Recycling will not drive Circular fashion: consumption patterns and Reuse will.

by Solene Schirrer (Campaign Lead)

Textile recycling is often heralded as a solution to mitigate the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Yet, the reality behind the scenes tells a different story—one of limited capacity, downcycling, and the unintended consequences of exporting discarded clothes.

Globally, a mere 1% of all discarded clothing finds its way back into the production cycle. This startling statistic highlights the immense challenges within the textile industry's recycling processes. While recycling may seem like a straightforward solution, it's essential to distinguish between various methods and their implications.

Closed-loop recycling, aiming to convert fibres into new textiles, faces substantial hurdles due to limited international capacity. What often passes off as recycling in the textile realm is more accurately labelled as downcycling. This process repurposes materials for lower value uses, such as transforming old garments into rags or insulation. While this isn't inherently negative, it falls short of achieving true circularity and remains confined in scope.

Globally, a mere 1% of all discarded clothing finds its way back into the production cycle.

Complicating matters further, the declining quality of clothing, particularly the prevalence of synthetic fibre blends, intensifies recycling complexities. Blends comprising synthetic fibres are notoriously challenging to recycle, adding layers of difficulty to an already strained process.

Importantly, the lack of recycling capacity places immense pressure on countries receiving exported clothes. Insufficient regulations around textile waste enable the export of discarded clothes under labels of being "reusable" or "recyclable." However, these exported garments often flood receiving countries, primarily in the Global South, with low-quality clothing that poses significant environmental risks. Such clothes end up polluting local environments and jeopardizing communities reliant on the trade of second-hand clothing.

The environmental and social consequences are profound, as these discarded textiles not only contribute to pollution but also disrupt local economies that depend on the second-hand clothing market.

As consumers, we hold the power to effect change. Embracing a more mindful approach to our fashion choices by buying fewer, high-quality items that endure longer can significantly impact the industry. Investing in durable pieces not only reduces waste but also facilitates repair and reuse, or as a last resource, recycling.

Collective action is imperative. We must advocate for sustainable fashion practices, encourage regulations on textile waste, and support initiatives that foster a circular economy for textiles. This is what our Threads of Transparency envisions, starting from the bottom of the line and asking for clear definitions and regulations around textile waste.