Recycled fabrics are having a moment, making an appearance everywhere from the high street to small sustainable brands. But are they always as sustainable as they would appear to be?
What makes recyclable fabrics sustainable?
Recycled fabrics are considered sustainable because they reuse things that would otherwise end up as waste, destined to be incinerated or to end up as landfill. Preventing items ending up as landfill by reusing them for the same or a similar use is part of the circular economy, and it’s becoming more common as technological advances have made the processes easier.
Here are a few ways ours brands are using innovation to improve their impact.
Recycled PET is the poster child of recycled fabrics. Recycled plastic bottles are melted down and turned into fine yarn that is woven into a fabric that can be used to make anything from bags to coats and sportswear. Its versatility means it’s in high demand, which is preventing large numbers of plastic bottles from ending up in landfill.
However there are a number of issues related to the production of PET which mean it’s not quite the sustainable fabric solution we might hope for. Because it’s made of plastic it still comes from crude oil, and it does create microplastics that have disastrous consequences for our ecosystems. The processes used to break down the bottles are energy intensive, and many factories still use heavily polluting fossil fuels for this, meaning the carbon footprint can be worse than for non-recycled equivalents.
Many of the brands we stock use factories which use renewable energy (like solar panels or wind turbines) throughout their supply chain, including Rainkiss who make amazing ponchos that can be folded down into small packs perfect for a Great British summer.
Wool is a great material to be recycled as the yarn is easily extracted from the old product and can then be re-spun to create new garments. Fabric dye one of the most polluting elements of the supply chain, but recycled wool is frequently not dyed as the garments are sorted by colour before the unravelling process begins.
Northern Italy is famous for its recycled wool, and a new thriving industry has sprung up in rural areas where jobs were previously scarce. Rifo make amazing jumpers in Northern Italy that are completely circular as you can even send your preloved jumper back to them to receive 10% off your next purchase, safe in the knowledge that your jumper will have a second life!
There are few negatives of recycled wool for the consumer, but the labour-intensive process is not yet commercially viable for many large brands. In contrast virgin wool is a bi-product of the meat industry and is relatively cheap.
New recycled fabrics
Previously it was impossible to recycle garments that consisted of more than one fabric, so large amounts of old textiles (even those that had been donated or intended for recycling) would ultimately end up in landfill. Recent innovations make it possible to break down fibres from all sorts of old clothes which can then be repurposed to make new garments.
Unfortunately these new technologies can be a highly energy intensive processes, particularly the shredding of the old garments. The technology is also not yet available to make this 100% renewable, so a material such as new PET, Tencel or organic cotton has to be used in addition to the recycled fabric in order to strengthen it, meaning the garment is not 100% recycled.
Thinking Mu’s Trash project is all about converting waste and old garments into new clothes. This zero waste initiative uses fibres recovered from post-consumer recycled materials along with new sustainable fibres, and they use an all-ability employer, Fundacio Maresme, to sort the used garments for recycling. View the Trash collection.