'Mericans dispose of 12.8 metric tons of old clothes annually according to the EPA, but that wasteful fact of the 'disposable society' may be changing. A fast growing retailer, H&M with stores in 62 countries, has embarked on a new concept in clothing: recyclable. The Swedish fashion giant sold billions in clothes last year, but took 12,000 tons back to be recycled. It shows a celebrity studded ad campaign that proudly announcing but one rule fashion--recycle your old clothes. Recycling has become a hot concept in the clothes industry, so the company has invested in a concern that develops textile recycling technology. Its all part of a greater vision called the circular economy as opposed to the current linear paradigm in which most consumer products are made, sold, used, and then disposed. In order to be effective at reducing man's consumption of natural resources the circular economy has to be implemented on a large scale.
H&M is joined in the effort by other recognizable brands like Nike, Levi Strauss, North Face, Patagonia and American Eagle Outfitters. These companies collect used textiles and chemically process them into new fabric. The process can transform natural fibers such as cotton as well as synthetic fibers such as polyester. Environmentalists are pressuring the industry to change its wasteful ways because of the enormous volume of usable textiles that end up in landfills despite the efforts of re-sale organizations like Goodwill. NRDC says it takes up to 200 tons of water to make a ton of fabric, and the amount of chemical waste generated is significant. Non-organic cotton as currently grown requires enormous amounts of chemical fertilizers and accounts for 24% of global sales in insecticides. One retailer called her industry the most polluting after oil. The global apparel industry is growing at a fast rate; by one estimate it generates $2.5 trillion in annual revenue and is expected to double that in the next decade.
Re-selling old clothes is not the answer to the problem. Re-sellers tend to be very selective about the clothes they are willing to take into their stores. Even though there is an active re-sale market in the US, the nation exported $705 million in used clothes abroad. One reason you see African villagers sporting t-shirts with American popular culture and corporate logos emblazoned on their chests. Unsalable clothes become rags, or feedstock for other industrial processes, or end up in landfills. Up until the now, the technological problem has been the degradation of fibers in reprocessing, but that issue is being addressed on the molecular level. Levi Strauss and its partner Evrnu has successfully created a pair of denim jeans--world famous for their tough wearability--using reprocessed fabric. Evrnu purifies cotton waste, converts it to a pulp, and extrudes a new fiber that is stronger and softer than the original. The process reduces water use by 98% says a company executive. That is good news for textile countries like China, India and Pakistan facing water shortages in the new age of global warming.