Every year the church I go to has a flea market fundraiser. The most common item people bring to sell is used clothing. Once the fundraiser is over, the church donates whatever clothes weren’t bought to a local thrift shop or to the homeless shelter. In this way clothes are recycled, at least in our community.
But what happens in other communities and to other types of textiles? What happens to unused fabric? And what about garments of consumers tired of their wardrobe who just throw them in the trash?
What Does Closing The Loop Mean?
There’s a gap in the textile life cycle – raw materials are processed into fibre, which is converted into fabric, which is then processed into a finished product. These products are then transported to various parts of the world and sold. Consumers wear these products and discard them, most often before they are truly unusable. They then make their way into global landfills. These discarded items take forever to break down, and often release methane (a greenhouse gas) as they do.
Closing the loop means figuring out a way to avoid wasteful discarding of clothes which leads to wasteful manufacture. It means using our natural resources to their full potential before they are discarded. And even then, they are discarded in a way that does not harm the environment. The diagram below showcases what this ‘loop’ should look like if we adopted better textile practices through its life-cycle.
Given the right technology, many of these goods could be broken down again into basic fibre, blended with new fibre, and reprocessed into a new product (which is what most other industries do). But the textile industry currently has no standard way of closing the loop, although some brands are starting to tackle the problem through recycling, reusing and repurposing.
Brands That Are Closing The Loop
In 2015 a company called I:CO (I Collect) collected about 17,000 tonnes of clothing and shoes for recycling. They sorted the pile into unwearable and still wearable goods. The still wearable goods they repaired and sold again to the secondhand goods market. Around 30% of the unwearable items were able to be broken down into raw materials for reuse.
Fashion giant H&M is amongst the more than 60 retail partners that contract with I:CO. H&M’s spokesperson estimates that 95% of unwanted textiles and clothes could be used again.
H&M has been under much scrutiny for its lack of transparency in its supply chains, and therefore its direct and indirect exploitation of environmental and human resources. This mass criticism could be the reason that in 2014 the company started selling denim products remade from I:CO’s recycling process. Since then, H&M has collected more than 25,000 tons of discarded garments of all brands in its stores worldwide.
Other brands participating in I:CO’s sustainable movement include Levi’s, Puma, Forever 21, and the North Face. All of these brands collect garments from consumers in their stores and give them to I:CO to reprocess.
Additional retailers with “close the loop” programs are PUMA and OAT Shoes, which have developed biodegradable products. Another noteworthy initiative includes the one by brands Houdini, Nudie Jeans, and Filippa K, who have set up customer repair services to promote longer lifespans for their garments. A company called Worn Again specialises in recycling and upscaling discarded textiles. Their clients include McDonald’s, which aims to close the loop on its staff uniforms.
The Need To Close The Loop
One purpose for closing the loop is to eliminate end waste. Americans, alone, throw away a total of 26 billion tonnes of textiles every year, according to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency. 12.7 million tonnes of it ends up in the landfill, some of it only for a broken zipper or seam, easily repaired if one knows how.
Justifying the huge amounts of resources used in making a product in the first place is another purpose. For the 82 million tonnes of fibre produced in 2011, it took 145 million tonnes of coal and a few trillion gallons of water to process. For just one pair of jeans it takes around 2,900 gallons of water. For a consumer to purchase that product, wear it a few times, then throw it away is an incredible waste!
H&M’s CEO Karl-John Persson puts it this way, “To find ways to close the loop for textiles is crucial not just for the fashion industry but also for the global society and the entire planet’s wellbeing.”