Comment: Why can’t the fashion industry recycle discarded clothes?

SYDNEY: Today we make more clothes than ever before. And the driver for this is primarily economic and not human needs. In the last decade, the term ‘circular economy’ has entered the lexicon of the fashion industry, where materials are manufactured in a way that allows them to be reused and recycled through design.

Still, we haven’t seen the same level of recycling in fashion as in other areas – like plastics recycling, for example. And that’s mostly because recycling clothes into clothes is a lot harder.

Brands like H&M and Cotton On’s use of recycled polyester and cotton are key aspects of these companies’ sustainability initiatives – but the source of these recycled fibers isn’t typically clothing. Recycled polyester usually comes from plastic bottles, and recycled cotton is usually made from manufacturing waste.

The fact is, most clothing items are simply not designed to be recycled. Even if it does, the fashion industry lacks the kind of infrastructure needed to truly embrace a circular economy model.


Clothing recycling is not like recycling paper, glass or metal. Clothing is infinitely variable and unpredictable. As such, they are not ideal for recycling technologies that require stable and consistent feedstocks.

Even a seemingly simple garment can be made from multiple materials, with fiber blends such as cotton/polyester and cotton/elastane being common.

Different fibers have different capacities for recycling. Natural fibers such as wool or cotton can be mechanically recycled. The fabric is shredded and spun back into yarn from which new fabric can be woven or knitted.

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