Will industrial-scale garment recycling ever happen?


textile designer

Debbie Shakespeare, senior director of sustainability and compliance, Apparel Solutions, Avery Dennison says currently we’re going backwards when it comes to implementing circularity.

Putting the circular economy into action is critical to halting the advancement of climate change and environmental impacts. Currently, though, we’re going backwards.

Of all the minerals, fossil fuels, metals and biomass that enter our world each year, just 8.6% are recycled back, according to Dutch environmental consultancy Circle Economy. This has fallen from 9.1% in the two years since its annual report was first launched in 2018.

Although disappointing, the lack of progress does present huge opportunities to sustainability professionals and the waste industry. At least one-fifth of Europe’s textile waste could be recycled into new clothing reports a McKinsey study, which also estimates that a circular economy for textiles could become profitable and create 15,000 new jobs in Europe by 2030.

Transforming 20% of old clothing into new would require investments of up to €7 billion by 2030.

By McKinsey’s estimation, transforming 20% of old clothing into new would require investments of up to €7 billion by 2030, to build industrial-scale collecting and sorting systems, and large-scale fibre-to-fibre recycling facilities across the continent.

With only 1% of the world’s textiles currently being recycled into new clothes, any improvement would be welcomed. If we assume governments and the investment community support infrastructure growth for the much-needed textile recycling industry, what else is needed for old clothes to be turned into new ones at scale?

Unravelling the challenge of recycling garments

Fabric rolls.

Recycling textiles is an evolving science, especially for synthetic constructions, which rely heavily on chemical and thermoplastic recycling. These recycling streams are still in their infancy and require investment to scale to meet the demand.

There is a lack of proper technology, particularly when it comes to sorting the collected clothing, identifying blended fibres, separating fibres from chemicals including colour dyes, and identifying what chemistry was used in production in the first place.

Thankfully, a great deal of R&D (research and development) work is being carried out for circular textiles solutions. Mechanical recycling of pure cotton is already established. Economically viable technologies for chemical recycling that produce new fibres of high quality are coming on-stream for polyester, nylon and blends. Technology is also being developed that will reduce the carbon impact of both mechanical and chemical textile recycling.

We need to think about circularity at the very start of apparel design and production.

That said, we need to think about circularity at the very start of apparel design and production. For clothes to be recycled, they should be designed to have multiple life cycles, and made with recyclable and durable materials.

To enable circularity, some fashion and sportswear giants are designing mono-material ranges. German sportswear brand Adidas AG launched a line of single-fibre clothes in 2021 including shoes, coats, t-shirts and joggers under its Made to be Remade label.

The golden thread of data

Fashion designer

A huge stumbling block is the data disconnect between fabric suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and brands. Commercial secrecy as well as the complexity of today’s supply chain means transparency is often impeded. This lack of transparency from fibre to dye, fabric to embellishment, limits the effectiveness of the circular process.

To address this, we are seeing the development of data platforms, designed as a secure repository for supply chain data to be shared between suppliers, retailers, resellers and recyclers. Many retailers are in the process of working closely with suppliers, from cotton farmers to garment finishers and logistics partners, to gather the data required for true product transparency.

A big learning in recent years is that the “carrot” approach gets better results than the “stick”. So progressive retailers are rewarding suppliers who provide data, rather than punishing those who do not.

For the circularity model to work, the data thread must be woven through the lifecycle of the garment.

For the circularity model to work, the data thread must be woven through the lifecycle of the garment. Up until now, there has been little need for brands to keep track of post-sale data, so a barcode has been sufficient.

In the new era however, the life of garments must be extended and the retailer’s stewardship responsibility for an item continues post-sale. Digital IDs and connected cloud platforms, like Avery Dennison’s atma.io, offer the communication tools to track items, enable circularity and even allow brands to report on Scope 3 emissions and textile waste reduction achievements.

Digital Product Passports are the missing link


In the future, more and more garments will link to a Digital Product Passport (DPP), whether via a QR code on a care label, or a hardware tag (e.g. NFC, RFID, or Bluetooth) embedded in the garment. The purpose of a DPP is to give the garment owner, regulators, and recyclers detailed data about the individual product they need to act with circularity in mind. DPPs are likely to be a legal requirement in many countries within five years.

Deadlines are fast approaching for the European Union’s legislation to meet sweeping climate targets – namely, the Green Deal and its Circular Economy Action Plan.

The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles sets out the vision and concrete actions to ensure that by 2030 textile products placed on the EU market are designed to be long-lived and recyclable, made as much as possible of recycled fibres, free of hazardous substances and produced in respect of social rights and the environment.

Specifically, the EU is expected to enforce a “Product Passport”, possibly as soon as 2025, designed to track the contents and origin of all consumer products through a QR code or similar digital trigger.

Certainly, information about the material components of clothing, such as fibres and dyes, will facilitate efficient management of the product’s material components through processes like disassembly and recycling.

The EU is expected to enforce a “Product Passport”, possibly as soon as 2025.

There is work to do to ensure wide adoption and proper consumer understanding of what’s possible. Avery Dennison is involved with both the CIRPASS panel in Europe and the AAFA in the US, to help scope digital labelling and DPP technology, in line with industry and consumer needs.

Global fashion brands are getting serious about textile recycling technology too. Zara and Circ’s ground-breaking initiative aims to separate polyester and cotton fibres to facilitate garment recycling and propose an alternative to their end-of-life cycle.

The goal of the two companies is to “develop new recycled raw materials for the manufacturing of new garments.” Avery Dennison recently invested in Circ, and we are proud to support innovators like this – making fashion circularity a reality.

Our digital identification technologies and atma.io product cloud platform will provide the textile composition and supply chain data needed by fashion brands using the Circ facilities to recycle their textiles.

Consumers are up for it


Avery Dennison and GWI’s Digital Consumer Behaviour Report 2023 (for which 6,300 global clothing shoppers were surveyed) found that 45% of European fashion shoppers are drawn to fashion brands using recycled materials in their garments.

71% of respondents globally stated fashion brands being transparent about their manufacturing practices is important to them. And 60% of fashion shoppers globally see the value in scanning a QR code on a garment with their smartphone to understand proper care and recyclability. Socially conscious, tech-savvy younger consumers are particularly interested, our research confirmed.

I hope that brands and government agencies successfully educate consumers about the importance of textile recycling.

I hope that brands and government agencies successfully educate consumers about the importance of textile recycling, using garment connectivity and DPP technology to do so.

The same data-rich DPPs will assist textile-to-textile and fibre-to-fibre recycling specialists, ensuring they produce quality recycled materials to feed into the circular economy. We’re not there yet, but legislation is coming that will target textile waste, and change the face of fashion forever.

Got something to say on this article or topic? Submit your views and contact the editor at darrel.moore@ciwm.co.uk.

Send this to a friend