Tom Bowden / July 10th 2020
Chemical recycling techniques could change the make-up of our garments in the coming decade, experts say
The fashion retailer H&M has kicked off a green revolution in the clothing industry after selling the world’s first truly recycled mass-market garment – a cotton-like dress made from old pairs of jeans and wood pulp.
Released to little fanfare during lockdown, the dress slipped well under the radar of mainstream media.
But the garment is potentially so significant that it could one-day come to be seen as the dress that ended fast fashion.
“This is very significant. H&M is acting as a pathfinder for the industry,” said Mark Sumner, a fashion sustainability academic at the University of Leeds.
An industry first
“This is definitely a first. It’s a significant step forward on the path to recycled clothing,” added Francois Souchet, of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation sustainability charity.
He says that garments made from recycled clothing fibres could become a relatively-common feature of the high street in as little as five years if all goes to plan.
The increased demand for genuinely recycled fashion is part of growing public scrutiny of the manufacture and make-up of our clothing.
On Wednesday fashion retailer Boohoo announced an independent review of its UK supply chain after allegations that garment workers at a Leicester factory for one of its brands were paid below the minimum wage and suffered poor working conditions wiped more than a third off its market value in just three days.
Recycled clothing fibres set to surge
The amount of recycled fabrics used in new clothing is expected to soar from virtually nothing today to become a common ingredient in the coming decade, as consumer demand for green clothes spurs the development of promising new recycling techniques.
These mean that, finally, used clothing materials could soon be turned into a wide range of fabrics that are good-enough quality for new garments and can be produced in industrial quantities.
Previously, any recycled material that has found its way into-mass produced clothing lines has come from bottles and other discarded single-use plastic.
The emergence of ‘textile-to-textile’ recycling could transform the make-up of items across the clothing spectrum, from trousers and underwear to dresses and coats – while dramatically cutting the volume of discarded garments that are burned or sent to landfill every year.
UK clothing in numbers
- Households throw out than 1 million tonnes of clothing a year – of which around 350,000 tonnes, worth £140 million, goes to landfill.
- People in the UK buy more clothes than in any other European country – purchasing 26.7 kilograms of socks, hats and everything inbetween every year, compared to 16.7kg in Germany, 14.5 kg in Italy and 12.6 kg in Sweden.
- The average UK household contains £4,000 worth of clothes, 30 per cent of which has not been worn for at least a year.
Similar look and feel
By and large, the clothes produced are likely to look and feel very similar to existing ranges and will come at little to no extra cost, developers predict – although they accept that cost and ‘feel’ are challenges yet to be overcome.
“We are in the early stages of a revolution which could transform the way clothes are made,” said Keith James, of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the government agency responsible for tackling waste.
“Developers around the world are working on innovative technologies that could enable textile-to-textile recycling of a whole range of materials, in as little as five to ten years,” he said. The new techniques use chemicals to dissolve and isolating ingredients – removing dyes, separating out the materials and reconstituting them into new fabrics.
They are much more effective that the old mechanical techniques which are expensive and unable to remove dyes or separate the fabric blends which dominate the clothing market.
Among retailers, H&M appears to be leading the charge. Its new Conscious Exclusive range includes a ‘ruffled day dress’ that is made from 50 per cent recycled cotton jeans and 50 per cent viscose, a type of rayon fabric made from wood pulp.
These jean cotton has been reconstituted into a brand new material, known as circulose, which is a soft, silky, cotton-like fibre. Recycling old cotton directly into pure new cotton remains elusive for now because it’s a natural fibre that degrades over time meaning that – unlike manmade materials such as polyester – it can’t be built back up in exactly the same form.
Textile-to-textile case proven
“We have proven that textile-to-textile recycling at scale works,” said Patrik Lundström, chief executive of Renewcell, the Stockholm company that developed circulose for H&M.
Meanwhile, H&M has separately just invested several million pounds in Britain’s Worn Again Technologies, which is seeking to go a step further in the recycling revolution, developing a new technique to separate and recycle cotton and polyester clothing mixes for the first time.
The company opened a pilot plant in Redcar in January and things are “going well”, according to company founder Cyndi Rhoades.
She is hopeful that we could see garments made from her fabrics beginning to pop up on the High Street within five years with recycled clothing fibres potentially becoming commonplace not too long afterwards.
Could be common in a decade
“In ten years I hope that we’re well on our way to a shift where a high percentage of what is being produced is made out of used textiles,” Ms Rhoades said.
“For a long time, there wasn’t an imperative to [recycle clothing]. But there has been a big shift in the past five or ten years and now we have a ‘perfect storm’ of factors making it more prevalent than ever,” she said.
The storm-inducing variables include public pressure to go green, a concern that resources may soon start to run out and Covid-19’s exposure of just how fragile global supply chains are – making local waste a valuable commodity.
A green fashion revolution is by no means a certainty, however. The new techniques being developed are generally still works in progress and it remains to be seen whether they commercially viable on a significant scale.
Still early days
Even H&M is dipping its toe into the market gently, with just the one product before deciding whether to expand its range of recycled clothing.
“The Conscious Exclusive range gives our designers a chance to experiment with new exciting materials, such as Circulose and throughout the years many of these have later been adapted into our regular collections…We can see our customers are increasingly interested in sustainability,” an H&M spokesperson said.
The retailer won’t give any sales figures for any individual product although it is understood the dress is selling well.
But while it is impossible to predict with certainty, the tide towards truly sustainable clothing appears unstoppable. This suggests it’s only a matter of time before the necessary technology and policy breakthroughs occur and recycling hits the fashion mainstream, experts say.
“What H&M is doing potentially has a very high probability of disrupting the current model. This could actually lead to significant change within the industry and in terms of consumers attitude towards fashion,” Dr Sumner said.
“It’s got all the ingredients to say that there’s something very interesting that’s going to happen here,” he said.