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Recycled Review: What’s Happening with Post-Consumer Recycled Fibers, Traceability and Consumer Contribution

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The apparel sector is starting to embrace more sustainable ways, and things like post-consumer recycled fibers, traceability and municipal collections seem to be hot topics in the sector.

At a series of Industry Roundtables at Texworld USA in New York Wednesday, leaders in the space came together to discuss the state of sustainability and how new solutions could reduce the industry’s carbon footprint in the coming years.

Post-consumer recycled fibers gain popularity

While apparel pollution remains rampant, industry members are turning to post-consumer recycled fibers to minimize their carbon footprint. Several companies, including Lenzing Group and Hilaturas Ferre, are already making moves with their post-consumer recycled fiber developments.

Lenzing is consistently working toward a more circular economy, and its latest effort comes with the release of its new Refibra fibers. These fibers are developed from wood cellulose pulp that contains cotton scraps left over from factory cutting operations. Because of the unique blend of wood cellulose pulp and recycled cotton, the fibers spare scraps from landfills and provide them with a second life. What’s more, Lenzing has enabled participating apparel companies, like Zara parent, Inditex, to take part in a more sustainable journey for apparel and textile waste.

Hilaturas Ferre is also closing the loop in apparel production with its brand, Recover. The company launched a wide range of Recover thread and yarns that are made from 100 percent recycled fiber. Recover materials contain recycled cotton that is blended with recycled polyester from PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) bottles. From a dyeing perspective, the Recover materials don’t require traditional dyeing, which is a considerable water savings as well.

Despite advances with post-consumer recycled fibers, challenges do remain with onboarding brands, designers and retailers.

Michael Kininmonth, a roundtable thought leader and Lenzing AG business development and product manager, said retailers are less likely to pay for recycled polyester when they can get virgin polyester for half the cost and use that in their apparel production processes.

“Every part of the supply chain has honed their processes to make the highest quality at the lowest price over the decades, now you are asking people to take an imperfect raw material and make it better at the same price,” Kininmonth said. “There doesn’t seem to be an appetite at retail to pay for that, today, nobody wants to pay for recycled polyester.”

Issac Nichelson, another roundtable speaker and founder of Sustainable Source, also said challenges with hazardous substances remain with post-consumer recycled textiles on the mechanical recycling side.

“With mechanical, I think we have a lot more leeway to use less pure inputs right now, but we do face a lot of challenges with hazardous substances and whether or not there is a significant consumer danger and health safety risk with these products over time,” Nichelson said. “The post-consumer space is mired with challenges, but we have to find a way to create circularity with this incredible growth in the industry.”

Can post-consumer recycled textiles be traceable?

Post-consumer recycled textiles could be a more sustainable choice, but not all second life scraps provide clues to their past. Non-profit organizations, including Textile Exchange, could help brands and retailers trace the origins of their recycled materials and fabrics.

“We envision a global textile industry that protects and restores the environment and enhances lives,” roundtable panelist and Textile Exchange director of integrity Anne Gillespie said. “Our goals are to embed sustainability into business practices and supply chain strategies, along with making it easier for companies to adapt to changing opportunities and requirements in textile sustainability.”

Textile Exchange currently offers two core standards for recycled inputs, including the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and Global Recycled Standard (GRS). RCS verifies that reclaimed materials are truly recycled and that an ethical chain of custody occurs from sourcing to finished product, while the GRS takes this principle further, covering the responsible production of recycled products that are eventually bought by consumers.

“We are interested in making a difference and delivering real and meaningful change. To do that, you have to be telling the truth and when you are talking to your consumers, you know your product is genuinely recycled or organic or sustainable,” Gillespie said. “When you go into recycling, you are starting to close the loop and this is where we want the industry to be.”

What role will consumers actually play?

Although brands and retailers are taking the steps to handle post-consumer textile recycling from the back end, the consumer also plays a crucial role in fostering fashion sustainability and upholding eco-friendly practices.

“Everyone can participate in coordinated efforts on how to make a change,” roundtable industry leader and Recycle.com senior consultant Marisa Adler said. “It’s also about how do we maximize collection systems and get consumers to change their behavior and recycle more.”

Recycle.com currently works with companies on eco-friendly waste management, including handling recyclable post-consumer materials. Some of their services, including municipal collection, enable consumers to take part in facilitating a better planet in the future.

Simple Recycling founder Adam Winfield, who also spoke during an Industry Roundtable, highlighted how retailers are still trying to make municipal collection work from all areas of the supply chain, including making sure actions are taking place on the back-end and with consumers, since no one is separated anymore in today’s digital, fast-fashion age.

“The focus on a closed loop and the focus of responsibility from a retailer or garment producer standpoint are very new. When you are taking about the reuse industry that has been in place at a global level for 25 years, the conversation with retail at the front end is still brand new,” Winfield said. “There is an opportunity because everyone before was siloed.”

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