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Global fashion giant H&M group recently announced it has partnered with Swedish company re:newcell, whose smart technology recycles used cotton, viscose and other cellulosic fibres into a new dissolving pulp. The partnership is being touted as another step in H&M’s drive to “close the loop” in fashion. But is such talk misleading for consumers?

According to H&M, the pulp can be turned into new textile fibres which are fed into the textile production cycle, and the partnership is being described as, “another step towards H&M’s goal to use 100 per cent recycled or other sustainably sourced material by 2030.”

H&M also used the new partnership to reaffirm its commitment to “close the loop in fashion” and become “100 per cent circular.”

“Re:newcell´s technology has the potential to become a commercial and scalable solution for the industry and accelerate the journey from a linear fashion industry towards a circular one,” said Cecilia Brännsten, acting environmental sustainability manager and circular economy lead, at H&M group.

This all sounds very exciting as, indeed, do other developments in textile recycling, some of which claim to have taken fibre blends – polyester and cotton – and separated them in a chemical process (in many cases involving the use of ionic liquids) to ultimately create new fibres. Imagine a world in which old clothes could be put through a chemical process and turned into new ones. Or imagine a world in which all cotton was sustainably grown and sourced. And what about a world in which polyester, rather than depending on coal and petroleum as it presently does, could all be sourced from recycled sources.

Yet the stark reality is somewhat different to the idealistic picture painted above. Let us take first the issue of textile recycling, using a chemical process. We have seen a raft of developments in this area in recent years, with many scientific papers having been written on the subject and several projects having been picked up by the major clothing brands. The industry is awash with textile recycling tech start-ups, some of which are now attracting significant investor interest.

One of the most celebrated of these is Worn Again. A few years ago, Worn Again announced that it had made a significant technological breakthrough which addressed barriers in textile-to-textile recycling, namely: how to separate blended fibre garments; and how to separate dyes and other contaminants from polyester and cellulose. It was claimed that Worn Again’s textile-to-textile chemical recycling technology was the first of its kind which is able to separate and extract polyester and cotton from old or end-of-use clothing and textiles (although similar claims have been made within the research sector). Once separated, the aim is for this process to enable the ‘recaptured’ polyester and cellulose from cotton to be spun into new fabric creating a ‘circular resource model’ for textiles.

H&M and Kering – owner of the Puma brand – both picked up on the technology in early 2015 with the aim of testing to see if it was commercially viable as a solution for the circular recycling of clothes and textiles.

 

 

That was almost three years ago. Since then, we have heard nothing, although our understanding is that Kering is no longer backing this work. We have also heard no mention of it since from H&M. Several personal attempts to find out what is going on from those involved in recent years have been met with a response of “watch this space.”

There are other, similar projects in the pipeline which have garnered significant publicity in recent years. The aforementioned Re:newcell has actually been around for several years and in 2016 commenced the development of a pilot plant to continue its work on cotton recycling. We believe it has a fighting chance of becoming a significant commercial entity, not least because it is our understanding that it has very solid financial backing and, more importantly, a huge wealth of technical know-how and textile industry experience.

There is also Evrnu, a US start-up which last year partnered with Levi Strauss to create the world’s first jeans using discarded cotton t-shirts. Evrnu has attracted huge media interest and we expect to hear much more from this business in the coming years.

There are other projects. In 2016, the non-profit H&M Foundation and The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) entered into a four-year partnership to develop the technologies to recycle blend textiles into new fabrics and yarns. Notably, the pair said the technology developed will be licensed widely to “ensure broad market access and maximum impact.”

We actually expect some major developments in the area of textile recycling from Asia in the coming years. Chinese businesses are investing huge amounts in textile recycling for the simple reason that the country has a monumental problem with discarded clothing and textiles. Most notably, the government is backing technology in this area (which is not the case in the West and Western Europe).

That said, a statement from the H&M Foundation noted on its new partnership with HKRITA that, at present, “no commercially viable separation, sorting, and recycling technologies are available for many of the most popular materials, such as cotton and polyester blends.”

And herein lies a huge part of the problem the apparel industry is facing as it seeks to “go circular.” I’ve spoken to a great many fibre makers over the past few years about the issue of chemical textile recycling, people who work at the coalface, who understand what can and can’t be done on an operational and a commercial basis; people who can quickly cut through the shiny PR spin which wants us to believe it is only matter of time before we are all wearing new clothes which have been re-spun from the fibres of old clothes.

The overriding message I’ve had back is that such a scenario won’t be happening any time soon – if, indeed, it ever does. The central problem is upscaling. All kinds of weird and wonderful things can be done at a laboratory scale. Upscaling is where the challenges come, where things become difficult, where results change and where smart people with white coats are left scratching their heads.

Upscaling is not just a problem for technical reasons. There are countless other factors to consider. Who will collect and sort all the clothing that would be required as a consistent feedstock for a chemically recycled clothing production line? After the cost of collection, sorting and recycling – and the ionic liquids required for chemical recycling do not come cheap – how much will the clothing cost? H&M is the leading proponent of “closing the loop” among the leading fast fashion brands. But would the company be able to retail t-shirts at cheap, fast fashion prices using the above logistical process? It is hard to believe so (as a personal aside, I saw an upcycled pair of jeans in the sale at just £9 recently in H&M – isn’t it the case that people are supposed to be prepared to pay more for a sustainably made product?).

As regards to logistics, it could actually be argued that the collection and sorting infrastructure for used clothing is already in place to some extent in the form of clothing collection boxes which can now be found in the stores of many leading apparel brands. But what happens to all this clothing at present?

I was curious about this so last year decided to find out. The clothing collection boxes found in stores are, in the main, operated by a company called I:Collect. I:Collect is essentially the public, media friendly face of a German textile collection, sorting and recycling business called Soex.

Last year, I visited Soex’s huge textile sorting plant in Wolfen, Saxony-Anhalt. The scale of operations here is something to behold, with 700 employees sorting 350 tons of used textiles every single day. It was all being sorted by hand.

Axel Buchholz, Soex’s managing director, told me most of the textiles are currently downcycled, receiving a second life in the construction industry or as insulation or wipers. The plant is investing in new technology to improve recycling rates and is also the lead on the EU Resyntex project, an EU backed initiative which is looking to address technological barriers to textile recycling.

Yet Buchholz’s message was that apparel brands need to be doing more and really putting their money where their mouth is because, despite all the fashion industry rhetoric about closing the loop, the blunt truth remains that over nine million tonnes of textile waste is still being landfilled or incinerated in the European Union each year. This is a problem to which there is no quick fix. The US, which has a notoriously poor recycling rate, and Asia also have monumental textile waste problems.

H&M talks of closing the loop in fashion, but what percentage of the clothing it retails is currently from fully recycled sources? My understanding is that this figure is around two per cent. We expect this figure to inch up over the coming years, but it will be a slow and arduous process. We also believe a ceiling of around 10 per cent is a realistic goal, but even reaching this would represent a huge challenge for any of the major fast fashion brands.

Let’s also not forget that this is a business which counts its annual profits these days in the billions. A radical shift in the fast fashion model which currently drives western fashion consumption is not really in the financial interests of H&M or, indeed, any of the other leading fast fashion businesses. Yet a shift to a more circular, closed loop model offers intriguing sustainability possibilities.

For all that the fast fashion sector might argue there needn’t be a trade-off between profit and sustainability, in this instance we believe there is. How fast fashion brands manage this trade-off over the next decade will be one of the more interesting stories in a sector whose leaders are now being forced to confront the unmistakable truth that their current way of doing things is fundamentally bad for the environment.


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