Fashion Week: Fast Fashion & Recycling

It’s after Labor Day so we know we can’t wear white but we haven’t had the nip in the air yet that makes us pull out our sweaters.  Meanwhile, Fashion Week 2019 has swung into action.  Designers are displaying their spring collections, setting 2020 trends for all of us.   While most of us would faint at the price tags on couture clothing, we all pay an environmental price for “fast fashion.”  Consumers are buying more to “keep up with the Jones’s” (ok, Kardashians), but we wear them less.

According to a 2017  white paper from “Reverse Resource,”  at least 25% of fabric is wasted during the production of clothing.  Mills set minimums for orders which well exceed what is required for making samples.  Stylists are under tight time constraints to turn out those samples so orders can be placed.  Lastly, as with many potentially recyclable items, there is a lack of a mature, professional secondary market.

The fashion industry has also come under scrutiny because the process of dying is the second largest contributor to water pollution, according to The Independent.  In addition, Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff, the former executive director of the 5 Gyres  Institute states that washing one synthetic fleece jacket releases 250,000 microfibers into the waste water which are too small to be captured by waste water treatment plants.

So what is being done?

Pre-Consumer Textile Waste

FabScrap is a non-profit in New York City founded by a former designer, Camille Diane Tagle, and Jessica Schreiber, a former New York City sanitation worker.  They set up a waste management program to collect, sort and decide what the most productive use of the design scrap will be.  Some is sold in their shop which is conveniently located around the corner from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).  Some is shred into fabric pulp called “shoddy,” which is used in insulation, carpet padding, moving blankets and mattress stuffing.  The team considers this “downcycling” because shoddy is not the highest and best use.  Most likely, these items will not be collected and recycled again.  FabScrap is  holding the rest of the “pure” fabrics, such as 100% cotton or 100% polyester, for a time when an industrial recycler is able to recycle these fabrics back into bulk, virgin fabric. The technology exists but processing capacity is low.

Another “textilepreneur” is Stephanie Benedetto, founder of Queen of Raw, an on-line marketplace for leftover “dead” stock.  Part of her service includes making brands aware of just how much is waste and how it negatively affects their bottom line.  Aside from the cost of the wasted fabric itself, Benedetto calculated that for every dollar of fabric, there’s an additional $1.40 in warehousing costs in expensive real estate areas like the US.

These industry experts agree that the best solution is prevention.

Post-Consumer Textile Waste

Far eclipsing the pre-consumer textile waste is the post-consumer waste.  The average number of times a garment is worn before it is discarded has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “A New Textiles Economy” report.

On the bright side, TeenVogue reports that on-line searches for “sustainable fashion” are up by 66%.  H&M was the first fashion company to have a clothing collection initiative.  They offer a 15% discount coupon to participants when they drop off any brand of clothing.  Approximately 60% of the items return to the re-wear, second hand and vintage market.  Only 5%-10% is actually recycled into new fabric.  That’s because, like many plastic items, clothing consists of many different materials.  The garment itself may be wool, the lining, polyester and the zippers and buttons something else.  To help develop the advanced textile recycling methods “textilepreneurs” are awaiting, H&M has donated $7 million over four years to the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel.

In Great Britain, a new app called reGain targets millenials who are the worst offenders of fast fashion.  The app aims to reward rather than to scold.  Download the app, pack up 10 items of clothing you don’t want anymore and find the closest of reGain’s 20,000 drop off points.  Drop them off and earn coupons and discount codes with some of Britain’s favorite on-line stores.

The department stores of yesteryear are not about to be outdone by the newcomers.  Just this month the Wall Street Journal reported that Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus have launched initiatives to offer secondhand clothing.  Macy’s and Penney’s will start testing in-store used fashion areas in partnership with ThredUp and Neiman Marcus bought a stake in the online secondhand store Fashionphile.

Industrial Textile Recycling

Like most other types of recycling, textile recycling isn’t new.  Once rag-pickers, also known by their more elegant French name “chiffoniers,” were respected for performing a valued service.  In fact, most material collected through the new retail initiatives will be processed by traditional textile recyclers.  Where once rag pickers supplied them, today fast fashion is the main supplier through traditional charitable donations and now retail schemes.  Like most recyclables, they will be sorted by type, in some cases by color, and then sent to end-use manufacturers.  In addition to the products which use shoddy, the collected textiles are also made into industrial rags.  In the case of polyester, they can be made into pellets which are a substitute for virgin material.

Eco-Friendly Alternatives

An Italian designer is spinning the Italy’s spoiled milk into clothing.  Antonella Bellina has developed a method of converting milk into a silky fiber.  As you might guess, she was inspired when preparing her morning coffee.  She discovered the milk was expired and it got her to thinking about alternatives to throwing it away.  The milk is heated and the whey is separated from the protein. The protein is then strained, dried and ground into powder.  The powder is spun into fiber using a proprietary process then woven into fabric. Got Milk?

Half way around the world, a Japanese biotech company just announced the world’s first jacket made with spider silk.  We are most familiar with silk from silk worms but spider silk is one of the toughest materials in nature.  It is five times stronger than steel and lighter than carbon fiber and has been studied for years.  If it could be produced at scale it would have an advantage over synthetic fibers, like nylon.  They require extremely high temperatures for spinning, making textile production one of the world’s most energy intensive industries.   Other technologies hold promise, but the spider silk in this jacket is made from genetically modified bacteria.

Fun Fashion!  Be a Trashonista!

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection’s recycling program is partnering with Venetian Resorts to promote the importance of recycling with their “Wearable Recyclables” art contest.  Although this contest is only open to Nevada residents, check around.  Many States and organizations have recycled fashion contests.  Check Vangel’s facebook page and twitter for some of the fanciful fashions from Maryland’s “Rethink Recycling Sculpture” contest.  Check back on America Recycles Day, Nov. 15th,  when the Nevada winners will be announced and on Nov. 22nd when the Maryland winners will be announced.  There are sure to be many inspirational designs!

Looking for tips on how you can be part of the solution?  Aside from the obvious of buying less, buying better quality and wearing outfits multiple times, check out The Real Price of Fast Fashion Habits.