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How Much Clothing Gets Recycled? Just 8%, Data Shows

The apparel industry’s linear business model—which sees garments made, used and trashed during their standard lifecycle—has contributed significantly to the current climate crisis. Transitioning to a circular model, where materials and products find an avenue for reuse, is the means by which the industry can walk back its negative impact.

That’s according to The Renewal Workshop, an Oregon-based provider of circular solutions for clothing and textile companies.

Dubbed “Leading Circular,” The Renewal Workshop’s newly released impact report compiled research and best practices regarding circularity from its past four years working with industry players. Twenty brands worked with the group to provide the data, completing assessments for more than 50 leading apparel and textile companies.

“Since the Industrial Revolution, our economy has been based on a linear system,” the group’s founders, Nicole Bassett and Jeff Denby, wrote, describing “a model that takes raw materials, makes things, sells them to people, and when the consumer is done using them, the products are thrown ‘away.’

“This system of ‘take, make, use, and waste’ further developed into practices of planned obsolescence that drive design, manufacturing, and sales decisions across almost everything we make,” they added.

The Renewal Workshop offers services like refurbishing apparel and textiles, building sales channels for renewed products (like white-labeled e-commerce sites), circular mapping, data collection and textile recycling research and development. Its portfolio of brands includes H&M’s Cos, The North Face, Prana, Mara Hoffman, Eagle Creek, Carhartt, Pottery Barn and more.

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Analysis during The Renewal Workshop’s pilot program showed that over 82 percent of what is considered textile or apparel waste can actually be revived and re-sold at a healthy margin. Of all the products collected, nearly half (46 percent) required just minor repairs to restore them to store quality, while 36 percent required more extensive attention. Eighteen percent of goods were considered good candidates for recycling.

The flaws and imperfections that lead clothing items to be discarded range from dirt and stains (26 percent) to holes (21 percent), tears (9 percent) and broken zippers (more than 7 percent).

Currently, nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of products that have been deemed unfit for sale are sent to landfill or incinerated, while 5 percent are destroyed in another manner. While about one-third (31 percent) of fashion waste is donated, just 8 percent is recycled or upcycled.

These numbers are simply unsatisfactory in the minds of many industry insiders, 84 percent of whom told The Renewal Workshop that they felt the apparel sector had a significant impact on climate change. Nearly all (92 percent) of the respondents agreed that climate change has been established as a serious problem that requires immediate action.

Pathways like re-commerce and rental have helped prolong the life of products, keeping them in circulation for longer, and take-back programs from brands are another option for dealing with clothing that has reached the end of its relationship with the consumer, the company said. Brands should also be working to design with a product’s end-of-life in mind, using recyclable materials and establishing pathways that make it easier for consumers to deal with their unwanted goods once they’ve lost their luster.

The group cited lifestyle brand partner Coyuchi as an example, pointing to its circular subscription program, Coyuchi for Life, as an example. Launched in 2017, the platform allows customers to rent and use its products for a certain period of time, then return them. The products are graded and certified, and those that meet “like new” standards are re-sold through a secondhand program.

H&M’s premium, minimalist apparel brand, Cos, launched its resale platform, Resell, last month, when Zalando debut a secondhand play as well.

“There is no single roadmap for transitioning one’s business model from linear to circular,” Bassett and Denby wrote. “However, there are tested pathways that you can select to bring circular practices inside your company in ways that align with your culture and business priorities.

“Now is the time to invest in these experiments,” they added.