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The Quiet Recycling Revolution Happening in Fashion

14/12/2015 00:16 GMT | Updated 13/12/2016 10:12 GMT

From the high street to the boutiques, a willingness to embrace an environmentally friendly image in fashion has always existed. But now, substance is beginning to back up the motivation. H&M's new range in September this year titled 'Close the Loop' drew international attention both for its use of recycled denim and its ambitious marketing campaign. But it represents the tip of the iceberg in the industry; significant changes are occurring in the supply chain, for the benefit of both consumers and businesses.

In the past, the main 'recycling' of clothes has been through re-use. The better quality clothes collected in banks and kerbside collections are sold in charity and vintage stores within the UK, whilst the poorer quality clothes are baled up and exported primarily to Eastern Europe or Africa. But the demand for second hand clothes has always been limited by a reluctance of the majority of the public to buy this source of clothes, a perception that has been relatively unshaken by marketing and promotions. This has limited the recycling rate of clothes, leading to landfill waste.

But companies are now asking whether the material can be re-appropriated, creating a 'closed loop' system where a company's new clothes are made from their previous ranges. It's a challenge that has is not for the faint hearted. The technological development will be expensive, but the achievement will be significant for the bottom line. It will end fashion companies profitability being at the mercy of raw commodity price fluctuations (particularly for cotton) whilst also being a large sustainability stamp of approval for customers.

The first step to 'close the loop' for firms is to collect the material, and some of the world's biggest companies have already taken significant strides to get a consistent flow of clothes returning to their stores. In the US, North Face, American Eagle Outfitters, Levi's, Madewell, Patagonia and H&M are among the most notable retailers offering in-store recycling programs, with some even offering vouchers and coupons for doing so. This trend is spreading to the UK too. It is hoped by the industry this alternative avenue of collection will encourage more recycling of clothes, and help textiles hit government set targets for recycling over the next five years.

The next step of recycling this material into clothes is still a leap not wholly completed, but there is encouraging signs that a fully sustainable solution will be possible in the future. To create a new piece of clothing from old clothes, the old clothes have to be turned back into raw material, but this shortens the staple length of the fibres, reducing the strength of the material. This is a problem companies are still trying to overcome. Levi Strauss & Co. now use 20% of recycled denim in many of their jeans ranges, and are looking to expand this whilst maintaining the quality. H&M are also using recycled material in some of their latest ranges, whilst also offering prizes for individuals who can invent new ways of using cotton. The economic opportunity to profit from a more sustainable supply chain, and the excess demand for environmentally friendly clothes, is driving this investment in working out how to use recycled material.

Even at the top end of the market, environmental concerns are taking hold. Gucci used to use PVC in many of their purses and handbags, a plastic polymer type that is extremely difficult to recycle due to its incompatibility with other plastic types. With little fanfare, they have changed this to a polyurethane derivative that is much easier to reuse. This is part of a more general commitment made by some of the top fashion houses to the environment.

Meanwhile, similar recycling trends are occurring in the world of sportswear. Nike are converting used plastic bottles into polyester fibres to make football shirts, and have shown the sustainability of this business model over the past five years. Adidas, in partnership with Parley, released a concept shoe earlier this year with the uppers made entirely of recycled ocean waste. The indications from social corporate responsibility reports are that the sportswear industry is looking to develop recycling further too.

Curiously, little marketing has surrounded some of these changes. The economic drivers behind them mean that it is seen as necessary; in many circumstances, this is good for the business and the consumer, and this mutual benefit means there is not the need to hard sell the environmentalism impact. If recycling continues to become important to the industry, it could have a very real impact on the industry's impact on the environment.