From cellulose technology to take-back schemes, fashion is trying to bend the curve on its make-wear-discard business model, writes Angeli Mehta

We need clothes. Clothes for work and for pleasure. But what we wear is placing a huge strain on the environment. Growing prosperity and the churn of fast fashion have contributed to the doubling of world clothing production in the past 15 years. It’s grown at a faster rate than GDP, and at the same time, clothing utilization is in decline.

Of the 53m tonnes of fibres produced each year, less than 1%, half a million tonnes, are recycled back into production. Most fashion ends up in landfill – and much of that within a year of being made, an extraordinary waste of resources. So the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is gathering a global collaboration to turn the linear make-wear-discard fashion economy into a circular one.

Big brands like Burberry, Gap, H&M and Nike have come on board to work towards creating a circular economy that phases out harmful materials, and keeps clothes in use.

If we can recover materials, remanufacture and shift the system, circular beats linear

The planet’s finite resources need to be used in a different way, says MacArthur. The challenge is in making it happen, but doing so presents an economic opportunity worth over $500bn. MacArthur told the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last month that “if we can recover materials, remanufacture and shift the system, circular beats linear”.

It’s not just about waste. The foundation’s figures demonstrate that the current trajectory has to change if the world is to keep within the 2C of warming agreed in Paris in 2015. Otherwise it’s predicted that by 2050, the proportion of oil consumed by textiles will be three times what it was in 2015, and textiles will use up 26% of the global carbon budget (again based on the 2C scenario) compared with 2% in 2015.

But the fashion industry is a complex and layered one, with different stages of fibre spinning, knitting, dyeing and garment-making all taking place in different mills and factories across the globe. What can be done to effect change?

Most of the fashion produced ends up in landfill. (Credit: neenawat khenyothaa/Shutterstock)

Six years ago, UK waste reduction charity WRAP looked at the journey of textiles from raw material to landfill to assess where waste occurred. It concluded that choosing more sustainable fibres would make the biggest impact on carbon and water footprints.

It brought together more than 80 UK organizations as part of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan. They made voluntary commitments that by 2020 they’d cut carbon and water footprints; the amount of waste going to landfill; and the waste over the whole product lifecycle. They’re well on target – apart from the latter.

Analysis carried out for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows that production of plastic-based textiles (mostly polyester) and the most popular natural fibre (cotton) are, between them, responsible for an estimated 1.2bn tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. That’s more than twice the UK’s 2015 emissions.

At the moment the fashion industry is just not fit for the challenges of today, let alone tomorrow

Polyester requires fossil-fuel feedstock, while cotton production uses vast amounts of water: 84 trillion litres of the stuff for the 18m tonnes of cotton produced for textiles in 2014. And that’s before it was dyed. Given each person in the UK uses an average of 150 litres of water a day, cotton production uses as much water each year as we do in 25 years in the UK. Ironically, cotton is increasingly being farmed in countries that suffer water stress.

Polyester uses nowhere near as much water but we now know it sheds microfibres that don’t degrade and end up in the oceans and in our food chain.

Charlene Collison, project lead on Cotton 2040 – a cross-industry initiative set up by Forum for the Future – says innovations such as the use of different types of fibres or recycling orange peel, while laudable, are designed to perpetuate the fast fashion cycle.” She adds: “At the moment the industry is just not fit for the challenges of today, let alone tomorrow, so we need to work together”.

Levi's is producing cotton that uses less water and is more durable. (Credit: Thinglass/Shutterstock)

Can sustainability mean less? Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss, told the Copenhagen Fashion Summit last month that circularity might be “the one thing that may naturally constrain the industry to an appropriate scale”. He added: “If six out of 10 [items of clothing] end up in landfill – should we have made these six? At a moment when Cape Town is running out of water … what moral excuse do I have? That’s circularity.”

His company is working on both the circularity and durability of products. A new version of its jeans jacket has been made with a high-quality cotton of extremely long fibre length, grown in California with drip irrigation. Twisted into a particular yarn structure, the fibre makes denim twice as strong. At one mill, a recalibrated dye system uses 78% less water. The jackets themselves are made at a factory using a waterless finishing process. The jacket is made only with cotton so it can be recycled at the end of its life. The aim, says Dillinger, is to maximize end-of-life value, rather than to differentiate the product from last season’s. Asked why all Levi’s products aren’t made like this, Dillinger’s reply is stark: “It’s really hard.”

M&S’s 10-year-old Shwopping scheme has recycled 30 million items of clothing

Collection rates for clothing vary hugely, reaching 75% in Germany. Asia and Africa have little or no infrastructure for collection or recycling, yet this is where a lot of clothing collected from better-off countries is exported. Some east African nations plan to ban imports of used clothing from 2019 to develop their own textiles industries. So some urgent effort is needed if more clothing isn’t to end up in landfill in the US, UK, Canada and China.

The idea of clothes rentals is also catching on, with companies as diverse as Danish baby clothes firm VIGGA, which enables parents to lease organic maternity and childrenswear, to London-based Wear the Walk, whose customers pay a monthly subscription to wear luxury fashion pieces.

Several brands have set up take-back schemes – amongst them M&S with Oxfam, and Primark with Newlife, a charity that supports terminally ill and disabled children. M&S’s 10-year-old Shwopping scheme has recycled 30 million items of clothing, mostly for re-use. The first fibre to be recycled is wool: a men’s suit launched last year uses 55% recycled wool.

