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H&M and Ikea Find Toxic Minefield in Recycled Textiles

Textile recycling has a legacy chemicals problem.

Clothing derived from discarded duds can harbor harmful substances such as formaldehyde or perfluorinated compounds that once prevented a dress shirt from wrinkling or a parka from soaking through. To secure clean and reliable sources of recycled materials, experts say, the industry needs to steer clear of restricted chemicals that could jeopardize the integrity of its circularity efforts in this critical ramp-up period.

“Only through industry collaboration and a transparent, harmonized hazard assessment methodology for all chemicals and materials can we be proactive and secure safe and sustainable products for a toxic-free textile future,” said Linn Farhadi, project manager for recycled textiles at H&M Group.

The fast-fashion retailer has been working with Ikea since 2019 to study the chemical content of collected pre-owned garments, with the goal of understanding how to safely circulate castoffs of widespread and frequently unknown provenance in a circular system. To date, the companies have tested a swathe of post-consumer cotton, wool, and polyester waste from different regions of the world, creating more than 70,000 data points.

Though less than 1 percent of those data points exceeded Apparel and Footwear International RSL Management’s (AFIRM) restricted substances list, they reported Wednesday, 2.5 percent presented “undesirable detections.” Samples of post-consumer polyester demonstrated the widest variation of substances detected, while nearly all samples of post-consumer wool contained at least one substance that surpassed AFIRM’s RSL threshold.

The results come as both H&M and Ikea are dialing up their use of both pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled textiles. H&M, which recently dropped its latest recycled denim range, has said it will use only recycled or sustainably sourced materials by 2030. The retailer has been throwing its largesse behind startups such as Circular Systems, Infinited Fiber Company and Renewcell to develop alternatives to virgin fibers. In December, H&M announced it was extending its partnership with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to separate and recycle polyester-and-cotton blends at scale.

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Ikea, for its part, has pledged to transition all products that contain polyester to use only recycled content by 2030. As part of its quest to source more sustainable fibers, the furniture giant is working with H&M, Stora Enso and others to set up a TreeToTextile “demo” plant in Sweden that will pump out 1,500 tons of regenerated cellulosic fiber every year. In April, Ikea teamed up with Mud Jeans to create a cover for its signature Klippan sofa using 40 percent post-consumer recycled denim.

H&M and Ikea said they will be advocating for the establishment of an “acknowledged and harmonized” hazard assessment methodology that will allow brands to determine the best available chemicals from both safety and recyclability perspectives. Any chemicals that could stymie recycling and material recovery, they added, should be discouraged.

“With industry collaboration, we can overcome common challenges on our way to transform to a circular business,” said Mirjam Luc, project leader for recycled textiles at Ikea. “This study has enabled us to share data through a digital platform, creating transparency and knowledge sharing, as well as creating facts to support us in taking our next steps on our journey to only use recycled and renewable materials.”

The companies said they will also use these findings to support public policy that promotes the use of recycled materials that meet robust safety standards for people and the planet.

“It’s great to see companies working together to gain increased knowledge about the chemical content of recycled textiles,” said Theresa Kjell, senior policy advisor at the International Chemical Secretariat, also known as ChemSec, an independent nonprofit the champions safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. “We hope that studies like these will result in cleaner material flows and also motivate legislators to speed up the work with phasing out hazardous substances in products.”