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The Time is Now for Recycled Cotton—And Here’s Why

As the industry advances toward greater sustainability and more recycled options for textiles and apparel, the Global Fashion Agenda has been on board to help facilitate the positive shift.

Launched at the 2017 Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the aim is to drive the fashion industry toward greater circularity by 2020. To get there, they plan to focus on four key points: implementing design strategies for cyclability, increasing volume of used garments collected, increasing volume of used garments resold, increasing sourcing of recycled post-consumer textile fibers.

So far, 94 apparel companies have signed the commitment, representing 12 percent of the global fashion industry.

It is important to realize the scope of the commitment is specific to recycled fibers coming from post consumer textiles (PCT), and the aim is to increase the market consumption of recycled PCT fibers, specifically, and close the loop for fashion. It’s a necessary next step after increasing the collection of used garments because it ensures that supply into the recycling system, is met with demand for the outputs of the recycling system. This supply–demand correlation is critically needed right now.

A recent report from Mistra Future Fashion noted that used clothing markets and clothing downcycling markets are already saturated, with limited recycling solutions for the collected low-value, non re-wearable textiles.

And according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, less than 1 percent of all the clothing we produce is being recycled back into new clothing, which begs the question: With 94 brands signed up for this 2020 target, what option do they realistically have?

On the synthetics side, there are only few options. While there are now many suppliers that have mastered the art of recycling polyester bottles and packaging waste into fibers for clothing—like Unifi, Newlife, Bionic—suppliers that also recycle used polyester garments or even polyester fabrics are few and far between.

On the natural fiber side, there are more possibilities. For both cotton and wool, recycled fibers and yarns made from post consumer sources are available in the market. However, examples of these fibers in retail are more the exception than the rule, with most coming from recycled denim at places like Asos, Mud Jeans, Blueloop, Lindex and H&M.

But the outlook may be positive for the industry as there are several exciting technologies on the horizon that focus on (semi)chemical recycling of cellulosic, polyester or blended materials, thanks to companies like Renewcell, Evrnu, Jeplan, Moral Fiber, Worn Again. While certainly offering great potential, none of these technologies are yet producing at scale.

“It may be another 2-5 years until we see (semi)chemical recycling of PCT producing commercial scale outputs,” said Traci Kinden, project manager at Circle Economy, a cooperative that helps companies transition to circularity.

Of all of these options, mechanically recycled cotton has the biggest opportunity for scaling and impact on the short and medium term.

Through the FIBERSORT project, Circle Economy has found that upward of 15 percent of all collected PCT is recyclable grade, mono material, with more than 80 percent cotton, which is suitable for mechanical recycling into new textiles. With global collected volumes of more than 12 million tonnes per year, this suggests there’s plenty of feedstock available. In addition, industrial cotton recycling is already quite widespread and it would be relatively easy to allocate existing capacity toward recycling post consumer cotton. Several companies, like Recover, which are now largely recycling industrial cotton waste, would be able to produce significant volumes of post consumer yarn products when the market demand is there and supporting infrastructure is activated.

Several GFA signatories including Reformation, Asos, ESPRIT, Bestseller, Cheap Monday, Mads Nørgaard and SkunkFunk have also recognized the importance of recycled cotton from PCT and rely, in large part, on this fiber to achieve their 2020 target.

Some brand targets, like that of Eksempel—which is to have at least 20 percent of their collection made of 50 percent recycled post-consumer textile fibers—are extremely ambitious. Based on this you would expect a significant increase in industry attention and effort to drive the growth of this material. Unfortunately, it seems the GFA commitment is making mere ripples rather than waves.

And that may be because the industry has not yet accepted the full potential of these recycled fibers. Part of the reason for this could be that in general the industry has not perceived this fibre as having great potential, and methods for recycling remain limited.

Recycled cotton may have its limitations and challenges, and there are certainly still challenges around quality and chemical safety that must be addressed, but the potential these fibers have for lessening fashion’s impact on the environment, is worth taking note of.

One T-shirt made with Recover yarns, containing 52 percent recycled cotton, saves up to 2,700 liters of water. In the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, recycled cotton fibre scores a 1, compared to 11.9 for organic cotton and 60.5 for conventional.

In its first status report published recently, GFA said none of the collective targets surrounding increased sourcing of recycled post-consumer textile fibers have been achieved. The greatest challenge, according to signatories, is the lack of available materials.

In this emerging field of circular textiles, the industry has not yet acquired the common language and level of understanding needed to accelerate effective action. Platforms like Textile Exchange, EMF, Circle Economy and WRAP all have an important role to play in educating the industry about mechanically recycled cotton and helping tackle the barriers that still exist.

Supply and demand need to work more closely together to establish a mutual understanding of the true capabilities and limitations of mechanically recycled cotton, and to further develop and improve the quality and availability according to the needs of industry. Now is the time for a collective effort. It is time to rally behind recycled cotton as an industry in order to fully benefit from the opportunities this fiber has to offer.

Helene Smits builds on more than seven years of experience in Circular Economy and sustainable innovation. In 2014, she set up the Circle Textiles Program at Circle Economy, dedicating herself exclusively to bringing circular economy principles to the textiles industry.

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