The steps to making fashion more sustainable have been clear for a long time. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. But here’s the problem: There’s currently no good way to recycle clothing at scale.
Designer Eileen Fisher wants to change that, and today her foundation released a comprehensive report about the state of the industry. Done in partnership with environmental consulting firm Pentatonic, the report looks at how the industry can move forward with widespread fabric recycling—and what it will require from brands and designers to get there.
The scale of fashion’s impact on the planet is staggering, as the report lays out. Every year, the $2.4 trillion fashion industry churns out upward of 150 billion garments for only 8 billion humans. Manufacturing these clothes requires natural resources like cotton, wool, and petroleum (for synthetics like polyester). And a lot of these fibers don’t even get used: 12% are discarded on factory floors, and a quarter of all garments remain unsold.
All of this is driving the planet toward climate disaster. Fashion is the third-highest producer of emissions globally, generating 6.7% of all emissions (rising to 8% when you include footwear).
Recycling is a crucial solution because it will cut down on the emissions used to extract raw materials for clothing. Yet today less than 1% of all material in clothes will be recycled to create new clothes.
Fisher’s Experiments With Recycling
Fisher launched her eponymous label nearly four decades ago, before sustainability was on most brands’ radar. But even then, she could see the industry was headed toward disaster because it encouraged so much overconsumption. The modern fashion industry has made a science of churning out cheap, trendy clothes every season that are obsolete within months or years. Fisher, meanwhile, designs classic garments in neutral colors and durable fabrics that fit loosely, so people can wear them as their bodies change over time.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the volume produced by the fashion industry,” Fisher says. “It has inspired me to think about design up front to create timeless clothes that you want to repair and keep for a long time.”
She has grown a profitable business from loyal customers who appreciate her eco-friendly approach and minimalist aesthetic, demonstrating that you don’t need to push an unreasonable amount of clothing onto the market to be financially viable. But over the years, she has realized that it’s important to design for the end of a garment’s life too.
Since 2009, the brand has collected more than 1.3 million garments from customers (buying them for $5 a piece) and found creative ways to salvage them. It resells lightly used ones, repairs others, and transforms those beyond repair into entirely new products. The company has experimented with different approaches at a workshop dubbed the Tiny Factory in upstate New York, including turning fabric scraps into artful bags and even enormous works of art.
Fisher was fully aware that these were small-scale efforts that wouldn’t transform the industry, but she says they helped the brand understand how recycling could work as it developed mechanisms to collect and sort these products and explored solutions to using the fabric. The company also realized that it could generate entirely new revenue streams using fabric that already exists.
“These were artisanal projects,” she says. “But they were an education.”
Recycling at Scale
Fisher’s push to recycle fabrics on a much larger scale could significantly reduce carbon emissions, but she believes it’s also a more economically sound approach. According to the report, the industry loses $500 billion annually by not recycling fabric and instead extracting raw materials to create new fabrics.
Until now, one of the main challenges to recycling fabrics was technological. Garments are typically made up of different materials, and it has been technically difficult to break down and separate these materials and then spin them back into new fibers. But there are now more companies that have developed technologies to do this, including Spinnova, Renewcell, Evrnu, and Infinited Fiber Co. These companies operate either by mechanically breaking fibers down and reconstituting them, or using chemicals to dissolve the fibers and re-create them.
“These players are working at scales that are still a drop in the bucket right now,” says Johann Bödecker, CEO of Pentatonic and a lead author of the report. “But they’re beyond the pilot stage, [and] it will be a very rapid crescendo toward the end of the decade. Many brands will be left behind if they haven’t secured capacity with these recyclers.”
Fisher says working with these companies means brands will need to rethink their supply chains and designers will need to be more flexible with their materials. This is what Levi’s did with its new Circular 501 jeans, for instance, which are made entirely from organic materials so that they can be infinitely recycled through Renewcell.
The fashion industry will also need to collect old garments from customers so that recyclers will have materials to use. This might mean take-back programs like the one Eileen Fisher has developed, or partnering with companies like ThredUp, which receives lots of old clothes, some of which can’t be resold. Ultimately, however, Fisher believes the government will need to intervene to develop clothing recycling infrastructure, much like we have with plastic, paper, and aluminum.
“We need government intervention,” she says. “The government has reason to do this because a large percentage of landfill waste is textiles. But more than that, government regulation will force us to be accountable for our waste.”
Perhaps more important, Fisher points out that we can’t necessarily rely on companies to move toward sustainability on their own, so government intervention is needed to induce the biggest polluters in the fashion industry to behave better.
“Once regulations come into play, the Sheins and fast-fashion brands of the world will need to take responsibility for the products they’re putting out into the world,” Fisher says. “They’re going to be called to make better products too.”