Why Textile Recycling Is Important: The Green Fashion Cycle

The fashion industry has become a major polluter. How can textile recycling change this, and what can you do to become a more conscious consumer?

By Tracy Renning

The contemporary fashion industry presents a massive problem for sustainability. Our clothing shopping habits have accelerated dramatically and fast fashion has become a global trend. This has given rise to an industry responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and a dangerous amount of microplastics and microfibers in both marine and freshwater environments.

The consumption of fossil fuels and pollution of the environment makes the fashion industry as it exists today inherently unsustainable. Moreover, labor practices within fast fashion manufacturing are infamously unethical.

The only way to ease the massive strain placed on the environment by the fashion industry is to disrupt the current cycle of production and consumption. As a consumer, you have the power to do your part in migrating the fashion industry towards greener standards of operation. This article explores how and why.

How Did We Get Here?

Throughout its evolution, the fashion industry has sought ways to make clothing production cheaper, faster, and more diverse. On the surface, these sound like good things. However, these driving forces have bred a consumer culture that gives little consideration to the impact of its choices.

The average American disposes of 70lb of clothing each year. That equates to a staggering 23 billion tons of waste textiles annually. 85% of these textiles are then either dumped in landfills or burned.

A large part of the problem is that textiles nowadays are no longer made from recyclable materials, as the use of synthetic textiles is far cheaper for manufacturers. The byproducts of synthesizing and eventually disposing of these textiles are disastrous for our atmosphere, oceans, and water supplies.

The desire of consumers to keep up with trends alongside other social factors has led to a 400% increase in textile consumption in the last 20 years alone.

If we do not drastically reduce the number of textiles we buy, it could spell disaster for our air and our oceans.

Textile Recycling: leaves made from textiles

The Fashion Industry and Carbon Emissions

We now know that 10% of global carbon emissions come from the fashion industry, but why is this so? In decades past, clothing was made exclusively from natural fibers like silk, cotton, and wool. Nowadays, most garments sold in fashion outlets contain synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon.

Synthetic fibers are produced as a byproduct of a chemical process involving air, water, coal, and petroleum. The burning of coal and petroleum produces copious amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and other polluting gasses.

The Fashion Industry and Microplastics

It’s not only the synthesization of artificial fibers that creates pollution, but the product itself also contributes to the overwhelming amount of plastic in our natural environment. When you wash clothes containing synthetic fibers in your washing machine, the textile gradually degrades and releases microplastics.

Once in the water system, microplastics make their way steadily towards our natural bodies of water. As a result, the oceans, lakes, and rivers that play host to aquatic life are becoming increasingly toxic.

Filter-feeding aquatic creatures consume microplastics, bigger fish, then eat these creatures, and we eat the bigger fish. The toxins produced by microplastics in living bodies are bioaccumulative, which means that our bodies do not naturally process or dispose of them. They stay in our system indefinitely, which leads to various health issues.

cotton farm

The Issue with Natural Fibers

At this point, you may think our problems are easy to solve. We simply need to avoid synthetic textiles. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The mass production of natural textiles has a host of environmental impacts as well.

The cotton industry, for example, is responsible for 16% of the world’s pesticide usage. The nitrates and phosphates in those pesticides then seep into natural water systems, causing water eutrophication (a reduction in the oxygen content of water).

Natural textiles that come from animals face the same environmental challenges as the meat industry, as the keeping of the livestock needed for leather, wool, and the like is responsible for significant carbon emissions, energy consumption, and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Disrupting The Chain of Consumption

With mounting evidence of the urgent need for an intervention, green initiatives around the world are attempting to encourage the recycling of used textiles. The hope of initiatives like these is that there will be less need for consistent production of new textiles, thus reducing the environmental damage caused.

The Step-by-Step Process of Textile Recycling

First, public awareness of the need for recycled textiles is paramount. The more people become aware of the environmental impact of fast fashion, the more likely they are to take used textiles to recycling centers instead of throwing them away. Public awareness campaigns seek to educate populations about their environmental responsibility through the distribution of clothing bins, the establishment of used textile collection points, and multimedia information distribution.

Plenty of logistical and strategic planning is needed to ensure maximum efficiency in the collection of used textiles. Clothing bins need to be accessible and highly visible to encourage people to use them. The clothing then needs to get collected, transported, and stored before it gets sorted.

After collection, used textiles need sorting into groups. This process requires a trained eye. Some clothes are suitable for reuse, some get recycled as rags, and some for fiber. Currently, there aren’t many organizations that have automated this process, so it’s time and labor intensive.

The clothes that can get reused are usually cleaned and donated to charitable initiatives. The unwearable textiles either get repurposed for industrial cleaning rags or separated into their fibrous components.

Natural textiles get sorted by color to avoid the need for re dyeing. Fibrous textiles are distributed for use for purposes such as furniture padding, speaker cones, and insulation.

Much work is still needed to improve the efficiency of textile recycling. The need for such processes will only increase as the fashion industry continues to grow.

The more we can reuse and recycle used textiles, the less energy and fossil fuels we need to produce new ones. The harmful byproducts of textile manufacturing will also get reduced.

thrift store

What Can You as a Consumer Do?

The fashion industry can only continue to operate under its current conditions if consumers continue to support it. By altering your buying habits and getting as much use out of your clothing as possible, you can play your part in the green revolution of textile production.

First, you can reduce the amount of clothing you purchase. If everyone focuses on buying only what they need, the overall reduction in demand will have a positive environmental impact.

By choosing to repair, alter, and repurpose old clothes instead of throwing them away, you can also reduce the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills and get more use out of your garments. Consider supporting local businesses by taking ripped or frayed clothes to a seamstress. Minor repairs and alterations don’t cost much.

Supporting sustainable brands instead of fast fashion makes a difference too. With environmental and ethical concerns on the rise, more clothing companies are trying to steer clear of harmful manufacturing and labor practices. Doing some research into ethical clothing brands is a great way to do your part. You’ll find brands designing and manufacturing everything from clothes suitable for practicing yoga in, to occasion wear, and bespoke designer garments.

Instead of buying clothes made of synthetic fabric or resource intensive natural fabric, consider buying clothes made from eco-friendly alternatives. Hemp and bamboo both produce comfortable, natural fibers without using excessive amounts of water or pesticides. Linen is another good alternative.

You could go a step further and buy your clothes from thrift stores or second-hand shops. Not only are you then recycling used clothes, but you are also supporting small businesses and charities that rely on your expenditure.

At the very least, try to avoid throwing away clothing at all costs. If you have something that you no longer like wearing, that doesn’t fit you anymore, or is simply looking tired, try to consolidate them and donate them. Charitable organizations and thrift stores benefit from donated clothing.

Some people have taken to social media to swop or sell their old clothes, as well as old clothes from friends and family. Every step taken to reduce the need for manufacturing textiles is a step in the right direction.

Finally, try to avoid buying clothes from big corporate brands. They do a good job of marketing themselves and publicizing their green efforts. However, the damage done by their unsustainable and unethical manufacturing practices far outweigh the good. Almost every big fashion franchise is guilty of unethical, sometimes inhumane labor practices and massive environmental damage.

Change Starts With You

By opting to shop at local, eco-friendly suppliers, you are sending a message to manufacturers. The age of fast fashion needs to end if we are to avert a climate crisis.

Taking small steps in your own life to reuse and recycle your textiles will contribute to a more eco-friendly and sustainable future for us all.