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Levi Strauss & Co Sponsored Series

Sustainably Attired

4 Lessons the Apparel Industry Can Learn from Carpet-Makers

By Mary Mazzoni

The 2014 Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego prompted discussions about a host of sustainability issues, from climate resilience to consumer engagement. But in a nation where waste recovery rates have hovered below 35 percent for the past decade, it was tough not to talk about recycling as well.

In a panel discussion hosted by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, leaders in the textile recycling space spoke about lessons learned that can be applied to the apparel industry, which is a key area of focus for the institute. One of the more surprising additions to the panel, entitled “Optimizing Building Blocks: Cradle to Cradle Materials for Textiles," was Paul Murray, vice president of sustainability and environmental affairs at Shaw Industries, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer.

Believe it or not, there's actually a great deal the apparel industry can learn from carpet-makers about closed loop recycling. Shaw, for example, has been producing Cradle to Cradle certified products for more than a decade, and they now make up 64 percent of the company’s sales. I sat down with Murray after the panel to find out more about how the carpet industry's success with closed loop recycling can be applied to your favorite fashions and lessons that translate across the textile industry.

1. Design with the end use in mind

The most obvious aspects of closed loop recycling happen in the collection and re-processing phases, but Murray noted that the process starts much earlier -- in the design phase. When recovering textiles for recycling, it's vitally important that the material components are nontoxic, safe for recycling workers and safe for the end consumer.

"It was early that we looked at [closed loop] as a system to prevent bad chemistry," Shaw said, noting that the materials assessment for Cradle to Cradle certification is much tougher than EPA standards. "Federal law makes us disclose everything up to 1 percent; Cradle to Cradle makes you look at that chemistry down to 100 parts per million, or one thousandth of a percent. So, it's 1,000 times stronger than the EPA would require of an apparel industry, but it makes things a lot safer for the general public."

Materials assessments look at everything from dyes and glues to the fabric itself. Beyond ensuring products are nontoxic, nuts-and-bolts design decisions, such as the construction of the product, also play a key role in making sure the product can be re-purposed at end-of-life.

"We want to make sure that those materials have a second life," Murray said of Shaw's carpeting. "So, we actually try to then manufacture the products so that they can come apart in one shape or form or another.

"The apparel industry has several issues that we have to deal with in a different way. One is how do you take a piece of, let's say, jeans and get the rivets and the zipper out so that the fabric could actually be used."

2. Take a branding approach to closed loop

Achieving Cradle to Cradle certification for a product is no easy feat, but that's only the beginning, Murray explained. To make a closed loop product successful, he said, companies need to make their customers aware of its value. To achieve this, he suggested a branding approach with which most companies are already familiar.

"Cradle to cradle is a concept, a process and a label," Murray said. "If nobody knows about that label, then you don't have brand recognition. People won't look for [the Cradle to Cradle certified label] on a piece of carpet if they don't know about it. So that's what I would call 'brand recognition' for the certification itself.

"As the apparel industry looks to cradle to cradle as a solution, they need to be thinking about what they [can] do to help that brand recognition," he continued. "How do we get to that partnership of building the Cradle to Cradle brand? I think it's important for all cradle to cradle companies to work together for that branding."

A select few apparel companies, such as Puma, have already started to build branding around their Cradle to Cradle certified products, while others, like Levi Strauss & Co., focus on branding around recycling through their own processes. But most would agree there's still much more to be done in this area.

3. Never stop looking for new technologies

When we spoke with global, end‐to‐end textile solutions provider I:CO last month, Jennifer Gilbert, the company's chief marketing officer, likened fabric recycling to paper in the sense that fibers shorten and degrade when they are recycled. Although the company has managed to devise end uses for several textile categories, Gilbert noted that the degradation of fabric fibers poses significant challenges, and she's right -- at least for now.

With most processes used today, recycled textiles must be combined with virgin feedstocks to compensate for fiber shortening, but cutting-edge techniques are under development across the country, Murray noted. Shaw, for example, uses a high-tech depolymerization process to turn grimy used carpeting into a brand new product. Since fibers are broken down at the polymer level, the result is essentially new fiber that is just as strong -- if not stronger -- than the original tossed carpeting.

"I think the technology will really change over time," Murray predicted, pointing to a fledgling effort in Seattle that devised a process to grind cotton so fine it can be extruded as new fiber -- much like the process used to make rayon back in the 1980s.

"There's going to be a lot of different developments in all sectors, whether it be carpet or apparel," he continued. "Even the carpet industry today: When you look at a piece of carpet it's glued together. The methodology to take that apart, we continually work on. So, that's an example of an industry where we have to work collaboratively to come up with methods to take things back."

Staying open to new technologies and supporting them financially when possible is key to moving the closed loop process forward, Murray said. Shaw, for example, partners with roughly 50 entrepreneurial recyclers across the country to recover its carpeting, while I:CO works with literally hundreds of partners from around the world to develop new recovery processes.

4. Be patient with infrastructure

"Everybody that talks about cradle to cradle makes this point: It really has to start somewhere," Murray said.

It's true that the infrastructure for textile recovery is growing, and companies like I:CO are a big part of that, but it can be easy for brands to become frustrated with the lack of take-back options or end uses for their products. This frustration, however, is no reason for companies not to pursue closed loop options and think about them in design.

"You really don't start with the infrastructure to take things back," Murray said. "You start with making sure that what you're producing is as safe and environmentally friendly as possible ... That's really where the apparel industry has to get strong."

As methods evolve for producing products that are safer to recycle and reuse, as well as for the re-processing itself, the infrastructure will slowly start to catch up -- especially if consumers are engaged and asking for closed loop products, Murray said.

To engage its own consumers, Shaw recently sent out the below video to its online mailing list, which details how Shaw uses closed loop processes and efficiently sums up the five basic tenants of Closed Loop certification.

Image credit: Flickr/bluehillranch

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni