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How Primark and Recover Are Scaling Up Circularity

As a concept, circularity in fashion is a no-brainer. Why shovel value-rich products and materials into the landfill when you can reclaim the resources to make new ones, preferably over and over again ad infinitum? The reality is more complicated. Hitting an inflection point on any innovation or business model requires impact at scale.

That’s exactly what Recover, which churns out high-quality yet cost-competitive recycled cotton fibers, intends to do. The Spanish firm will open two new facilities in Bangladesh and Pakistan by the end of the year, with others to follow in Vietnam and South America. The idea is to maximize its output by going where the waste is.

“As a textile-to-textile recycling company, we have an important role to play in this future circular system,” Hélène Smits, chief sustainability officer at Recover, told Sourcing Journal founder and president Edward Hertzman at Sourcing Journal’s Sourcing Summit on Oct. 19. “I think we’re really excited to be able to scale our tech globally, so we can see it achieve its full potential.”

Also providing a boost? Recover’s ongoing partnership with Primark, which announced in September that it will be manufacturing 100 percent of its clothes from recycled or more sustainable sources by 2030. This is where Recover can play a “relevant role,” by providing the “scalability and competitiveness” that Primark needs to green its cotton and cotton-blended products, said Juan Chaparro, its group director of supply chain, sourcing and quality.

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While Britain’s largest clothing chain by revenue has been building up its own sustainability capabilities and expertise over the past few years, Chaparro said, working with a third party is helping it get where it needs to go faster. “We know that we don’t have all the answers,” he said. “We want to learn from others to ensure that we are changing in step with the innovators and experts in these areas. Recover is a true expert in what it does, but it also has a real commitment to quality, which means a lot to us at Primark.”

Recover’s capacity is another boon, Chaparro said. “Primark is a volume retailer, and we need to work with partners that ensure that any solution has the potential to be scaled up,” he said. “Regarding the price, we are Primark, so it’s in our DNA to be competitive, and Recover fits with this, too.”

Sourcing Summit: Circularity: Building the Infrastructure & Processes Toward Meaningful Change
From the “Circularity: Building the Infrastructure & Processes Toward Meaningful Change” panel. Courtesy

The recycler employs mechanical means to break down post-industrial and post-consumer castoffs, extract the cotton and then respin it into new fibers. Though mechanical recycling is nothing new, Recover pioneered the ColorBlend system, which allows it to sort textile waste by color. By adding low-impact-dyed carrier fibers like recycled polyester, ColorBlend can replicate just about any hue without additional water or chemicals. “We use the color that’s already in the textile waste,” Smits said. “It also saves costs in the downstream manufacturing process.”

Recover, according to a life-cycle analysis the company commissioned, boasts the lowest-impact recycled cotton fiber on the global market. Compared with its virgin counterpart, a single kilogram of Recover’s cotton saves 14,740 liters of water, 56 kilowatt-hours of electricity, 23 kilograms of carbon emissions and 10.5 square meters of land.

Primark’s adoption of Recover allows the discount retailer’s buying and product teams to plug in the recycled cotton into any type of garment in a “fluid, controlled and visible” manner that doesn’t disrupt the way they work, Chaparro said. “This will [also] enable transparency and traceability, which is an integral part of this and key focus for us.”

Smits pointed out that recycled cotton has historically been “very much a niche fiber with a low market share,” meaning it might pop up in a capsule collection “here and there” but it generally has limited staying power. “Making this fiber accessible to big brands and retailers is something new and challenging and kind of pioneering and will hopefully allow not only Primark but also other brands make recycled cotton a core part of their sustainable cotton strategies moving forward,” she said. “Because that’s what we really want to see.”

Recover’s next hurdle is expanding its uptake of post-consumer textiles. “We know that circularity cannot be achieved by scaling the recycling of industrial [waste alone],” Smits said. “This is a big focus of our innovation program at the moment.” One thing that will help with this endeavor is garments that are constructed for disassembly. “We need to now design garments in a way that [allows them to] be easily recycled,” she added. “We cannot achieve that circular system without also transforming design.”

Smits said that circularity isn’t only an important asset for sustainability but that it’s also a vital lever for future commerce. “As an industry, we’re not going to stop growing,” she said. “We’re not going to stop creating products. People are not going to stop consuming fashion or textiles. So we need to find a way to do that in a way that is sustainable and that the Earth can sustain—and I think that’s exactly what circularity promises to do.”