sustainability editor at large for Vogue Australia. However, that seems to be shifting, as new generations ask questions about where their clothing comes from and express an interest in environmental stewardship.

According to Evrnu CEO Stacy Flynn, there’s one secret to getting people to really sit up and take notice of second-life fabrics. When recycled materials outperform their virgin counterparts, that’s when the industry will catch their attention, she said.

Evernu recently debuted a recoverable stretch fabric developed in part from partnerships with retailers like Levi’s, Target and Stella McCartney. Consumers are notoriously price sensitive but, Flynn said, if they like how a material looks, feels and performs, then price falls down the list as the fourth, and less critical, criteria. Talking about how a garment uses less water in production and eliminates most greenhouse gas production makes for a nice story, but that isn’t the best way to sway shoppers to open their wallets.

“Those are big reasons but that’s not a reason to buy,” Flynn said.

Scaling up these recycling technologies is the only way to begin reversing the garment-in-the-garbage phenomenon, and Henning described a plan underway to work with a contract manufacturer than can process 10 tons of textiles daily. Evernu is taking a similar tack, said Flynn, by licensing its intellectual property to partners and helping them redesign their systems smartly.

Despite the massive scale of the textile waste problem, all of the executives expressed optimism about where the fashion industry will be in the short term. Flynn expects the situation to be “cleaned up” within the next five years, while Henning said people will be hanging onto their garments for longer and choosing secondhand clothing more than they currently do. Apparel brands will be closing the loop themselves, Ermecheo predicted, and will be handing over their waste to companies like hers to be recycled.

Duffy offered perhaps the boldest outlook of all. People will boycott the brands that haven’t adopted circular and sustainable production operations, he said.