We often hear the word circularity used in conjunction with sustainability. It is the idea that, at the end of its lifecycle, a product can be broken down into its basic components and be reused rather than destroyed. That’s a big issue right now for the textile industry, which is increasingly under fire to reduce production waste as well as waste from unsold products that would normally be thrown away or incinerated. As one report put it, “The future of fashion is moving into a new dimension where new textile technology upcycles old clothes into brand new fabrics.” And as several presentations at the recent IFAI Expo in Nashville showed, manufacturers are increasingly stepping up to do their part.
But circularity can only work if everyone participates, and that means consumers. When people discard clothing, for example, they will often bring it to a consignment or thrift store. Their intentions are good, but the fact is that much of it still ends up in a landfill because it is damaged or otherwise unusable.
That’s not to say that people don’t care about recycling. In fact, it’s just the opposite. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, American recycling rates have more than tripled in the last 30 years. But textile recycling often gets overlooked because the focus is usually on paper, plastic and glass. Clothing and household textiles currently make up 6.3 percent of the waste stream or roughly 80 pounds per person thrown away annually in the U.S. The Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) notes that most consumers simply don’t know that nearly 95 percent of used clothing and textiles can be reused and recycled. Damaged clothing, for example, can be recycled into wiping rags or ground up into fiber to create new products like paper, yarn, insulation and carpet padding.
Back in the 1980s there was a popular ad for a menswear outlet that used the slogan, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Think how much closer we could get to true circularity if textile and clothing manufacturers held a similar philosophy today.