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Gap Exec on Where Recycled Cotton Is the ‘Default Fiber’

The concept of waste as a resource in the textile supply chain is catching on in fashion, and could help turn the corner on the path to circularity.

Companies are increasingly using textiles in the waste stream and used apparel to make new fibers and fabrics, according to Lenzing’s virtual seminar “Circular Knowledge is Power” on Tuesday at Texworld New York City.

Moderator Karla Magruder, founder and president of Accelerating Circularity, discussed how a wide variety of companies are working on new processes, systems and technologies to enable the circular transformation.

Collection schemes, sorting technologies, traceability systems and recycling innovations are being developed, commercialized, scaled and marketed, Magruder said. Accelerating Circularity, a collaborative group of companies, has spent the past year researching, mapping and identifying the links needed to bring these circular systems to life.

“When we talk about circular products, we’re talking about products that are able to be brought through the entire supply system,” she said. “These products can then be circled through the system multiple times. So, they need to be able to be safe, they need to be designed and developed in a way that they can go back into the system and that there’s not something that stops them from continuing to cycle through the system.”

Tricia Carey, global director of business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers, said the company’s Refibra technology recycles cotton waste to make a new fiber that is used in its Tencel lyocell production process.

“We’ve been making this fiber since 2017,” Carey said. “Right now, we’re using 100 percent cotton waste–we’re not using any denim right now, partly because of the weight of the fabric and the indigo. We will be moving into blends. Currently, we’re at a 30 percent mix of post-industrial and post-consumer waste and we’ll be moving to 50 percent post-consumer waste by 2025.”

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StThe concept of waste as a resource in the textile supply chain is growing and could help turn the corner on the path to circularity.
Clockwise from upper left: Karla Magruder, Alice Hartley, Steven Bethell and Trica Carey. Courtesy

Alice Hartley, director of product sustainability at Gap Inc., said what is needed in the industry and for Gap’s product development is “making it easy” to find fabrics that are made from recycled or repurposed textiles.

“In cases where we’ve been able to use mechanically recycled cotton, which we started to do about two-and-a-half years ago, it has become a default fiber,” Hartley said. “We have it in the majority of the denim that we make at Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy.”

Most advanced recycled fibers, including those that are chemically recycled, are used for special projects because they require more engineering and handling in the manufacturing process, she said.

“So, it’s not something that is as readily available and that availability is, of course, is reflected in the price, just as a function of supply and demand,” Hartley said. “I don’t think we’re there yet to be able to choose a fiber from a post-consumer feedstock as opposed to a virgin fiber, but that’s where we need to get to if we want to drive the volumes and build scale.”

Steven Bethell, president and partner at textile waste collector and provider Bank & Vogue, said to that point, “the amount of volume that is out there” indicates an untapped well of sources that can narrow the gap of available materials.

“It’s exciting that we are starting to see waste as a resource and certainly the thousands of containers that we move every year, we’re excited about the opportunities…and that as demand increases, price will increase, which will actually put capital pressure to collect more product,” Bethell said. “At Bank & Vogue, we’ve had year-over-year increases in volume for the last five years. As more recycling technologies come on board, it’s going to be exciting to see how much more product we can pull from the landfills of the Americas.”

As Lenzing develops more recycled fibers, it requires strong brand partnerships and commitments, an understanding of the time it takes to create new fibers and that “it’s not going to be cost-neutral,” Carey said.

The panelists also discussed the idea of a “garment passport” that is embedded and travels with clothing through its life, with such details as ingredients and production involved in its creation as well as its ability to be recycled.