While many people perceive closed-loop manufacturing to be the answer to fashion’s sustainability woes, the reality is not nearly that simple.
The idea — founded on the notion that we can create all of our new clothing from existing textiles — has been touted by brands including Levi’s, Eileen Fisher and Patagonia: All run recycling programs in an effort to eliminate some of the waste inherent to apparel production. At Levi’s stores, for example, customers are encouraged to bring in any items they no longer want, which will then be transformed into raw materials to be used in new pieces of clothing.
Even fast-fashion is jumping on the bandwagon. H&M announced in its 2016 sustainability report, released last April, that one of its commitments for a sustainable future is to be 100 percent circular, another term for an established closed-loop system. “What this means is that, by 2030, all the materials H&M uses will come from sustainable sources,” an H&M spokeswoman said of that goal.
But, although well-intentioned — and certainly better than no recycling initiative at all — closed-loop manufacturing is somewhat of a pipe dream; adoption of the process on a large scale would be next to impossible.
Ditching vs. recycling clothes
Although brand initiatives like that of Levi’s — the brand offers a 20 percent discount to customers participating in its recycling program — may drive consumers to dabble in the closed-loop system, most people are far more likely to throw out their clothes. “A closed-loop system assumes that we actually return our clothes [to their source],” said Maxine Bédat, the co-founder of Zady, a sustainability focused e-commerce site. “In reality, in America, we throw out on average 70 pounds of clothing each year.”
Convincing consumers to do otherwise, with or without a financial perk, is not likely to be easy. What’s more, installing a collection and recycling system requires a level of investment many brands won’t be willing to commit, or won’t be able to afford. Patagonia has highlighted these costs in-depth, citing the large capital investment required for buying recycling machines as well as the extra shipping costs involved in routinely sending out old clothes and receiving new ones.
The challenge of recycling natural fibers
Recycling old garments into new ones is also more complex than it sounds, especially when it comes to pieces made from natural fibers, like cotton, and those that made from blended fibers, like a t-shirt made from cotton and polyester.
“Think of all the clothing in your closet made from blended fibers,” said Bédat. “There is no commercial way to separate [those] fibers, even [if] those pieces are returned.” That leaves us with a lot of clothing that can’t be easily transformed into something new. And even when items are all-natural, there are challenges.
Old clothing is shredded into raw materials as part of the recycling process, which weakens its strength and overall quality. This is especially true for natural fabrics like cotton, silk and wool; their fibers are shortened during the process, resulting in a lower-quality, itchier product, said Bédat. “It’s not the same as recycling a can, which can become another can, or recycling cars for materials of the same quality,” she said.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, on the other hand, can be reduced down to their chemical elements fairly easily. However, they originate from fossil fuels, and release toxic plastic microfibers when worn and washed that harm wildlife and are thought to be bad for humans’ health. In essence, recycling them is simply swapping one evil for the next.
The reduce-reuse remedy
Closed-loop manufacturing may not be the be-all, end-all it was intended to be, but as Bédat put it, there are plenty of other ways to address the fashion industry’s negative impact on the environment. For instance, rather than just focus on recycling, “We need to address the reduce-reuse portion of the three R’s [reduce, reuse, recycle],” she said.
This means emphasizing slower consumption and shopping for pieces with a better cost-per-wear. “If clothing companies just focused on producing really beautiful clothes, we wouldn’t have to buy so much of it to begin with,” said Bédat. This essentially rules out fast-fashion, which thrives on continuous consumption and the need to of consumers to constantly refill their closets with fleeting trends. “[Those] players conveniently leave the ‘reduce’ part out of the discussion, because their current business models don’t fit with the idea of beautiful, high-quality clothing that you’ll actually want to wear beyond one season,” Bédat said.