What challenges stand in the way of clothing recycling?

On July 29th, several experts on recycling in fashion gathered in a virtual webinar hosted by Sourcing Journal to discuss the challenges with circularity and the future of sustainability. The consensus was that the fashion industry needs to move away from the idea that a brand's responsibility ends when clothes sell. Brands need to be implementing take-back programs and incorporating more recycled products in their collections. This all sounds great and straight-forward; after all, recycling was widely introduced in the 1970s. If we could recycle aluminum cans back then, how hard can it be to implement the same technique with clothing now? It turns out it is more complicated than that. Recycling is crucial if the fashion industry is going to become circular. Still, technical challenges with the recycling processes, combined with cultural and financial hurdles, make efficient and widespread clothing recycling a far-fetched dream.


Hilde van Duijn, a representative for nonprofit Circle Economy, identified three areas that stand as roadblocks for businesses trying to implement more recycling. The first is cultural; consumers have a negative outlook on recycling and recycled goods. In 2018 it was reported that just 34.7 percent of Americans and less than 50 percent of people living in the UK recycle. When it comes to recycling clothes, the stats are even worse. Roughly 85% of consumers in the U.S reported that they throw out their clothes. Brands can put recycling bins in every store, but if consumers don’t fill them, the circularity process can’t continue. That is why some companies have started creating incentives for consumers to bring old clothes in. Levi’s gives recyclers a 20% of a single item coupon in exchange for old clothes from any brand. Madewell offers customers $20 off a future purchase of jeans when they bring in an old pair of jeans. Even H&M provides coupons for their already cheap clothes to entice shoppers to avoid the trash can. These programs are good starting points, but brands can’t afford to pay consumers for old clothes in the long term. Consumers' attitudes towards disposal will need to change, and the best way to do that is through education. This is already paying off among younger shoppers who are more concerned about the environment and more likely to go out of their way to visit a recycling bin rather than add to landfills.


Once clothes are collected, the technical challenges come into play. Fashion has used mechanical recycling for years, but the process is far from perfect. In mechanical recycling, old materials are shredded and turned into a new thread. It seems simple, but it is nearly impossible when the clothes being recycled contain more than one material, e.g., jeans made of polyester and cotton. Adding to the challenge is that recyclers do not always know what materials are in clothes. Tags often contain inaccurate or incomplete lists and percentages of materials, and that is assuming all tags are still attached and readable. To resolve this issue, Worn Again Technologies and Ambercycle created chemical recycling. Depolymerization, as it’s also called, uses chemical processes to recycle waste back into monomers. The fashion industry can use these monomers to create new chemicals or materials. The webinar hosted by Sourcing Journal discussed chemical recycling, but it is still not ready to be used widely across the fashion industry.

The financial challenges associated with recycling is a problem that faces both brands and consumers. New technology like chemical recycling is expensive to develop, and that cost often falls on brands. In addition to the incentives for consumers to recycle, brands end up footing a significant portion of the bill when it comes to circularity. Some of this gets passed along to consumers in the form of price increases on products, especially clothes made from recycled materials, but Melissa Bastos from Cotton Incorporated pointed out that consumers consistently care about the cost of clothing and style before environmental impact. Meaning more expensive clothes are more likely to get passed over in favor of cheaper and trendier apparel. If consumers are not willing to pay more for recycled clothes, brands are less likely to participate in recycling programs because there is simply no way to make a profit. Some experts suggest this is where government intervention would be beneficial; unfortunately, asking for government assistance comes with its challenges, including a prolonged time table for achieving circularity in fashion.

Recycling is a crucial component to circularity in fashion, and without circularity, the fashion industry will have a difficult time becoming sustainable. Brands, consumers, and in some cases, governments need to work together to make clothing recycling easier.

Commentary:

Recycling in fashion, just like in any other industry, is the last answer. Fashion needs to continue to focus on using fewer natural resources and reusing existing clothing, but at some point, all apparel can’t be reduced or reused and will have to be disposed of. Effective clothing recycling will take money, innovation, and dedication from brands and consumers, but it is necessary to achieve environmentally sustainable fashion. In theory, it seems easier if governments step in and handle the funding and regulation part. Still, it is naive for the fashion industry to rely on the government for a solution. Recycling needs to become widespread soon, and brands will probably have to shoulder the burden of making it happen. It will pay off in the long run, though.