Circular Fashion: What’s the Difference Between Recycling, Upcycling, Downcycling, and Resaling?
- by Dora Chi Xu
- Jul 14, 2020
Photo: Eric Stubin, CEO of Trans-America
Americans have been discarding about 70 pounds of textiles every year per person, with a whopping 85% ending up in the landfill and incinerators. But with the pandemic, the issue of fashion waste is getting worse. The U.S. thrift industry is overwhelmed with an unprecedented surge in donations as the coronavirus spurs a “quarantine cleanout frenzy” among stay-at-home Americans.
One idea for cutting fashion waste is to somehow get Americans to buy less new fashion. All the other ideas revolve around preventing used clothing from going to the landfill, by moving it back through the fashion industry through reselling, recycling, and upcycling. This is what fashion industry professionals call the Circular Economy.
But all these terms can be confusing and are often used in misleading ways. Here’s what you need to know:
The Difference Between Pre-consumer and Post-consumer Waste
There are two types of fashion waste: pre-consumer and post-consumer.
Pre-consumer textile waste, such as fabric scraps, cuttings, mock-ups, and overstock, is produced during the design and production stage. Most brands discard 10 to 30% of their fabric during production, and of the 80 billion garments produced every year, a third are never sold despite deep discounting. Several luxury brands were caught destroying unsold stock to preserve an image of exclusivity, and only stopped doing so recently after being criticized by investors.
But recovering and preventing this type of waste is gaining momentum. France has banned the destruction of unsold inventory, and NYC has enforced mandatory recycling if textile waste represents more than 10% of a business’s total disposal.
Brands, tailors, and interior designers in NYC have started to partner with Fabscrap to take their pre-consumer waste, including cuttings, samples, and overstock fabric. To understand how fabric recycling works, I volunteered with Fabscrap for a three-hour sorting session in 2018. As a bonus, I also got to take home 5 lbs of fabric (for free!) to use in my own design project.
According to Fabscrap’s 2019 report, most fabric (~32%) is sold to fashion students, boutique designers, and crafters to be upcycled. Eight percent are pure cotton or polyester or wool and are sold to fiber recycling companies like Evernu and Econyl to generate new fiber. Around 30% are mixed fibers and can only be downcycled into industrial materials. The rest are either paper cutters (~15%) and sent to paper recycling or non-recyclable fabric (~14%) which end up in the landfill.
Post-consumer textile waste is worn clothing that is donated or trashed by consumers. It’s fueled by rising consumption and our new disposable fashion culture which encourages us to buy, wear, and move on to the next trend. We now buy 60% more clothes than a decade ago but keep them half as long, and every one in two people throws unwanted clothes straight to the trash.
Even fast-fashion companies that participate in sustainability programs are unwilling to discuss curbing consumption, because they have to grow sales to survive and placate investors. Instead, they’ve turned to clothing recycling as a justification for continued consumption at an increasing rate.
How is fashion waste collected and recycled?
The way clothing is collected and “recycled” is very different from the process for bottles, cans, and cardboard. In fact, clothing “recycling” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s actually less of a public utility, and more of a private industry, with a range of mostly for-profit outlets for textile waste.
The fashion recycling industry is notoriously opaque, so these numbers I’m about to share with you are loose estimates. But, according to the US EPA, 85% of textile waste goes straight to the landfill or the incinerator. Only 15% of post-consumer textile waste (clothing that consumers don’t want anymore) is diverted from the landfill. And their first stop is…
This is the most sustainable option for keeping clothing in use. Clothing in perfect or like-new condition can get a second life through online resale platforms like Thredup, The RealReal, Poshmark, Vestiare Collective, etc, or through brick-and-mortar vintage and charity shops. Progressive companies such as Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, Arc’Teryx and REI have also recently established takeback and resale programs for their own items.
In Eileen Fisher’s Renew program, for example, 60% of the clothing the brand takes back is cleaned and listed for resale. For clothing in less-than-perfect conditions, menders fix missing buttons, mend small holes, and over-dye stained clothing.
H&M partners with I: CO, an industrial recycler for clothing collection and sorting, to take back any fashion that consumers bring in, including from other brands. H&M doesn’t resell the clothing it collects, but I: CO does pass on wearable, valuable items to other resellers.
Shockingly, about 80% of the clothing that we donate to charity shops does not sell and is sent to industrial recyclers. Confusingly, what we call industrial clothing recyclers don’t recycle the clothes themselves — they just sort it to be sent on to other businesses.
I visited the largest textile recycler on the east coast, Trans-America, to trace where these clothes go. CEO Eric Stubin told me that the facility could sort over 70,000 pounds of clothing a day into around 400 categories. Sorters look for quirky, stylish, vintage items (2%) like Levi’s jeans and luxury labels because they can easily command a premium in an upscale vintage store in Manhattan, and those are designated for resale.
Most of the used clothing (45%) is exported to developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia for resale, usually in bales of 500 pounds. The U.S has been the largest exporter of used clothing for the past decade. However, the quality of clothing exported is declining in recent years, and up to a quarter may not be sellable and ends up in an (often quite leaky and poorly managed) foreign landfill.
Upcycling means transforming unwanted products and textile waste into something of higher value. When it comes to what customers give back to Eileen Fisher, for example, about a quarter of it is damaged beyond repair. Renew designers take apart those patches of fabric and upcycle them into the ReSewn collection. Patagonia converts damaged takeback clothing into the Recrafted collection.
There are many more brands that upcycle textile waste into new products. It can be a time consuming and artisanal process, but the results are almost always one-of-a-kind pieces of art. Hence, the higher value!
