Fashion, recycling and the circular economy

upcycled fashion dress

Upcycled fashion is the new sexy!

In recent months there has been a lot of talk about recycling and the circular economy in fashion: brands are talking about it and politics are also talking about it. Europe has prepared a 54-point plan to facilitate the transition to the circular economy and the first calls are being opened that will make available many resources for businesses and start-ups. But are we really ready to change the way we design and produce?

For now, the data are so little comforting, that surely we can only improve: according to a 2017 study by the Ellen Mc Arthur Foundation only 1% of used clothes are recycled; according to Textile Exchange 97% of the raw materials used in fashion are virgin. So we can say that there is a lot of talk about the circular economy and recycling, but little is done about it.

Pre-consumer, consumer, post-consumer

The circular economy is not just recycling: that is one of the aspects to be taken into consideration. In general, it is a question of considering a product throughout its life cycle, from when it is designed to when it reaches the end of its life cycle. A used garment can be recycled, reused, placed on the market as it is. Using a recycled fiber is not enough to make a circular economy project. Waste must be managed throughout the production and life cycle.

There is talk of waste management both pre-consumer (which derive from processing and design), to those related to the consumption of the object up to the post-consumer, that is to what is done to a garment when it has finished the function for which it was designed. But this is precisely where another story can begin, if the garment has been designed well. Designers have a great responsibility when it comes to the circular economy, change must start from them. The Italian organization Rén Collective has published a Guide to Circular Fashion Design that you can download for free and in which interesting ideas are available. You will find that there are so many aspects that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to the circular economy.

The great challenge of recycling

In 2013 H&M was among the first brands to launch the campaign for the collection and recycling of clothes. The message was simple: the consumer was invited to bring their used clothes back to the shop, obtaining in exchange a discount for purchases in stores. Many have joined the campaign, but what has H&M done with all those collected materials? What is usually done with used clothes: those that can be used for second hand are selected and re-released on the European market. Some are sent to Africa instead. Then there are those that are destined for recycling and that take two different paths: a small part is recycled (for example wool or jeans are materials that are now easily recycled). Another part is sent to India, where these waste materials are recycled and become fibers of very little value, with which blankets or similar things are made that end up in Africa when new.

In the end it all ends in Africa

I have tried to simplify the journey of the used clothing, but you will have well understood that in the end what is sent to Africa is practically waste. Whether they are second-hand clothes (which we can define as rags) or blankets made with materials of very little value, what we are doing is flooding Africa with waste. Some countries have run for cover: Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, to name a few African countries, have closed their borders to used clothing. Flooded with textile waste from around the world, these countries have decided to say enough is enough.

In Nigeria, on the other hand, there are some start-ups that are working to try to start recycling activities for materials such as polyester, trying to transform what is currently only a big problem into an opportunity. Even the blankets that arrive from India and cost 1 or 2 euros, are actually another way of sending waste to Africa: material of very poor quality, which no longer has any wealth and which in this way is disposed of. The recycling problem must be solved in another way: ideas and investments are needed to create garments and materials that can be put on the market again at the end of their life cycle, even if in another form or for another use.

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