Fashion’s recycling bins: Helpful or harmful?

By  guest author Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business

The benefits of most brand take-back initiatives are questionable. Athletic brand Girlfriend Collective is turning used fabrics into new clothing.

Girlfriend Collective, the activewear brand that makes its garments from recycled plastic bottles, has developed a programme to collect its used garments from customers and turn them into new ones.

If it scales successfully, the programme could be a model for an industry struggling to meet its environmental goals. While companies like H&M and Madewell have take-back programmes, less than one per cent of clothing materials are recycled into new clothing, according to a 2017 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. Instead, used clothing is exported to lower-income countries, usually in Africa — a controversy of its own — or used for lower-value functions like insulation, wiping cloths and mattress stuffing. Brands recycling their own product into new clothing represent a significant step forward for the fashion industry, but hurdles in the supply chain and within the material makeup of clothing present a considerable challenge.

“They are trying to ensure that something that comes back to them is made back into fibre, versus just going into some black hole,” says Leslie Harwell, managing partner at Alante Capital.

Advocates say this type of programme, used by brands including Páramo Clothing, Project Plan B and 1083 in addition to Girlfriend Collective, better ensures that materials are reused for clothing, reducing pressure on natural resources. It also encourages the consumer buy-in necessary to succeed, since most sustainability efforts are only as good as the degree to which people actually participate in them.

How recycled clothing can scale

Fashion, a sprawling and segmented industry, struggles to scale sustainability efforts in part because meaningful change requires collaboration across the supply chain. Recycling clothing is no exception. Girlfriend Collective founder Quang Dinh says that developing the recycling programme, called ReGirlfriend, took close collaboration with its fabric supplier, North Carolina-based Unifi to ensure the logistics and technology can work on the back end.

When Girlfriend develops a prototype of a garment, he says, the company sends it to Unifi to evaluate. Only with approval from Unifi does Girlfriend then proceed with carrying the product to market.

Even with supply chain co-ordination, a major challenge for recycling clothing is that single materials are more recyclable than blended fabrics, and items can’t be recycled with trims like metal zippers or other decorations or embellishments still intact. In Girlfriend Collective’s polyester garments, Dinh says the non-polyester pieces – the zipper pull and care tags – are designed to be easily removed. There are some other limitations; the material contributes to microplastic pollution in the oceans, for one (the brand sells a filter for washing machines; those are thought to reduce microplastic pollution and would work with any synthetic garment, not just Girlfriend products), and the recycling process can only produce black yarn, because filtering out dyes is too difficult. “Luckily for us, black is a core colour that we have no problem selling or merchandising against,” says Dinh.

After establishing an ability to use recyclable, synthetic fibres in activewear, Dinh considered how Girlfriend Collective could apply this knowledge to other categories. Last month, it launched socks and underwear, a big category that has limited end-of-life options. “It was a great mixture, in terms of leveraging our expertise in fabrics and it being a category that is big and also extremely wasteful,” says Dinh.

After launching the take-back programme in the spring of 2019, Girlfriend Collective has yet to collect enough to meet Unifi’s recycling minimums. Dinh sees it as a sign of product longevity and that consumers are holding onto their products for a long time.

Last month, Girlfriend Collective launched socks and underwear, new categories for the brand that it can also collect for recycling.

Looking ahead

Most existing take-back programmes are able to reduce a product’s environmental footprint by some small margin, but they remain part of a fundamentally linear model at a time when sustainability experts say circularity is the only real way forward. At their worst, critics say such programmes can do more harm than good by unleashing new waste streams to be dealt with by other countries with less infrastructure. And at the same time, they provide customers with a feel-good mechanism to discard old clothing without addressing the behaviour of buying and discarding clothes at unsustainable rates.

H&M launched a garment collection programme in 2013, and partners with I:Collect, a company that works with brands to build “circularity projects”, to collect, sort and evaluate textiles against almost 400 criteria before sending them on for re-wear, reuse, recycling or to be processed for energy. A spokesperson says H&M uses some recycled cotton from that programme in its products. “Having said that, we aim to gradually increase the use of recycled fibres even more and close the loop for textiles. But in order to achieve that, we need a systemic change with all the industry players on board and an ecosystem.”

Take-back programmes that recycle clothes into new clothes aren’t a silver bullet — particularly if they’re operated by brands individually — but done at scale, they could be a game changer. For Harwell, it’s unclear how efficient they will be, given how early brand-level recycling programmes are in their development. For the industry as a whole to approach circularity, it will need systems-level solutions. Harwell also wonders whether there could be unintended consequences from these programmes, such as inadvertently encouraging consumers to dispose of products before they would otherwise be done with them.

But experts say ReGirlfriend looks promising because it seems to cover the various components involved in working towards circularity, such as designing for recyclability and the ability to tightly control the quality of the material being recycled.

The incentive structure is an indication that the company is thinking critically about how to ensure the recycling programme is effective — rather than using it as a marketing tool, for instance — and encouraging behaviour change from consumers, which is in itself a key element in shifting the fashion industry overall, says Harwell.

“The fashion world is a copycat league, right? We want to prove out that it works — in hopes that other brands can jump on,” says Dinh.