Cotton’s Second Life: The Importance of Recycled Cotton Fabric

Girl wearing recycled cotton fabric

Cotton’s Second Life: The Importance of Recycled Cotton Fabric

We all know about the importance of recycling. From turning plastic bottles into benches, and tin cans into aeroplane wings, there are a lot of cool recycling stories out there, but what about our clothes. Recycled cotton fabric poses a solution to some of the bleak issues in fashion’s poor relationship with waste.

Fashion’s textile waste crisis is one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets. With waste generated at almost every production stage, fashion’s waste crisis has become the global monster of the fashion sector. With cotton one of the most widely used textiles in garment production, incorporating recycled cotton fabric is a vital step towards a cleaner, greener, and less wasteful fashion industry.

Fashion’s Waste Crisis

The Council for Textile Recycling has estimated that global textile waste comes in at a staggering 25 billion pounds every year. While textile waste is a multifaceted issue that needs a multifaceted solution, recycling is one of the obvious strategies for reducing fabric waste. However, it has been reported that less than one percent of global textile waste is recycled into new garments.

The industry’s uneasy relationship with waste is a significant roadblock in creating a circular fashion market, and a major contributor to fashion’s negative environmental impact. As fashion buying has increased in the past two decades, textile wastage has grown to new levels, and it is now estimated that over half of all clothing that is bought ends up finding its way into landfill.

A large proportion of this discarded fabric ending up in the world’s landfills is cotton. Cotton is one of the most common natural fibres used in clothing production, accounting for roughly 33% of all textile fibres. As such, embracing recycled cotton fabric as part of the standard practices of the fashion sector could create a huge impact and cut down those landfill numbers dramatically.

Cotton’s Complex Lifecycle

Cotton plant to make recycled cotton fabric
Photo by Kolya Korzh on Unsplash

Recycled cotton is a splendid idea for improving fashion’s environmental footprint and solving that pesky textile waste problem, but it is no simple task. The global cotton trade is dizzyingly complex. The industry employs 250 million people and accounts for 7% of labour in developing countries. To put that into perspective, more people work in the cotton industry than live in France, Spain, Italy, and the UK combined.

The bulk of the world’s cotton is grown in India, China, and the US, with countries across Africa and West and Central Asia also relying on the global cotton trade. This complicated, web of factories, farmers, processing plants, and sellers creates a supply chain that is difficult to track and challenging to monitor. 

As a part of the global cotton trade, the recycled cotton sector can be equally confusing to keep track of.

However, a complex system is no reason not to engage with a recycled cotton clothing market. There are organisations out there that are effectively implementing recycled cotton fabric into their products and supply chains in ethical and transparent ways.

How is it recycled?

Recycling logo
Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

There are two ways that cotton is recycled, either mechanically or chemically.

Mechanical cotton recycling is the most common of the two methods. This method involves fabric being sorted for colour and properties and then being fed through a machine that shreds that textile back down to a raw fibre. The fibres can then be spun into yarn and made into a shiny new piece of fabric.

Chemical recycling, on the other hand, is a little more complex, it entails breaking fibres down into chemical base components and then rebuilding them into new textile fibres. This method produces higher quality fibres than mechanical recycling but is far more complicated and, often expensive, creating further economic challenges.

Is it Sustainable?

Recycling a product already in circulation is always going to be sustainably beneficial. When compared to conventional cotton production, recycled cotton is the greener option. 

Recycled cotton can seem a double-edged sword though, and its sustainable effectiveness largely comes down to the practices in place at a specific recycling plant. Recycling cotton involves industrial machinery and factories that if not sourced with renewable energy, can create an adverse environmental effect. 

As recycled, particularly mechanically recycled, cotton is a lower grade fabric than virgin cotton, it also isn’t always possible to use it in clothing. While creating higher-grade chemically recycled cotton can be cost-prohibitive, and making clothing that prices people out of a sustainable sector is counterintuitive. 

So, is recycled cotton fabric sustainable? Compared to sending cotton clothing to litter our landfills, the answer is definitely yes. However, it must be implemented alongside other sustainable practices.

Is it Ethical?

Recycling giving back sign
Photo by Jack Church on Unsplash

Again, the answer to this largely comes down to who recycles it, where it is recycled and the conditions that workers face at each factory.

