You may have noticed “organic cotton” on your t-shirt label, but what about “recycled cotton”?
In the United States, we produce around 14.3 million tons of textile waste per year, and about 50% of that could be recycled. While we know how to recycle cotton, making a garment solely out of recycled cotton fibers has been a different story; recycled cotton has most often gone to filler material for carpeting. Recently, however, a company in Sweden revealed the first garment made entirely from 100% recycled cotton.
“The scalability of this process is enormous,” Henrik Norlin, business development manager at re:newcell, the company that made the pioneering material, told The Guardian. “The technology allows us to recycle all materials that contain cellulose.”
Cotton accounts for around a a third of the world’s textile consumption, which means that the potential for using recycled fibers instead of virgin ones is huge.
The problem is that sometimes we get so excited about the prospect of recycling that we lose sight of an even more essential way to deal with waste: consume less. Just because we are able to recycle a garment does not mean that we should consume more garments. If anything, the ability to make a garment out of 100% recycled cotton should be an entry point for getting us to the discussion of the fashion industry at large and our own levels of consumption.
Recycling may not even be the best way to deal with cotton textile waste. Recycling textiles can involve dangerous materials, and once you’ve made a recycled fiber, it may not be as easily recyclable the next time around. If we wanted a full circle approach, composting might be an even better option. However, ”the dyes are a problem, which is why we need innovation in dyes,” Lewis Perkins, senior vice president of the San Francisco-based Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, told the Guardian. “But in the future we could even add valuable nutrients to clothes, which would benefit the soil when we compost them.”
But composting cotton certainly isn’t as sexy as recycling it, and doesn’t give us new garments to wear, which means you won’t hear from any of the fashion companies arguing for that option any time soon.
Re:newcell’s new garment is certainly an exciting innovation, and it paves the path for other companies to invest in similar technologies. Imagine a world where we all wore garments from recycled cotton. Ultimately, however, we can’t just think about what our clothes are made of. We also have to think about how much we’re consuming, and how to reduce that consumption.
Photo Credit: Steven Depolo