Sustainable fashion: Recycling is not a magic bullet

Welcome to the latest column within our broader sustainability section, which focuses on what fashion retailing is doing to address the issues in its industry.

This month’s column asks if recycling textiles will ever be the magic bullet people think it is. Brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.

Whenever there is a crime epidemic involving lots of people behaving in a certain way you will hear someone say something along the lines of “you cannot arrest your way out of this” and it is usually quite true. The root causes of the problem must be tackled otherwise everything else is just a sticking plaster – no matter how well intentioned.

This phrase came to mind recently when Sander Defruyt from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy project said of the plastic pollution crisis: “We cannot recycle our way out of this.” It seems almost Scrooge-like to criticise the huge progress that so many corporations are making in either using recycled materials in their packaging or, like multiple fashion brands, actually incorporating recycled plastic or other materials in their new clothes and accessories.

Recycling textiles: difficult and expensive

But looking more broadly at textile recycling it is estimated that less than 1% of old clothes are broken down to form new garments. Chemical separation of materials like polyester generates its own damaging environmental impacts and is anyway very difficult to do. But to reiterate Defruyt’s assertion we really cannot recycle our way out of this. As with plastics the endgame must be to keep the production of virgin plastics/clothing down, which requires a major mind shift for most consumers.

Whether it’s reusing old plastic bottles to make new plastic bottles or using old cotton strands to make a new dress the principle does not change. It would still have been better to refill the old plastic bottle with another liquid again and better to refill the dress with a new person. Essentially changing the contents in the packaging is always better than constantly reforming the packaging itself.

And here, for once, the fashion industry really does have some better news because whereas the idea of reusing plastic containers is still very much in its infancy with sporadic trials like Waitrose Unpackaged and a few refill shops popping up on the High Street, large numbers of global fashion brands are totally buying into the resale market and effectively putting their weight behind refilling the dress with a new person – this is partly for eco-reasons and partly because they can see that it makes very good business sense.

Gucci Vault: Re-packaging the past

Brands are increasingly savvy about how this is done. In the luxury sector Jean Paul Gaultier has very recently launched a vintage selection, Valentino has given customers the option to return old items under the Valentino Vintage label while Gucci Vault reconditions a large range of items for resale. All these schemes bring younger consumers to the brand, pander to their wishes for one-offs rather than off-the-peg clothing and keeps brands in the financial loop of their own clothing.

Last week Farfetch acquired Luxclusif for an undisclosed sum. The site enables acquisition, authentication and resale via other e-commerce platforms, auctions, retailers and stores. Similarly Net-A-Porter launched back in October what they called a landmark resale pilot scheme, which gave users a 10% credit incentive – a large selling point of their system is how easy it is to use because they know that any perception of hassle for either buyer or seller will result in apathy. The Reflaunt pilot gives the consumer the credit immediately the item is accepted – there is no waiting until the item is sold on, which is important.

Zalando has gone a step further and introduced a care and repair service via the app Save Your Wardrobe, which launched in October in Germany, and hopes to scale-up quickly. Its pre-owned selection now stands at 200,000 items – up from a launch range of 20,000 a year ago. There is undoubtedly demand here.

In an interview on Retail Insider last year the founder of recycling firm First Mile, Bruce Bratley, while not wishing to sound like a Bah Humbug, bemoaned the constant drive to design new materials which are recyclable. Please stop was his message because every new recycling development means recycle specialists have to bring in new infrastructure, new training, new methods of working, and it all just adds to the already multiple ways we have of making and taking products apart. Essentially another symbol on the bottom of the plastic carton that people don’t understand. We cannot recycle our way out of this.

Zalando: Extending the life of clothing

The point about Scrooge was that he was able to completely transform his way of life overnight – for the global economic system to do that will take many decades, but do it we must otherwise we will all be getting a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come and it won’t be just a bad dream.

Supported by: