As the global rate of textile production continues to grow, the need for large-scale recycling of textiles and fibers is becoming apparent and inevitable. In many industrialized countries, such as Sweden, France, UK and Germany, government bodies are now launching national initiatives to promote increased recycling of fibers and textiles on a national or regional scale. According to some experts, the demand for cotton has already surpassed production rates, meaning that there is now a deficit in cotton supplies on the global market (so called “peak cotton”). Meanwhile, polyester is produced from crude oil, which is a limited natural resource with serious social and environmental implications. Recycling of oil-based textiles will thus also become an inevitable part of the sustainability agenda.
However, recycling of textiles on a larger scale requires the involvement and cooperation of various societal actors, i.e. government bodies, collectors, sorters, industries, fashion and textile companies, consumers, non-governmental organizations, second hand stores, designers, educators and possibly more.
A growing number of design schools have over the last two decades begun to include sustainability issues into the course curricula for fashion and design students. Among the many concepts of sustainability, some concepts are particularly gaining grounds, such as the cradle-to-cradle approach, life cycle analysis and biodegradability. Within the concept of cradle-to-cradle, design work may entail creating garments that are made exclusively from one fiber type, typically polyester. Not only the textile but also the lining, thread, buttons and zippers are hence made of polyester. By manufacturing a garment solely with one fiber type, once it is worn out, it can be more easily and cost-effectively dissolved and recycled.
The Kolding School of Design in Denmark is a formidable example of a design school where sustainability of the fashion industry is being seriously addressed. The school’s former head of development, Mette Stromgaard Dalby (now head of communication), refers to sustainability as a new mind set. Referring to the Maslow hierarchy of needs, she argues that because fashion is not outright vital to life, we “should carefully consider the way the fashion industry impacts our already damaged planet” (ref). She concludes by stating that, “we must innovate the way the fashion industry conducts its business, both when it comes to production, choice of materials and disposal.” Already in 2009, the School’s fashion and design students were challenged to design new garments using a cradle-to-cradle mindset, based on a concept called ECO CIRCLE (see photos above).
The ECO CIRCLE concept was developed by the Japanese company Teijin in 2002. Teijin was the first company in the world to develop a chemical technology for recycling polyester in a closed loop system. Many fashion companies have in recent years adopted the ECO CIRCLE concept into their business models, and have endorsed close cooperation with Teijin for recycling of polyester textiles, such as Patagonia, Houdini, and Nike.
The next challenge for the textile industry is the recycling of cellulosic fibers on a large scale, i.e. of clothes and textiles made of cotton and viscose. A new innovative technique that has been developed at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden by the company Re:newcell, may well provide the awaited solution. Through a patent method, Re:newcell is able to chemically dissolve the cellulosic fibers of cotton and viscose textiles and hereafter produce new cellulosic fibers, which can be used for manufacturing of new clothes and other textiles.
The coming years are likely to hold radical changes in the fashion and textile world, of both technological and systemic character, and involving many or most actors of society.