Did you know?
20% of global production waste comes from the textile and apparel sectors.
So here we are, at the end of the cycle. Or aren’t we? There are so many alternatives to throwing clothes in the trash bin, so many things you can do to extend the lives of those resources that’ve cost blood, sweat and tears to obtain.
For instance, have you heard of fabrics that disintegrate completely? They are called biodegradable. Making shoes that you can put in the ground? Quite spectacular, right?
But you don’t even have to go this far. Something that’s already been done quite regularly is to upcycle clothing. Reusing fabrics for new designs is actually a piece of cake.
Going one step beyond reusing the fabric itself, is to reuse its fibers. Recycling is still an option here, but it needs to be taken into account from the design phase.
Do you cringe at the idea of clothes just ending up on landfills? Facilitate the return of clothes that are no longer wanted.
And why not reuse? This is the most sustainable option of all. Perhaps someone else is just dying to wear those clothes that you’ve grown tired of.
One of nature’s basic principles is that everything has its place: something springs to life, consisting of natural resources, and at the end it slowly disappears back into the earth. This is the most advanced closed-loop system ever. One way for us to close the loop, then, is to make sure our clothes are biodegradable. At the moment this strategy is not yet widely used because it still requires a lot of research. Influencing elements like the exact circumstances in which clothes will decompose or the time this takes are crucial.
SOME USEFUL GUIDELINES
These are natural textiles that easily break down, like cotton, silk, wool, cashmere and hemp.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, spandex, nylon, … Though they will eventually break down, this process might take between 20 to 200 years.
This is one of the easiest fabrics to decompose, especially if it’s 100% cotton. In the right compost, the material should be gone in a week to five months.
This very fine material can decompose in as little as two weeks when it’s completely pure. You can speed up the process by cutting the fabric into small pieces.
Depending on the blend, it may take between 1 and 5 years to decompose.
Its popularity is on the rise and it’s much like wool in that it takes a year and sometimes longer to biodegrade.
Because hemp is derived from plants and does not require excessive processing, it is highly biodegradable.
Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms and is also very biodegradable.
Other fabrics like jute, abaca fibers, cork or products made of seeds, shells, nuts, and wood are all compostable.
In reality it’s obviously not that simple, because clothes are often made from a blend of fabrics (often polyesters) or are heavily coated … This obviously impedes biodegradation. Other extras, like threads, buttons, zippers and labels could also spoil the fun.
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Reusing discarded pieces of fabric to create new products has been popular for quite some time, but nowadays this process is becoming ever more professionalized. Reusing, redesigning or upcycling is regarded as an eco-efficient strategy, even though this approach does not tackle the real problem, namely the increase in both production and consumption.
This being said, we have an enormous amount of textile and clothing waste at our disposal, which (rightly) boosts the popularity of this strategy. There are several brands that use fabric surplus coming from the regular fashion industry to produce their own fashionable clothing.
The most obvious way in which to go about this, is to work with used clothing (also called ‘post-consumer spills’). Discarded textile is creatively reused and can re-enter the market as a new, upcycled product. The process comes down to making new clothes from old pieces or fabrics. This closed-loop system often requires intermediaries such as thrift shops or other organizations that collect clothes.
Rather than focusing on the end of a product’s life, you can also intervene much earlier. Designers working with pre-consumer spills go for pieces of fabric that were already labeled as waste during the design or production process (before entering the consumer’s closet, that is). Pattern cutting or fabric production often generate these kinds of surpluses.
Also read this strategy in the category Resources.
(Re)design surplus textiles and upcycle old clothing
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Upcycle your old clothes or textiles
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Don’t lose sight of ‘pre-consumer spills’
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The family of recycled textiles is continually welcoming new members these days. Turning to existing yarn and textile means reducing the need to make fabrics from virgin (raw) materials like cotton, wool or synthetic yarn. This saves energy and avoids the pollution that takes place during traditional dyeing, washing and harvesting processes.
So it’s always a good idea to learn more about the recyclability of fabrics and to take into account guidelines which guarantee that clothes stay in the loop at the end of their lives. You can read all about the relevant criteria by clicking your way to ‘Design for rebirth’. Check out the recycling possibilities for each fabric under ‘Resources’, especially the strategy ‘Choose recycled or recyclable fabrics’.
