Recycled Textiles and Sustainable Fashion

fish net on gray surface - Recycled Textiles and Sustainable Fashion
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Recycled Textiles and Sustainable Fashion

In light of the fact that Everlane just released another set of products in their recycled textiles line – ReDown coats made with recycled down feathers and polyester – I wanted to highlight their full range of recycled textile products and chat a bit about recycled textiles more broadly than I did in my recycled polyester post.

If you read that post, you’ll remember that my main concern with using plastic from the packaged goods industry – and especially single-use plastic water bottles – to make things like leggings is that it reduces consumer guilt over single-use plastics:

The current marketing around recycling fails to account for the fact that it is directly reliant on the production of new plastics, which means the rPET market is inherently unsustainable. In the face of recycling crises around the US – with many US cities canceling their recycling programs – we can’t continue to consume plastic packaging with the misguided idea that we’ll be able to purchase it as a swimsuit next season.

While I would still call the popularity of recycled plastic clothing innovative – a sign of progress – I am concerned when I see more and more brands cropping up with the recycled plastic angle as their main selling point. It just doesn’t get at the larger problems.

What About Recycled Textiles?

In this post, when I talk about recycled textiles, I truly mean “recycled” ones, not new overstock and deadstock fabric used by companies like Christy Dawn. While those are a more sustainable option, too, they tend to fall into a similar category as recycled plastics, because they aren’t really slowing down production of virgin raw materials. For more information on deadstock and upcycled fabric, check out this post.

According to textile advocacy group, SMART, nearly 100% of textiles can either be reused or recycled, typically within 3 categories:

  • 45% are reused or resold as apparel on the secondhand market
  • 30% are turned into industrial polishing cloths and wipes
  • 20% are processed back into fibers to be used in new clothing production

Their breakdown serves as an important reminder that re-wearing clothing that has already been produced is the most sustainable option when it comes to recycling textiles. But it would be great to see more textiles creatively reused in the production of new goods.

Reprocessing textiles into fiber has a number of benefits:

Reducing Waste

According to supply chain expert, Rick Leblanc:

Once in landfills, natural fibers can take hundreds of years to decompose. They may release methane and CO2 gas into the atmosphere. Additionally, synthetic textiles are designed not to decompose. In the landfill, they may release toxic substances into groundwater and surrounding soil. (Source)

Diverting textiles from landfills at a large enough scale could slow climate change and cut back on pollution.

Conserving Water & Reducing Dyes

Particularly with natural fibers, re-processing textiles into fibers can reduce water usage and the need for dyeing. According to Leblanc:

For natural textiles, incoming items are sorted in terms of color and material. By segregating colors, the need for re-dying can be eliminated, reducing the need for pollutants and energy. (source)

Reducing the Demand for Virgin Raw Materials

And, of course, the most obvious benefit: using recycled textiles mean reducing the need for virgin materials, which means less pesticide use, fewer animal-welfare concerns in the case of recycled cashmere and wool, less water and energy consumption, and, in the long run, less deforestation and land degradation.

Taken together, the effects of recycling textiles are enormous.

And that’s why I’m excited that Everlane is expanding their range of recycled fiber products to include not only recycled plastic but cashmere and down, too.

Everlane’s “ReNew” Line

When Everlane introduced their ReNew line of winter coats last year, I was excited but not ecstatic. For one, I already owned a previous iteration of their winter coat made with virgin polyester so I couldn’t justify reviewing the recycled version. And I also had my misgivings about celebrating plastic clothing.

But I do think that technical gear like water-resistant coats are one of the few things that actually make a lot of sense to produce with recycled plastics. Patagonia does this, too, and it certainly beats making virgin polyester.

This season, however, I’m very excited, because Everlane not only introduced the next iteration of their ReNew jacket – ReDown, made with recycled down from comforters and pillows and recycled polyester – but they also produced a partially recycled cashmere sweater (in addition to recycled cotton tees that launched several months ago).

It made me realize that there is a lot more room for innovation in the recycled fiber space. Or, put another way, the technology is primed and ready for growth, and I just wasn’t thinking about it before. If Everlane can do it at scale, then other large companies can do it. No excuses.

In any case, I see these measures as 100% positive, and I hope that Everlane will start phasing out old, non-recycled versions of their product line as they continue to create more sustainable textiles. They are committed to removing virgin plastic from their supply chain by 2021, so I’m crossing my fingers that it really happens.

A Look at the Everlane Recycled Line:

  • ReNew Jackets | 100% recycled polyester coats, vegan insulation
  • ReDown Jackets | Made with recycled polyester and recycled down
  • ReKnit Boots | Made with 88% recycled polyester
  • ReCashmere | 60% Recycled cashmere, 40% Non-mulesed, extra-fine merino wool
  • ReCotton Tees | Made with 60% recycled cotton
  • ReNew Transit Backpack | 100% recycled polyester

Read a follow-up to this post here

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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