Recycle and Recycling Trends in Fashion

Designers and tech startups are improving sustainability and preventing landfills.

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Only Stella McCartney and Patagonia used to prioritize sustainability in fashion.

Traditional and upstart businesses are seeking to repair a supply chain increasingly criticized for contributing to landfills and other pollution during manufacture.

Some clothes companies are cooperating with tech startups to clean up the world’s closets by creating biofibers and eco-friendly tag fasteners.

Unwanted clothing in landfills is the largest issue. From 2000 to 2015, worldwide garment production doubled, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes sustainability.

According to the World Economic Forum, 60% more clothes were bought but only half as long.

H&M, for example, is aiming to be more sustainable while encouraging shoppers to reuse clothes. At H&M’s Stockholm flagship store, shoppers may pay a small fee to have unwanted clothing converted into new ones by breaking down the old fibers and combining them with new ones.

The eight-step approach makes a point, not money. Pascal Brun, H&M’s head of sustainability, said, “We want to involve our customers and help them understand that their own garments carry worth.

However, widespread mechanical recycling has its limits. “As shiny as the garment industry is on the exterior, the supply chain has often relied on 19th-century equipment,” said Seattle startup Evrnu founder Stacy Flynn. Ms. Flynn’s company reduces fibers to their chemical components and rebuilds them with less damage.

Evrnu’s initial product, which Ms. Flynn hopes will be commercially accessible this year, converts garment cotton to lyocell, a wood-based cellulose fiber.

NuCycl will include a camera to sort, grade, and shred fabric, improving its composition identification. Trim, label content, and thread can cut cotton content by 20%.

“It’s like the difference between cooking and baking—you may be looser with ingredients when cooking, but with baking you must be precise,” Ms. Flynn added. “If you know what you have, you can optimize chemical recycling.”

At the pulp mill, shredded fabric is dissolved and transformed into pulp. Fiber producers receive thick paper made from pulp. Repolymerization creates lyocell.

Adidas and Ms. McCartney employ recycled fibers from Evrnu. “Those garments may all come back into the system, be repolymerized and converted into something new,” Ms. Flynn added.

New fibers and materials made from plant-based products are another topic of interest.

Since leather is troublesome, from methane-producing animals to harmful tanning procedures that use chromium, several companies are seeking alternatives. Theanne Schiros, a materials scientist and assistant professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, said vegan leather, despite its green reputation, uses plastic.

Mushroom leather, made from mycelium, is an animal-free substitute. Dr. Schiros said mycelium has been utilized for thousands of years, including to treat wounds, but entrepreneurs and designers have greater goals.

MycoWorks, like Bolt Threads, is creating “leathers” from mycelium.

Matthew Scullin, MycoWorks’ CEO, said the company was studying automobile upholstery but focused on clothes and footwear.

Dr. Schiros of F.I.T. is part of a Columbia University team developing a bioleather alternative. The latest prototype, she said, is “a naturally coloured, microbe-grown sneaker that is a part of Slow Factory’s One x One initiative,” a nonprofit that addresses sustainability and climate issues.

She discovered a way to work from home during the pandemic.

She utilized her lawn to evaluate how well bioleather treated with their plant-based tanning technique would decompose—a good thing. After burying the sample, she measured the mass, pH, and nutrients of the soil for 60 days.

After seven days, her home-based investigation discovered that the “samples had obviously deteriorated, were smaller in size and had lost almost 70% of their mass.”

Dr. Schiros is a co-founder and chief science officer of Werewool, a wool fiber replacement company. The company, founded by three of her F.I.T. students, makes biodegradable textiles from protein DNA.

Dr. Schiros has started an algae-based yarn at the State University of New York school. Dr. Schiros works with Columbia’s research scientists.

Companies offering “cradle to cradle” solutions consider the end state of materials at the outset of the design process. According to Thousand Fell co-founder Chloe Songer, the company makes shoes using recyclable materials.

Thousand Fell also wants to make it easy to recycle shoes. Stuart Ahlum, one of the firm’s co-founders, said, “You can have great design thinking and great production, but if you’re not set up to actively gather product, it’s a little bit pointless.” In November, UPS and Thousand Fell joined forces to make it easier to recycle old shoes.

If consumers accept these changes, fashion will change. Price and appearance must work. “If we could develop a $400 shoe but no one buys it, it defeats the purpose,” Mr. Ahlum added.

Eco-friendliness isn’t enough. Dr. Scullin of MycoWorks stated: “There is an expectation flying around that people are willing to trade quality for sustainability. They’re not.”