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Why Circularity Doesn’t End With Recycled Fibers

From new denim constructions, weights and washes to the steps global mills are taking to reduce impact, Rivet's SS23 In Season Look Book: Denim & Trims has everything you need to know for a successful denim season.

Recycled fibers have become one of the more popular solutions among those looking to embrace circularity.

Companies like VF Corp., H&M Group and Lululemon Athletica are among the dozens that have signed onto the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge, a project that aims to increase the global percentage of recycled polyester to 45 percent. Adidas, another signee, plans to shift to using only recycled polyester starting in 2024.

Still, Kevin Myette, director of global brand services with Bluesign Technologies, says that though recycling is “an important dimension of circularity,” it is “not the least impactful.” By breaking a material down to its base constituents, he said, it must once again be brought through the manufacturing process. Ultimately, this means that the environmental impact tied to each step in that process recurs. Chemicals—of which 90 percent do not end up on the finished garment, Myette said—must also be reintroduced to the process, producing further waste.

“If recycled materials [are] part of your strategy, then choosing the feedstock is just the beginning of it,” Myette said at last month’s Sourcing Summit. “You need to worry about the total embedded impact across the network.”

When working to cut down on impact—whether the feedstock is recycled or not—the most important place to focus is at the Tier 2 level. Looking at energy, water and climate, Myette said, “studies all agree that the primary place where most of the impact happens is where materials [are] actually being produced.”

The simplest way to minimize impact, however, is to bypass the manufacturing process by using materials that have already been produced, whether that’s through reuse or refurbishment. Already, many of apparel’s largest companies are embracing these strategies and launching their own secondhand initiatives.

Beyond being more sustainable, secondhand shopping has become increasingly popular of late. According to a report released by ThredUp—a company which bills itself as the world’s largest online consignment and thrift store—resale is expected to grow 11 times faster than the broader retail sector by 2025.

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