Chasing The Holy Grail of Circular Fashion #104


Scaling technology that can recycle old clothes back into new ones has eluded the industry for a decade. A series of new projects this year suggest fashion may be nearing a tipping point.

The H&M-owned brand’s capsule collection of grey sweatsuits is the latest recycling experiment by a global fashion brand. So far, so 2020. But the Swedish fast-fashion giant has bigger ambitions for this particular project.

For the last four years, the H&M foundation has been working with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to develop a machine that can take old stretch jeans, jumpers, and sweatpants and, using heat, water and biodegradable “green” chemicals, turn them back into materials that can be processed and re-spun into new clothes. Monki, a youth-focused brand that sits alongside labels like COS and Arket in H&M group’s portfolio, will be the first H&M brand to test-drive the new technology.

The ability to recycle old clothes back into new, high-quality materials on an industrial scale is a top priority for the circular fashion movement, whose proponents envision an apparel industry designed to minimise waste and pollution. They have a long way to go: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates nearly 40 million tons of textile waste is sent to landfills or incinerated each year.

Much of that material would be impossible to upcycle into new clothes today. Long-standing mechanical recycling techniques — which shred materials like wool, cotton, or cashmere to recapture original fibers — often do so at the expense of quality. Blended fabrics, which combine natural fibers like cotton or wool with synthetics like polyester, are particularly tricky to repurpose. And where the know-how to turn old clothes into new material does exist, it has so far largely been confined to the lab or the odd pilot project.

But a flurry of high-profile new projects could move the needle in a material way.

Toward a Tipping Point

Over the coming months, one of Monki’s biggest suppliers is installing HKRITA’s machine. By early next year, it will have the capacity to transform around 1.5 tons of old textile waste daily into raw materials, replicating the technology at an industrial scale for the first time.

The goal is to prove by the end of 2021 that the machine is commercially viable, paving the way to increase capacity.

Business of fashion