M&S’s ‘shwopped’ coat made from customers’ donations. (Credit: M&S)


Primark has plans to scale up a pilot “take-back” scheme it ran with selected stores in the UK and Germany. It also donates buyer’s samples and excess stock to Newlife, which rather begs the question of why Primark can’t plan better to avoid excess stock in the first place.

The budget clothing chain is a signatory to both WRAP’s UK sustainable clothing action plan, and now Ellen MacArthur’s circular fashion initiative.

Asked whether Primark will do anything differently as a result of participating in the latter, Katharine Stewart, Primark’s ethical trade and environmental sustainability director, says signatories to the Ellen MacArthur initiative plan to meet this month to agree a work stream, but in her experience working together in itself will magnify impact. “Each business will bring expertise and experience. I’m excited about it,” she says.

Brands need to 'put commitment behind pushing the technology; and commit to being the market for it'

Technologies for recycling fibres are being developed, but none are yet at scale. Collison of Forum for the Future suggests that to meet the challenges of a circular economy a widespread collaborative approach is needed.

Stewart says Primark is actively looking out for new technologies to recycle cotton. The fact that it is often mixed with other fabrics does pose a challenge, but the spread of fabrics is not massive: cotton is often mixed with polyester, viscose or elastane. What’s needed, she suggests, is for brands to “put commitment behind pushing the technology; and ... to being the market for it”.

HKRITA wants to scale up innovations in recycling cotton and polyester fibres. (Credit: HKRITA)

Seattle-based Evrnu is working on recycling cotton garment waste, and has produced pre-commercial prototypes, such as a pair of Levi jeans made primarily from discarded cotton T-shirts.

Swedish start-up Re:newcell makes its first commercial shipment this month of cellulose sheets made from pre- and post-consumer cotton waste. These will be turned into cellulose-based fibres such as viscose or Lyocell by an as-yet-unnamed producer. Scaling-up has proved a more challenging process than first anticipated. However, its plant in Stockholm, which has a capacity of 7,000 tonnes – the equivalent of 30 million T-shirts – should be producing 500 tonnes by the end of the year.

Work remains to be done, however, on creating a sorting and collecting infrastructure. A company spokesman said that recyclers are “usually trying to sort for resale and reuse and haven’t been sorting on fibre content”. Work is going on to make the process less manual: for example, Belgium-based Valvan Baling Systems is developing an automated garment-sorting process. It uses a scanning system to sort garments according to fibre composition. This is determined by analysing how light in the near infrared end of the spectrum is absorbed by the different materials.

In order to be truly circular, textiles need to be designed with recycling in mind

The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) has, with the backing of Swedish retailer H&M, developed two different processes for recycling cotton and polyester fibres. One uses heat and a biodegradable chemical to separate polyester and cotton mixtures. The polyester fibres remain intact and can be reused, while the cotton is decomposed into cellulose powders. This technology is set to be scaled up by the end of the year.

The researchers are still exploring the best uses for the cellulose powders, according to Yan Chan, business development director. The optimum solution would be for reuse as a textile yarn. The next challenge is removing dyes from the textile waste. Another recycling method, using a biological process, recovers polyester fibres, which are re-spun into yarn. The cotton is recovered as a glucose-rich syrup that can be used to make a range of bio-based chemicals.

Chan explains that the institute is also working on developing waterless dyeing technology. As analysis for Ellen MacArthur Foundation shows, textiles dyeing alone uses 6.3 trillion litres of water every year. Apart from the enormous water consumption, dyeing processes can release toxic chemicals into waterways.

A model demonstrating clothes made from Re:newcell’s recycled cellulose fibres. (Credit: Re:newcell)

UK start-up Worn Again has also been working on recapturing cotton and polyester from blended textiles. Its method can also cope with up to 20% of other fibres and contaminants. Worn Again has been working with the likes of Kering to deliver its technology at scale.

In order to be truly circular, textiles need to be designed with recycling in mind, like Levi’s jeans jacket and C&A’s cradle to cradle organic cotton T shirts, which are made solely from one fibre.

Recyclers need to know what’s in the garment – as Re:newcell has found, what’s printed on the label may not truly represent the fibre composition.

Technology might not only play an important role in sustainability, but in preventing counterfeiting

New York start-up EON is tackling that thorny problem of identifying materials and chemicals used to make textiles. It has developed unique digital identification tags – which could be in the form of thread, and will be washable. The technology, known as radio frequency identification (RFID), can be thought of as a smart barcode, and is already used in many industries, from retail to airlines. Each product would have a digital profile - a location in the cloud where all the relevant information about it is stored.

Co-founder Natasha Franck says EON is working to agree a global standard that will set out what information needs to be encoded to enable recycling: for example, type of material, where it was made, the dyeing process, what chemicals have been used; and a means to make it available to resellers and recyclers.

“The more accurately we can identify the material content, the more value it will have in the resell market,” Franck says. The technology might not only play an important role in sustainability, but in preventing counterfeiting. Pilots with global brands are due to begin this autumn.

All these efforts become more urgent both with a changing climate and pressures on land use brought about by a growing population. There may not always be virgin cotton.

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability.  

Main picture credit: Fizkes/Shutterstock

This article is part of the in-depth briefing, Sustainable Textiles. See also:

Unpicking the confusion over what constitutes ‘sustainable’ cotton

Brands urged to continue boycott of Uzbek cotton despite promised reforms


sustainable cotton  textile recyling  HKRITA  Re:newcell  Forum for the Future  Primark  Ellen Macarthur Foundation  Levi Strauss  WRAP  Sustainable Clothing Action Plan  M&S 

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