How To Create Sustainable Fashion From Recycled Clothing

Carina Legl

Ripped and torn stockings. A stained blouse. A discolored dress. A lonely sock. The washed-out T-shirt. The worn-out jeans. The skirt that wasn’t your color. The ruined jacket. The old. The forgotten.

What to do with all the unwanted?

In pursuit of profits, the fashion industry produces ever-larger volumes of clothing at a faster pace, leading to lower quality and a horrific amount of clothing waste, including unwanted factory surpluses, offcuts, or materials. And it’s not just clothing production; clothing consumption also produces waste.

Consumers’ fast-fashion habit has led to overconsumption and a disposable mindset that increases clothing waste. According to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Brits are buying and disposing clothes at a faster rate.

In response, property developer Landsec launched a take-back scheme at one of the UK’s largest shopping malls, Westgate Mall in Oxford. It’s a bid to encourage Brits to help recycle their unwanted garments and to divert clothing waste from landfills. Unfortunately, the broader landscape clothing recycling is often characterized by fragmentation, lack of scale, and lack of location-appropriate collection systems.

While intelligent recycling technologies help, collecting, sorting, and recycling clothing waste must scale up, spike demand, and improve the economic attractiveness of sustainable fashion.

Sustainable, circular initiatives in the fashion industry

New legislation, such as the new directive for EU member states, demands separate collection of clothing waste from households by 2025 to assist to reuse and reproduce fibers from clothing waste. Given the requirement to expand and scale up systems for collecting and sorting unwanted clothes, some brands – including H&M, Patagonia, and Zara – have already introduced take-back strategies.

H&M: Making fashion circular

As a Global Partner to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, H&M has the ambition to be 100% circular and renewable. The brand explores solutions to create a closed loop for textiles where unwanted clothes can be recycled into new ones, sets sustainability targets for a circular fashion industry within planetary boundaries using a science-based approach, and applies circular economy principles to its sustainability strategy.

H&M collects thousands of tons of unwanted textiles each year with in-store donation stands where consumers can dispose of unwanted jeans, torn stockings, discolored T-shirts, and more. This collection is then taken to a processing plant to get sorted into quality and color. Clothing in good condition is distributed as second-hand goods. Items too worn and torn are put into a second file.

Not letting fashion go to waste, some are ground into fiber, spun into yarn, or woven into new fabrics with 99% of garments collected to be re-worn, reused, or recycled. The majority of unwanted clothes are recycled to develop material for new stock.

Patagonia: Wanting the unwanted

Patagonia isn’t concerned about losing profit when creating awareness on the environmental impact of a particular jacket. Consider its essay about the challenges of consumption showcased in its famous Black Friday ad in 2011: ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket.’

With its brand’s Worn Wear program, Patagonia takes old clothes back and gives the consumer a store credit. The clothing waste is fixed up and resold. Recycling keeps useful gear in action longer that otherwise would be discarded.

Zara: Make fashion circular

Strongly committed to environmental protection, Zara helps customers easily extend the lifespan of their clothes. Similar to H&M and Patagonia, Zara encourages consumers to bring back the unwanted by collecting clothes in its stores worldwide. This year, New Yorkers can save 200 million pounds of clothes from landfills. In a city-wide effort, Zara joins forces with other leading brands to tackle clothing waste and pollution in the fashion industry.

Fast fashion is out. Sustainable, circular fashion is all that counts.

Despite the encouraging developments of giants such as H&M, Patagonia, and Zara, progress on sustainable, circular initiatives taken by leading brands is slow and failing to keep pace with consumers’ growing sustainability expectations. It’s time to take action.

Give worn-out jeans a second life that matters.

Dive deeper into why sustainability is good for business in Circular Economy Means Business.

This article originally appeared on Forbes SAP BrandVoice


Carina Legl

About Carina Legl

Carina Legl is a solution manager at the Retail Industry Business Unit at SAP and a PhD research student at Edinburgh Napier University. Carina guides retail and fashion ecosystems in their shared mission for a sustainable, circular economy as she combines theoretical understanding with best practice to drive strategic customer relations and C-level engagement.