Should We Be Recycling Our Old Clothes Into New Ones?

By Beatrice Murray-Nag

Clothing recycling is often touted as a sure-fire way to put the fashion industry to rights. With circularity fast becoming a buzzword, brands are investing in the idea that transforming old clothes into new ones could resolve fashion’s waste problem and reduce the amount of virgin resources needed to make their garments.

It’s not just brands that are banking on clothing recycling either – policy makers and advocacy initiatives want to accelerate progress too. The new EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles is aiming to “make the textile ecosystem fit for the circular economy,” while the Textiles 2030 initiative by leading UK sustainability charity WRAP counts “closing the loop on materials” among its key objectives.

But how close are we to being able to recycle our unwanted garments into fibres and yarns that could be used to make a brand-new piece of clothing? For all the talk, how much concrete progress is being made?

What clothes recycling looks like today

Let’s start with the stats. According to a deep dive by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, of the estimated 15% of garment waste that gets recycled, only 1% goes back into creating new clothing. 

Its ‘A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future’ report maps out that while 2% of items get lost somewhere within the recycling process, the remaining 12% are downcycled instead. That means that rather than being made back into something of roughly the same quality as the original raw materials, the clothes are being put to lower value uses like insulation material and mattress stuffing. So, while their life is being extended temporarily, it won’t stop them from eventually heading to landfill. 

When it comes to turning old clothing into yarns and materials that could be used within the fashion industry, there are two options available: mechanical and chemical recycling. The former, more traditional method sees textile waste sorted, shredded, and re-spun. It’s long been used for materials including cotton and wool, but they can lose some of their original strength and durability in the process, so often need to be blended with other raw materials.

The chemical way of doing things involves dissolving said waste in a solvent solution. It’s being used by ECONYL® in the creation of its regenerated nylon, and although the brand is currently using fishing nets and old carpets as raw materials, the idea is that clothes made from ECONYL® should be infinitely recyclable too. 

Chemical recycling also offers up the potential for Man Made Cellulosic Fibres (MMCFs) like lyocell and viscose, which are traditionally made from wood pulp. The Swedish company Renewcell is using this method to recycle cotton into its Circulose® cellulosic fibre instead. If the tech were to take hold, recycling just 25% of the cotton currently used in the industry would mean fashion wouldn’t have to rely on wood at all to create its MMCFs. 

Source: Renewcell

The barriers to recycling more post-consumer clothing waste

Many other fibre-to-fibre recycling companies use pre-consumer waste – the scraps that are leftover on the factory floor when clothes are made. This is easier to recycle because there are large amounts of it in the same place, and manufacturers are more likely to know what materials it’s made from and what chemicals and dyes have been used on the fabrics.

For clothes that have already been worn and washed, the challenges come with the reverse logistics of recovering the items and sorting through them. Without standardised guidelines for consumers as to what can and can’t be recycled, and what condition clothing needs to be in when it’s collected, textile recycling companies have their work cut out. 

Clothes that have been collected via take-back schemes or collection boxes first need to be separated according to their type and condition. While better quality items will be suitable for reuse or resale, the remainder must be sorted by fibre type before it can be recycled. Then there’s the task of pre-processing them to remove trims, buttons, threads, zippers, and other hardware.

The problem is that there’s still a big question mark over whose responsibility this is. Currently, most fibre-to-fibre recycling is being done by independent textile suppliers, but there’s a lack of logistical support in collecting and sorting the material. Even when recycled fibres make it to the market, the challenge lies in ensuring they are of high enough quality to match up to the longevity and durability of virgin materials. And worse, when brands label clothes as “recyclable,” there’s nothing to prove that they have the facilities in place to do so.

The impact of recycled fibres on the planet

Yet in an industry where sustainability progress is being driven by increasing consumer demand, it’s common to see brands commit to using more recycled materials. Even the EU has considered setting a tax on virgin fibres as part of its long-term plan to boost the circular economy. But while the words “recycled”or “recyclable” might look good on a hangtag, is this the best place for brands to be focusing their efforts?

Research by sustainability consultancy Quantis suggests that fashion businesses can make a bigger impact on their carbon emissions by upping their use of renewable energy and energy efficiency across their supply chains instead. The study notes that while circular economy initiatives do have the potential to cut down emissions by 10% across the industry, this is a small difference in comparison to what working hand in hand with suppliers to reduce their overall energy consumption in production could achieve. 

There’s also growing sentiment that calculating a product or material’s sustainability credentials solely in terms of carbon can be reductive. It ignores the deeper socio-economic questions that come with sourcing, such as the impact on the livelihoods of farmers if brands stop buying as much virgin cotton or wools? And if recycled textiles soar in popularity, could they displace farmer-based production of natural fibres and forgo the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture? These questions, and more, form the basis of fashion sustainability leader Eco-Age’s latest report, which considers whether brands’ circularity claims could be contributing to greenwashing in the fashion industry.

For now, any promises around post-consumer clothing recycling are still very much in the test phase. For all the talk, a lack of infrastructure and adequate tech means there’s still a long way to go before this kind of recycling becomes a concrete, scalable solution. 

While fibre-to-fibre recycling could help resolve fashion’s waste problem, perhaps the biggest learning is that a silver bullet solution doesn’t exist at all. Every action that the industry takes will affect the many hands that make up its supply chains, so brands have got to think holistically. 

It’s this wider vision – one that looks beyond emissions and targets the protection of real people and the changing of a mindset rooted in overconsumption – that will make change at scale. With it, fibre-to-fibre recycling could be a valid piece of the puzzle. Without it, upping the recycled content in our clothing might just be an all-too-easy way for fashion brands to put a bandaid over a fundamentally flawed business model.

By Beatrice Murray-Nag

Beatrice is a communications consultant, copywriter and journalist helping to change the conversation around how our clothes are made. Formerly content manager at the fashion sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, Beatrice now splits her time between helping brands, textile suppliers, and manufacturers to tell their sustainability stories; supporting purpose-led projects that are creatively communicating about sustainability in the industry; and writing journalistic features that address deeper questions around fashion’s social, cultural and environmental impact.