Womens clothing waiting for textile recycling

The fashion industry is said to be the second dirtiest industry in the world, second only to big oil.  When most of us think of pollution, we think of auto exhaust, factories, or power plants — not our clothing. In fact, cotton production is plagued by environmental and social issues. The scale of the issue is immense, with 150 million tons of clothing are sold worldwide every year, with the majority ending up in landfills. Cotton must be cultivated, traded, dyed, sewn, and shipped before it ends up on our backs — each with its associated pollution and potential social consequences.  Major fashion retailer H&M is on a mission to save your fashion from ending up in landfills, and its closed-loop textile recycling initiative with I:CO is the first step in doing so.

Cotton is a demanding crop. It can require 20,000 liters of water to produce just one t-shirt or pair of jeans. Most cotton is grown on irrigated land to satiate the needs of this thirsty crop, which can threaten water security in some areas. Although a mere 2.4 percent of cropland cultivates cotton, it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of the world’s pesticide and insecticide use respectively.  In addition, the dying process is both energy and very chemically intensive. Discharge water contaminated with chemicals from the dying produces threatens waterways and fresh water supplies.  To top it off, the garment industry in general is tremendously wasteful, as most clothing is not recycled and rather ends up in landfills. So many resources go into clothing with only one life.

“As much as 95 percent of textiles and clothes that are thrown away globally can be used again, and we want to offer an easy solution for the customers that today throw their old clothes away,” says an H&M spokesperson. “Therefore, we collect clothes of any brand and any condition in our stores globally.”

Textile recycling solutions

H&M has partnered with I:CO (short for I Collect) in this closed-loop textile recycling initiative for clothes and shoes to be made into new products, much as Mother Nature does. I:CO’s mission is to reduce waste, preserve our natural resources, and protect the environment.

“In an ideal world, materials will be able to flow endlessly, which means that materials tied in products can be used over and over again for new products after the end of the products life-cycles,” says I:CO’s Managing Director Christoph von Hahn.

I:CO closed-loop textile recycling drop box
H&M has partnered with I:CO (short for I Collect) in this closed-loop textile recycling initiative for clothes and shoes to be made into new products. Image Credit: I:CO

Creating a retail collection infrastructure

A strong collection infrastructure is important for this textile recycling model to thrive and I:CO is establishing that. It has created an in-store take-back initiative with 60 retail partners across six continents.  H&M partnered with I:CO back in 2013 and has collected more than 25,000 tons of garments to date globally — garments representing both H&M and non-H&M brands. The list of retail partners continues to expand, with several large announcements in 2016.

“We are happy to collaborate with such a well-known and interesting brand as Hunkemöller,” says von Hahn. “Thus, we are further expanding our network of partners, who are willing to take on product responsibility, and strengthen awareness of the challenge of textile recycling.”

Hunkemöller is taking clothing back in its 180 retail stores in the Netherlands, and offering a 10 percent discount to shoppers that bring in a bag for textile recycling. Marks & Spencer (M&S), a major British multinational retailer is one of the latest to unroll a clothing exchange program with I:CO.

Reuse vs. upcycling

I:CO has an innovative process for sorting items for reuse and textile recycling. Along with its partners, I:CO collected around 17,000 tons of clothing and shoes in 2015. Roughly 40 percent of this clothing was recycled (6.8 tons or almost 15 million pounds) — with a large amount being used to make new cotton garments.

I:CO looks for the best use for collected items, ideally upcycling clothes and shoes. Items that are reusable can be worn again, which is has the least environmental impact and makes the best use of the materials in the garment.

“When it comes to the protection of resources, rewear enables us to save the most resources possible, and recycling saves the resources that otherwise would be lost because the garments cannot be worn any longer,” says Jennifer Gilbert, I:CO’s chief marketing officer.

I:CO strives to upcycle clothing, thus making the discarded textiles or shoes into a new product of equal or better quality. Garments that can no longer be worn go into the closed-loop recycling process, thus a shirt can be turned into a new shirt in the future. By contrast, downcycling clothing would entail shredding it and turning it into a new product, such as home insulation.

“This system brings all returned clothing to its ecologically reasonable next best use,” says Gilbert. “Thus, still wearable clothing will be kept in the closed loop in its original condition for as long as possible and marketed in secondhand goods markets. By giving these garments another life through the rewear concept, we assure the conservation of resources.”

Closing the recycling loop

Back in February 2014, H&M unveiled its first line of products made of recycled textile fibers from clothing collected in its garment recycling initiative. The recycled cotton clothing line includes five denim items, including jeans and jackets, for both men and women. Last year, H&M introduced 16 more denim items and has goals for increasing the use of 20 percent recycled cotton in its clothing by 300 percent over 2014 numbers.

Such efforts help push what is technologically possible in recycling cotton. Despite making big strides in closed-loop recycling initiatives, H&M is also encountering technological limitations.

“Denim garments today can contain only 20 percent recycled cotton,” says H&M. “To increase this share without losing quality, we need more technological innovation. We are working hard to overcome the challenge, and we are investing in the innovation we need to create a closed loop.”

I:CO closed-loop textile recycling
Despite making big strides in closed-loop textile recycling initiatives, H&M has encountered technological limitations along the way. Image Credit: I:CO

Keeping virgin materials out of landfills

As our environment suffers from using virgin materials to produce clothing, solutions are emerging and partnerships are forming. Hopefully recycled cotton is still in its infancy with the 20 percent recycled content limitation, and a trend will be established diverting virgin cotton from landfills.

“Creating a closed loop for textiles, in which unwanted clothes can be recycled into new ones, will not only minimize textile waste, but also significantly reduce the need for virgin resources as well as other impacts fashion has on our planet.” Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of H&M.

Feature image credit: Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.