The steps to make fashion more sustainable have long been clear. Reduce Reuse and Recycle. But here’s the thing: there’s currently no effective way to recycle clothes on a large scale.
Designer Eileen Fisher wants to change that, and today her foundation released a comprehensive report on the state of the industry. Produced in partnership with environmental consultancy Pentatonic, the report looks at how the industry can move forward with widespread fabric recycling and what it will require of brands and designers to get there.
The scale of fashion’s impact on the planet is staggering, as the report indicates. Every year, the $2.4 trillion fashion industry produces over 150 billion pieces of clothing for just 8 billion humans. Making these garments requires natural resources like cotton, wool, and petroleum (for synthetics like polyester). And many of these fibers are not even used: 12% are discarded in factories and a quarter of all clothing remains unsold.
All of this is driving the planet toward climate catastrophe. Fashion is the third largest emitter in the world, generating 6.7% of all emissions (up to 8% if shoes are included).
Recycling is a crucial solution as it will reduce emissions used to extract raw materials from garments. Yet today, less than 1% of all clothing materials will be recycled to create new clothes.
Fisher’s experiments with recycling
Fisher launched his eponymous brand nearly four decades ago, before sustainability was on most brands’ radar. But even then, she could see the industry was headed for disaster because it encouraged so much overconsumption. The modern fashion industry has made a science out of producing cheap fashionable clothes every season that are outdated within months or years. Fisher, meanwhile, designs classic clothing in neutral colors and durable fabrics that adapt freely, so people can wear them as their bodies change over time.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about the volume the fashion industry produces,” Fisher says. “It inspired me to think about design from the start to create timeless clothes that you want to fix and keep for a long time.”
She’s built a profitable business thanks to loyal customers who appreciate her eco-friendly approach and minimalist aesthetic, demonstrating that you don’t have to put an unreasonable amount of clothing on the market to be financially viable. But over the years, she realized that it is important to also design for the end of life of a garment.
Since 2009, the brand has collected more than 1.3 million pieces of clothing from its customers (purchasing them for $5 each) and found creative ways to collect them. It resells slightly used products, repairs others and transforms those that are beyond repair into completely new products. The company experimented with different approaches at a workshop dubbed the Tiny Factory in upstate New York, including turning scraps of fabric into nifty bags and even huge works of art.
Fisher was fully aware that these were small-scale efforts that would not transform the industry, but she says they helped the brand understand how recycling could work by developing mechanisms to collect and sort these products and exploring solutions for using the fabric. The company also realized that it could generate entirely new revenue streams using fabric that already exists.
“They were craft projects,” she says. “But they were an education.”
Large scale recycling
Fisher’s push to recycle fabrics on a much larger scale could significantly reduce carbon emissions, but she thinks it’s also a more economical approach. According to the report, the industry loses $500 billion a year by not recycling fabrics and instead extracting raw materials to create new fabrics.
Until now, one of the main challenges in fabric recycling has been technological. Clothes are usually made of different materials, and it has been technically difficult to break down and separate these materials and then re-form them into new fibers. But there are now more companies that have developed technologies to do this, including Spinnova, Renewcell, Evrnu and Infinited Fiber Co. These companies work either by mechanically breaking fibers down and putting them back together, or by using chemicals to dissolve the fibers and recreate them.
“These players are working at scales that are still a drop in the bucket right now,” says Jeans Bödecker, CEO of Pentatonic and lead author of the report. “But they are beyond the pilot stage, [and] it will be a very rapid crescendo towards the end of the decade. Many brands will be left behind if they didn’t get capacity with these rebreathers. »
Fisher says working with these companies means brands will have to rethink their supply chains and designers will have to be more flexible with their materials. That’s what Levi’s has done with its new Circular 501 jeans, for example, which are made entirely from organic materials so they can be recycled endlessly through Renewcell.
The fashion industry will also have to collect old clothes from customers so that recyclers have materials to use. That can mean take-back programs like the one Eileen Fisher has developed, or partnerships with companies like ThredUp, which gets a lot of old clothes, some of which can’t be resold. Ultimately, however, Fisher believes the government will have to step in to develop an infrastructure for recycling clothes, much like we have with plastic, paper and aluminum.
“We need government intervention,” she says. “The government has reason to do this because a large percentage of the waste going to landfill is textiles. But more than that, government regulations will force us to be responsible for our waste.
Perhaps more importantly, Fisher points out that we can’t necessarily rely on corporations to move towards sustainability on their own, so government intervention is needed to get the fashion industry’s biggest polluters to do better. to behave.
“Once regulations kick in, Sheins and fast fashion brands around the world will have to take responsibility for the products they bring to market,” Fisher said. “They’re also going to be called upon to make better products.”