“Germany is the world champion of the circular economy: here, more than 60 percent of textiles are collected and sorted, and most of this is reprocessed. The United States on the other hand collecting less than nine percent, while having a significantly higher rate of textile consumption.
Recycling and upcycling are highly popular, both avant-garde designers and big brands are trialing new products, offering jackets created from old pleated skirts (Schmidt-Takahashi), bags made of truck tarps (Freitag) or ”Recycle your Clothes” collections containing mechanically recycled cotton (H&M). As a result, the usage phase of the materials is extended, so that fewer primary raw materials are used.
This is the forefront of a new movement, a radical transformation of the fashion system as we know it. For now, the question is how to feed more than a million tons of textile waste, incurred every year at the end of the textile chain in Germany alone, into attractive recycling opportunities. But at its core, it comes down to solving the problem before it arises. And implementing aesthetic products with healthy manufacturing and usage processes that take nature and people into account. Later re-use is factored in from the outset, rendering the concept of waste obsolete and closing the circuit.
All over the world, the circular economy and related issues are being researched and developed; the industry, universities and research groups are applying themselves to fully utilizing used clothes within the cycle. Without downcycling and while maintaining quality. This remains a challenge, given that fiber length is reduced substantially in mechanical recycling, to the point that the risk of “pilling” (the formation of knots) in the new product increases, to name one example. Closed-loop processing should also aim to include the raw materials used in production, such as water, energy and chemicals. With these new technologies, regenerated cellulose fibers like Tencel and Lyocell made it onto the list of eco-friendly fibers. Today wood serves as the predominant raw material for these fibers. In the future, they could also be sourced from waste paper and old clothes.
« We can look forward to an entirely new generation of products »
All of these exciting developments also stimulate the creativity of designers. One example is the design of eyewear made from closed-loop-compatible Nylon 6 (a synthetic material) in a waste-free 3D printing process, with all components made from the same material so that they are recyclable in full. So we can look forward to an entirely new generation of products.
With new services based on leasing, renting and lending, innovative companies are introducing us to the idea that we can share clothes instead of owning them while they accompany us for a while. And that we can experience this as enriching. Then they are used by someone else, or transformed into something new, something different. All told, representing a shift from ”ownership“ to “benefit”.
The really radical change lies in the shift away from the conventional, linear production system and in a transformation of the entire fashion system towards a holistic design within closed-loop compatible use concepts. If we only extend the usage phase at the end of the life-cycle, we get the same system that is responsible for our waste. In this case, the same products made with harmful chemicals are only fed into a further usage loop.
A particularly striking example of the futility of this strategy are truck tarpaulins made from PVC, which are reused to make fashionable bags. This material is excellently recyclable, it can be reused again and again. But unfortunately, it is not made for skin contact and is suspected to be carcinogenic. It should be taken off the market altogether.
Another example: Recycling disposable PET bottles and reusing them to make fleece jackets, outdoor clothing and fashion products. We must ask ourselves: is this a trend-setting solution, if we produce a textile product from a disposable product, expending a great deal of energy in the process? Because this is no way to close the loop, but only slightly extends the raw material’s usage phase before its disposal. Given that it takes an average of 500 years until polyester degrades biologically, the actual issues inherent in the material have not been resolved. In the meantime, it floats around in the ocean. Shredded into tiny micro particles, it harms flora and fauna and ultimately ends up in our food chain.
Wolford is a company that shows us that there is an alternative. The company has just presented an environmentally safe underwear and tights collection in Paris. What does that mean? All materials used are positively defined, the product is not only free of harmful chemicals, but every ingredient that went into it is documented in detail. The material is a kind of polyester that is biologically degradable, unlike the above-mentioned PET bottles. And that includes all components–a bra has more than 14 different parts. After the usage of the underwear or tights has been completed, Wolford takes it back and it is industrially composted. This humus is then used as a nutrient for new plants. So these products are designed in such a way that they are not only not harmful, but positive for the environment and humans.
The design concept that Wolford uses here is called “Cradle to Cradle” and was developed by the chemist Michael Braungart. Manufactum and the Lidl Stiftung are currently also working on products with this comprehensive quality. That these products, after their usage running its course, can be reinserted into the natural cycle in the form of planting fleeces, for example, is one aspect. At the same time, the entire production process is clean, the workers are not exposed to any harmful substances. So the future is already here.”
Words by Friederike von Wedel-Parlow, designer and founder of the Beneficial Design Institute