Precisely defined, recycling converts waste material into something of roughly the same value. Pure cotton, polyester, nylon, and wool can be turned into new cotton, polyester, nylon, and wool textiles. Discarded water bottles can also be recycled into polyester textiles.
The most common textile recycling method is mechanical recycling, where textile waste is sorted, shredded, bleached, and spun into new yarn. Mechanically recycled fibers, usually cotton and wool, often have shorter fiber lengths and less strength.
An innovative but more costly method, chemical recycling, can create the same quality fiber by liquifying old fabric in a chemical solution and pushing out new filaments like a pasta-making machine. For example, Stella McCartney and Adidas’ recent sportswear collection uses chemically recycled nylon and polyester. Chemical recycling for natural fibers is still being developed and tested, so you may not have the chance buy a chemically-recycled cotton shirt for another five or ten years.
Downcycling turns textile waste into something of lower value. At the TransAmerica facility, about 50% of what comes in is damaged or stained and is downcycled into wiping cloths, carpet padding, and sound insulation for other industries. This keeps textiles out of the landfill for a while, but eventually, these materials will end up there.
Why isn’t more clothing recycled?
As you can see, a lot of what the industry calls “recycling” is not actually recycling. Ninety-five percent of used clothing can be diverted from the landfill, but only a tiny portion actually makes it back into the fashion industry. But even though the word “recycling” is most often used to describe what happens to your clothing when you’re done with it, under the above definition, less than 1% of global textile waste is estimated to be recycled. An even smaller amount is upcycled. These are the reasons why:
Before the 1990s, especially during the world wars and recessions, clothing was so valuable that most stayed in the economic cycle, passing through stages of mending and reuse in creative ways: from darning and dyeing all the way to quilts made of upcycled scraps. However, the emergence of fast fashion quickly changed fashion production, marketing, and retail models. Consumers are conditioned to desire ever-changing looks at a super low price, at the expense of quality. When new styles become available, we move on from the stuff we loved last month.
Upcycled clothing and recycled fiber are usually more costly, due to the expense of the reverse logistics (getting clothing back into the system from consumers’ homes) and processing (sorting and recycling it). Resellers, upcyclers, and recyclers have to work with whatever consumers or brands bring back. It’s difficult to affordably scale the program when the textile mix and condition are unpredictable. Most U.S. cities lack the finances, labor, and technology to recover and sort large volumes of dirty and mixed textile waste efficiently, the way they can process cans and bottles.
It is challenging to generate new fibers from recycled ones while maintaining the same function, performance, and aesthetic. Textile recycling is chemical and energy-intensive. Most clothing is made with blended fiber, but current technology cannot separate fabric with more than two fiber types, or recycle fabric with more than 5% elastane. In most cases, mechanically recycled fibers underperform in quality and need to be blended with virgin materials to ensure durability. For example, most jeans with recycled cotton have to have 80% virgin cotton blended in, and textiles made from ocean plastic are 90% from land-based sources.
Today, most people are used to the take-make-and-dispose linear lifestyle, not aware of the devastating impact of their shopping. But even if they are aware, they’re not sure what to do about it. As we’ve pointed out, the word recycle is applied in places where it doesn’t quite fit, and experts don’t agree on the best path forward. Even the guidelines on what to donate are confusing — is it OK to donate stained or hole-y clothing? — and is never as convenient as just throwing it all in the trash.
Solutions in the pipeline
It’s clear that our current system isn’t working. Instead of scrambling to collect the steadily increasing textile waste and trying to do something with it, we should be focusing on solutions that cut waste before it’s generated.
Design out the waste.
The most impactful decisions are made at the design stage. Some designers and manufacturers are pioneering zero-waste design with a more efficient pattern layout that fits together like a puzzle. 3-D knitting machines can make bespoke knitwear without seam lines or waste. Also, designing with a single material or easily-separable components will make recycling much more manageable. For example, Stella McCartney demonstrated circular design thinking with her Loop Sneaker, using interlocking clips instead of glue and thread so that each part can be recycled.
The fashion industry is going through a rapid digital revolution, which could improve efficiency, cut costs, and waste. Previously, factories had to ship multiple physical samples to the design team before getting approval on the prototype. Now, designers could communicate with factories with realistic 3-D design to visualize the fabric, fit, etc., dramatically reducing sample waste and shipping. Additionally, predictive analytics could help brands better meet consumer demand and cut inventory by scraping social media and search queries. Blockchain will also be a significant enabler for the resale market to trace and authenticate second-hand items.
Regulate and expand recycling infrastructure.
Robust legislative structures, such as pay-as-you-throw policy and mandatory Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) have proved effective in many EU countries to root out problematic waste. And EPR for textile waste is on the horizon in NYC(though the Pandemic looks to table those policies).
This legislation requires producers to take responsibility for their product at the end of life, which encourages brands to rethink production and distribution. The result would be more durable products, more re-use, less downcycling, reduced waste, and cost savings for the government.
To build a better recycling system, some cities are tapping the robust logistics and processing capacity of industrial textile recyclers. For example, San Francisco has partnered with I: CO to collect textile waste from residential and commercial buildings to achieve its Zero-Waste Initiative.
What can you do?
The lion’s share of post-consumer textile waste comes from the 85% that consumers throw straight to the trash. So the biggest thing you can control is your personal waste stream.
You can minimize your textile waste by:
- Buy fewer and better clothing items and care for them properly. Look up the assessment on EcoCult and Good On You for recommendations of sustainable brands.
- Make second-hand your first choice! Going to a thrift store is like a treasure hunt. I have found fantastic quality cashmere sweaters, silk dresses, and linen pants for under $25!
- Fix up before you give up. There are tons of DIY tutorials online from fixing a moth hole to covering a stain with a decorative patch. Check them out and let your creative juice flow.