Keep in mind that avoiding waste is still the best solution (e.g. by going for long life and durability) and that recycling should be the last resort.
Recycling natural materials (like cotton and wool) happens mechanically: it’s a process of stripping and shredding fabrics into smaller particles; fibers. The fibres that emerge from this process have been broken and torn, making them very short. Using (only) these kinds of fibers would threaten the quality of the fabric; the product would not be strong enough and would disintegrate quickly. To achieve a better quality, the short fibers are mixed with long (new) and less fragile fibers. It also matters whether your fabric is dark or light. After all, the fabrics have to be decolorized, with darker fabrics obviously calling for more bleach.
While this is the only way to recycle natural materials, there are more options for synthetic fabrics. The latter can be recycled both mechanically and chemically. Polyester, for instance, is pulverized, melted and then spun into new fibers.
The demand for recycled polyester is on the rise, especially in the niche market of sports and outdoor wear. Meanwhile, the recycling of natural materials lags behind and runs the risk of remaining in the margins for some time to come. New natural materials have a low price tag, which is why they continue to dominate the market and incite little desire for new developments in recycling. Yet innovation is exactly what’s needed. Once we have a method for extracting longer fibers, chances are the quality (and with it, the demand) will increase.
Sorting and recycling is of course easiest when clothes are made of one and the same material. Unfortunately, most pieces consist of a blend of different materials, which is bad news all the way around. This means the very first step is an (expensive) sorting process, pushing prices for recycled textile up way too high to compete with raw material.
In addition, several organizations like Worn Again believe in the possibility of chemically recycling fabrics that contain at least 80% of the same material. They hope to accomplish this by 2018.
Cliff - recycled material by Dutch aWEARness
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Consumers have plenty of options to donate their worn-out clothing these days. There are clothing drop boxes, recycling plants, thrift stores and door-to-door clothing collections, as well as more recent initiatives like Packmee (the Netherlands), where you simply stuff your clothes in a box and put it on your doorstep. Tag it and you’re done: Post.nl picks it up for you. This is super easy, but still some 8 kilos of clothes per person end up on the waste heap each year. We can do better than that. You can do your part as a retailer by conducting clothing collections:
LET CLIENTS RETURN WORN CLOTHES
H&M, Brantano, PUMA, The North Face, … they know collection systems work. These retailers proudly put take-back boxes in their stores so customers can drop off old clothes in exchange for a discount on their next purchase.
The boxes are collected, centralized and sorted, often with the help of professionals like Swiss textile recycling company I:CO. They separate clothes that are still wearable from those that aren’t. The first group is sold on as second-hand clothing, with profits going to charity. Textiles that can no longer be worn are recycled (at the moment mainly into cleaning cloths and material for the automotive industry) or burned.
The sector is eagerly awaiting initiatives that would facilitate both sorting and recycling processes. To encourage research in this area, H&M went so far as to launch a Global Challenge to boost innovations.
Next, it’s worth considering to incorporate systems like leasing, deposit refunds or rental services into your business model. MUD Jeans is top of the class in this respect: they offer their clients the possibility to buy or lease their products. After paying a monthly fee, you’re free to rent the jeans you want, and to exchange them for another pair when you’re done with them. MUD retains ownership of the raw materials, remaining in complete control of their own fibers. Reusing fibers or even entire patches of recycled jeans, they make new pants. Nice extra: when you rip your jeans, you can have them fixed for free. While this is taken care of, you can wear replacement pants. Sounds familiar?
The user is usually the one to decide whether or not to reuse clothing. So what about you? What do you do with clothes you no longer like? Do you give them away, sell them online, donate them to charities, or do you try to find new owners for them at swapping events?
Be sure to check out our Consumption page for tips and tricks.
Several retailers and designers are also launching initiatives for reuse. Filippa K is one of them, encouraging customers to hand in their clothes. Some of the collected clothes are subsequently sold in their own second-hand Filippa K, where they can supervise the process.
Last but not least: look into the possibilities for last season’s items or overstocks. Who knows, perhaps there are initiatives in your neighbourhood that will give your clothes a new life, such as clothing libraries.
Swishing & Swapping - swap your clothes
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Returning clothes to the store
The ‘End of life’ section offers useful information on what to do with clothing that is damaged or worn out and where to go with items that you si…
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