Until recently, most of us didn’t give a lot of thought to the fate of our clothes after they reach the end of their usefulness. We may have had a hard time parting with that favorite pair of jeans, that pretty but stretched cotton shirt or that warm wool sweater, but our consciousness about these items' final resting place was extended only to whether that unused clothing – made from sustainable fibers or not – continued to take up room in our closets or our overstuffed drawers.
These days, clothiers as well as consumers are giving more thought to the end result of discarding used clothing. One reason is that the clothing we wear (and what we do with it after we are finished) really does have a significant impact on the health of the environment.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 15 percent of the 13 million tons of clothing and other textiles that are thrown away each year are recycled, turned into products like rags or broken down to be reused as sustainable fibers. The carbon produced in making that 15 percent, or 2 million tons, is about the same as the pollution from a million cars. While that sounds impressive, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of carbon generated in the production of the other 11 million tons of clothes that are bought, worn and eventually disposed in the landfill.
Thankfully, companies and organizations across the world are working to change that disparity. Organizations like Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), federal, state and city agencies like the EPA, and a growing list of sustainably directed companies are making it easier than ever to give that old cotton shirt or pair of blue jeans a new life.
One concept that is helping to promote sustainability in clothing production is the reuse of sustainable fibers. Products that can no longer be used in their present form are broken down and rewoven into “new” fiber. In many cases, the reused fiber is then blended with virgin sources before being carded to give the product more strength and resilience.
For Levi Strauss & Co., this technique makes lots of sense, says Michael Kobori, Levi’s vice president of global sustainability. “[Ninety-five] percent of what we make at the company is made out of cotton. And through our lifecycle assessment on our products, we realized that reducing environmental impacts in our environmental lifecycle occur in the raw materials stage and the consumer use stage,” says Kobori.
According to Levi’s own research, it takes 3,480 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans. As much as 48 percent of that water is expended just in growing conventional cotton, making it one of the most environmentally expensive products we use. Levi’s Water<Less and its involvement in the Better Cotton Initiative help reduce its drain on the environment. So does its growing focus on reusable fibers, which allow it to blend complementary fibers to make new and dynamic products.
Threads for Thought co-founder Eric Fleet says the cotton industry’s antiquated ways of disposing of unused fabric cuts -- and the growing need for more sustainable methods -- are motivating the company to look for ways to integrate scraps into their production line.
“There’s a lot of waste that goes on at the factory level with just conventional cotton,” explains Fleet. "[Some companies] are essentially just junking it instead of reusing it. So we are looking at ways where we can reuse cotton that would otherwise be thrown out. It’s essentially a [more] sustainable way to reduce the waste from [conventional] cotton.”
As is often the case, Fleet says there are some logistical issues that the company will have to address before it can begin integrating reused fiber into its men’s line. How and where will the company get the used fabric? Will they have drop-off locations for customers’ donations? Will they purchase the reused fabric from sources like I:CO, a Swiss company that collects and resells old clothes that are either recycled, reused or repurposed? The questions that Threads for Thought face in upgrading their sustainability practices are often faced by many small but expanding manufacturers.
Cotton isn’t the only kind of fabric that is recycled these days, however. The increasing use of polyester made from PET bottles as a fabric for clothes is helping to slim the landfill, and has proven to be an ideal way to add resilience to cotton textiles. Levi’s use of recycled-content polyester in its denim jeans has proven that it is not only a versatile material, but can also help to extend the life of the jeans and complement the durability that customers love about denim.
Threads for Thought has also had a good experience with PET plastic, which Fleet says has a particular selling point to the manufacturer.
“By using recycled polyester, we’re able to recycle hundreds of thousands, actually millions of water bottles from all the products we produce. It is a much more efficient and better way to make polyester [clothes],” says Fleet.
Some fabrics lend themselves to unique uses and are then repurposed after the end of the product’s life has been reached. One such example is Levi’s man-made fabric Dyneema, which has been woven into denim jeans and offers surprising durability to the clothing.
“[By] blending it into our jeans, we are able to increase the durability of the products so consumers are able to wear [them] longer. It doesn’t rip as easily and so we increase the time that the consumer can use the product.”
One downside of blended fabrics that is particularly a challenge for Dyneema-cotton blends, is that at present, there’s no way to break down, separate and reuse the fibers. Therefore, the product is purposed instead into other products. Habitat for Humanity, for example, uses denim jeans that have been repurposed into housing insulation. In fact, so has Levi Strauss & Co:
“There are 25,500 pairs of old denim jeans used in the insulation in our headquarters building in San Francisco. It is actually a better insulator than fiberglass."
The company’s take-back program, which collects old clothes shoes and other textiles, dovetails with San Francisco’s recent initiative to set up 160 recycle bins in stores to encourage donations of old clothes. The clothes are picked up by I:CO, which resells the donated items for reuse and repurposing.
But Levi’s best example of a product that benefits from second-life remakes is its Parachute-Trucker Jacket. The jacket took on a life of its own after Levi’s developed a way to reuse retired nylon military parachutes. While the company has only produced a limited number of the jackets (a total of 36 chutes so far have been used), it’s become a kind of iconic symbol of Levi’s focus on sustainability.
"I think [the designers] got a little bit of inspiration from the ‘70s fashion of parachute pants,” explains Kobori. “What we’re finding is that fabric is light, yet it’s durable and the fabric itself has subtle variations in pattern and shading, so it makes each jacket almost a custom thing [product]. It’s very unique.” Because it is made of 100 percent nylon, the fibers can also be reused.
The list of reusable fibers continues to expand, broadening the opportunity for new textiles and new ways of breathing life and more durability into products. Fibers like Tencel (eucalyptus wood pulp), which is made in a closed-loop process that captures almost all emissions and toxins like solvents and silk, which Appalatch Apparel Co. plans to blend with its Rambouillet wool, offer new and vibrant ways for reducing environmental costs of creating ecologically sustainable apparel.
Images credit: Janko Ferlič/Unsplash
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.