In previous blogs, I introduced the report “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future”. The report introduces four focus areas designed to move the textile and apparel industries towards a true circular economic model. I have discussed one focus area previously and I will continue this discussion with an analysis of the remaining three:
2. Transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature.
3. Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing.
4. Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs.
Here are my thoughts :
Fast Fashion and the growth and promotion of cheaply made and sold “disposable” clothing is having a devastating impact on the environment. While the actions recommended in the report which include expanded clothing rental, producing more durable apparel, and promoting that durability, would clearly have a positive effect and should be pursued, I have difficulty seeing sufficient implementation by the industry or the retail community to have an appreciable effect. I believe we are going to continue to see more clothing used and disposed of year over year for the foreseeable future. If that is the case, apparel recycling and use of renewable inputs become all the more important and should be pursued aggressively.
To achieve progress toward a circular textile economy, cost effective and efficient recycling of clothing will have to be developed and employed broadly. While some have suggested this will require the development of new, more recyclable polymers and materials, I believe technological development should be focused on the two most utilized textile materials, polyester and cotton. Both can be recycled today in limited quantities and there has been progress made recently in developing more efficient ways to do so.
Lenzing’s Refibra® lyocell recycles post-industrial cotton scraps into new lyocell fiber comparable to Tencel™, in a closed loop and sustainable production process. They are working to develop a post-consumer waste alternative. This and other developments underway offer promise that cotton recycling can be expanded beyond simply shredding cotton garments for insulating materials and other low value options.
Much progress has been made in reducing the environmental impact of cotton farming. An update on this effort provided by Cottonleads.org is linked here. Cotton is renewable and decomposes relatively quickly in landfills if clothing is disposed of rather than recycled. Disposal should still be a last resort as chemicals and dyestuffs often accompany the cotton apparel into the landfill. That said, continuing to improve sustainable cotton farming practices and expanding them to all cotton growing regions will have significant positive effect. The competition for arable land and water will continue to be an issue and work to develop cotton strains and farming methods to greatly increase yield will be a key.
Mechanical recycling of 100% polyester garments is practiced today, albeit in small quantities and usually into black yarns only. Chemical recycling of polyester into base chemical components for re-polymerization has been practiced for decades but is still not cost effective. I am especially excited about work being done to improve the efficiency and cost of chemical polyester recycling. I am aware of developments which show real promise and if successful at scale, would significantly alter the playing field. Today, a few companies have developed the know-how to mechanically recycle polyester bottles and fabric into high quality yarns. Because this is difficult to do, capacity is limited and these companies can and do charge a premium. If cost effective recycling to base chemicals can be commercialized, all polyester producers will be capable of making first quality yarns from recycled bottles and clothing, leveling the playing field and in effect, making recycled polyester yarn a widely available commodity. If widespread recycling of polyester apparel and water bottles is the goal, that will be a prerequisite. (Note: Full Disclosure; my consulting company offers help developing the strategies and plans to successfully address this need.)
Recycling of clothing is much more feasible if the garment is constructed from just one component material, such as 100% cotton or 100% polyester. Polyester offers more promise, in my opinion, since buttons, breathable waterproof laminates, linings and even zippers can be constructed from 100% polyester. Designing clothing for more effective recycling is feasible, is being done today on a limited basis, and could be expanded. Implementing disposed clothing collection and sorting at scale will be a daunting task, but is feasible as proven by the recycling of other materials now widespread in the U.S. and other countries.
Polyester also offers a clear and feasible path to producing apparel yarns from renewable resources. Polyester is produced from 2 basic chemical components, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. Plant based ethylene glycol has been commercially produced for several years, and is found in applications today, usually touting 15% plant based polyester. Other similar polymers, like DuPont Sorona®, are also marketed as sustainable, plant based products. Coincidentally, during my tenure at DuPont in the late 1980’s, I led the technical team that performed the initial research and development on the polymer that eventually became Sorona®. This product offers up to 37% plant based ingredients and enhanced physical properties. However, Sorona® and similar plant based polyester products still contain well over 50% petrochemicals. Producing 100% polyester from renewable resources such as plant based chemicals has been demonstrated, though is not yet commercialized. Examples are Toray ecodear® polyester and Virent BioformPX paraxylene (a precursor to terephthalic acid) which is used to produce 100% plant based polyester through standard polymerization processes. It is estimated that these and other 100% plant based polyester technologies could be ready for commercial scale-up by 2020 or 2021. While these technologies will offer polyester produced from renewable resources on a commercial scale, land and water needs will likely limit wide spread use. Of course, if a true circular economy can be established, with the majority of apparel being recycled back into new apparel, the resource needs, be they plant or petrochemicals based, become much lower and of much less consequence.
In summary, there is much that can be done to move the textile and apparel industries toward a circular economy model. Many companies in the industry recognize not only the need, but the opportunity to improve the sustainability of textiles and apparel.