The general cotton trade is fraught with ethical transgressions, and the recycled cotton sector can fall victim to similar ethical quandaries and social justice flaws. However, this doesn’t mean that all recycled cotton is unethical. It simply means that like with any other fabric, you need to look at where a brand sources its materials and the practices in place at the specific factories used.

The Cons of Recycled Cotton

1. Low Quality

Recycled cotton is a step along the sustainable pathway, but it is not a perfect solution. Recycled cotton fibres don’t retain the quality standards of virgin cotton, to make a usable fabric, fibres must be mixed with environmentally harmful synthetics. 

There comes a point that cotton simply cannot be recycled anymore. This means that it can never truly be part of a completely circular fashion industry.

2. Hard to Separate and Energy-Intensive

As clothing rarely contains exclusively cotton fibres, it creates a challenge to separate and recycle it, and it takes energy and power to complete the process. If this energy and power is not sustainably sourced, it further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Maybe not Perfect, but Still Good: The pros

Although not a perfect system, recycled cotton is still a good one.

Recycled cotton fabric t shirt
Photo by Anomaly on Unsplash

1. Less Water and Cleaner Cotton

Recycled cotton already exists, this means when buying a recycled cotton product less water and fewer pesticides  have gone into creating than if it was made from virgin cotton.

2. Avoiding Landfills 

Recycling cotton keeps textiles out of landfills, landfills that are guilty of an astoundingly bleak environmental impact. While not all recycled cotton fabric will become the hottest new clothing styles, it still has value for other products such as cleaning cloths and mops.

3. Reducing clothing waste

A lot of people don’t realise that a large percentage of their well-intentioned clothes donated to charity also end up in landfill, due to either low-quality clothing or organisations being overwhelmed with donations.

Many donations are sent overseas to third world countries such as Ghana to markets like Kantamanto. Even there the burden of our used clothing is so great that much of it will end up in huge clothing mounds, polluting their nation. 

Recycling cotton clothing helps to take the burden off these organisations and further reduces clothing waste. 

But What About Organic Cotton?

Organic and recycled cotton are prominent participants in the sustainable fashion market, both have distinct advantages and disadvantages.

A key advantage of organic cotton is its certification. Most organic cotton is covered by certifying bodies, such as GOTS, that ensure that sustainable and ethical practices were upheld throughout supply chains. As organic cotton is a virgin fibre, it’s generally of higher quality than recycled cotton, making it likely to last longer and be of more use for the clothing industry. Our article on GOTS cotton has more information about what this and other certifications cover.

However, recycled cotton uses significantly less water than conventionally grown cotton. While organic cotton also has reduced water reliance than conventionally grown cotton, it is still an inherently thirsty crop.

The fact that recycling cotton keeps usable fabric from littering landfills can’t be overstated. When it comes to sustainability, the more waste kept out of landfills, the better.

The truth is, there is no simple answer to whether recycled cotton fabric or organic cotton is better, it largely comes down to what it is being used for.

Recycled Cotton’s Second Life

Recycled cotton clothing
Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

As conscious consumerism has grown, so has the inclination for brands to adopt sustainable practices. Household names such as Levi’s, H&M, and Mud Jeans either currently use or have pledged to incorporate at least a percentage of recycled cotton in their clothing production. These brands are not alone in this switch from virgin cotton to recycled fibres.

Cotton recycling organisations are also gearing up for increased production. Material science brand, Recover, aims to increase recycled cotton production to an impressive 20,000 metric tonnes per year by 2025. This uptick in the use of recycled cotton fabric is good news for fashion’s sustainability scores. Just one t-shirt made with yarn from Recover saves up to 27,000 litres of water.

While recycled cotton should be used in conjunction with other sustainable fashion solutions, it forms a core part of creating a circular fashion industry. Fortunately, the future of fashion is looking more like a recycled one.

As consumers, we can engage in recycled fashion in many ways. Supporting companies that use a circular fashion model such as those in this article or a closed-loop system are great ways to engage with recycled fashion. 

A Greener Tomorrow

What happens to our clothes when we’re finished with them is something that we don’t often think about, however as landfills are overflowing and climate crises are looming, it is of ever-growing importance. Using recycled cotton fabric in garment production is a vital step for building an inherently circular fashion market.

Recycled materials form part of the path towards a much-needed greener tomorrow for fashion. So next time you are wondering just where that t-shirt at the bottom of your wardrobe should end up, engage in the recycled fashion market. Give those cotton fibres a new life and create a positive tomorrow for yesterday’s fashion.

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