Textile recycling firm Renewcell and vintage retailer Beyond Retro are taking the next steps in scaling textile-to-textile recycling.
“Today, less than 1 percent of all clothes are recycled back into clothes, and that carelessness is driving climate change and ravaging natural environments,” Patrik Lundström, chief executive officer of Renewcell, said in a statement. “The fashion industry simply has to take much better care of the materials it harvests from the earth.”
While the partnership began in 2017, the latest iteration announced last week is said to be a major turning point in realizing a circular clothing economy and reducing the industry’s reliance on virgin materials, as many chemical recycling technologies have yet to be proven at scale. Each year, 30,000 metric tons of used clothing are committed to be recycled through Bank and Vogue and Renewcell.
Beyond Retro operates a string of vintage brick-and-mortar stores in the U.K. and Sweden as well as an online shop, while Bank and Vogue focuses on the wholesale operations of used goods. Both companies were cofounded by Helene Carter and Steven Bethell. Bank and Vogue is also a participant in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s circular fibers initiative and has collaborated with brands like Converse, on its Chuck Taylor’s sneakers utilizing recycled denim, and Urban Outfitters in a fully upcycled men’s collection.
“That’s three 40-foot seed [shipping] containers a day,” Bethell said about the scale of the expanded partnership. “The fact that used [clothing] can be an input for new manufacturing of textiles — I’m giddy with excitement.”
“With this agreement, we take the next step to industrial scale textile-to-textile recycling. I’m truly impressed with Bank and Vogue’s experience and capacity for innovation, and without them we wouldn’t be where we are, ready to put shovel to the ground for our next recycling plant,” Lundström added. “Together, we prove fashion waste unnecessary — all clothes should be used, reused and recycled.”
Both Bethell and Lundström find the partnership one of necessity for an industry grappling with excess and resources. As it stands, the fashion industry already emits as much carbon as France, Germany and the U.K. combined, according to a report from McKinsey & Co. and Copenhagen-based nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda.
With the most severe environmental impacts residing in upstream activities, in areas like material production — the need for scalable re-commerce, upcycling and recycling solutions are top of mind for the industry as it looks to shift away from its over reliance on virgin materials.
Renewcell first gained recognition among the fashion set with its brand partnerships, hitting retail with its innovative, upcycled “Circulose” fabric made of used jeans for capsule collections with H&M Group this January and later Levi’s. The Circulose fabric is typically made from cotton or viscose from used clothing and production waste feedstock. Its chemical recycling process complies with Swedish and EU environmental rules and similar to cellulose, the Circulose textile is a biodegradable, organic polymer.
Operating out of a former paper mill in Sundsvall, Sweden, Renewcell touts the potential to recycle hundreds of millions of garments every year through its patented process that runs on 100 percent green energy. Its newest facility is located in Kristinehamn, Sweden, and will tap the feedstock from Bank and Vogue, which counts decades of experience in sourcing used clothing.
Although the U.K. is in the midst of a strict second national lockdown and nonessential retailers like Beyond Retro are forced to temporarily close up shop (five locations in total), Bethell is focused on the present gains and general welfare of his team. Last year, Bank and Vogue alone moved more than 90 million pounds of used goods globally, diverting them from landfills and finding new homes for these products.
“What would a circular economy look like? This is it,” Bethell reiterated. “The really fun thing about what we do at Bank and Vogue is trying to find the best home for an item as it is.” The rule of thumb is garments run through the cycle of reuse, resale, repair before being remade into a new product.
In this vetting process, clothing recyclers are particular about the used clothing they value, and for many, it’s not fast fashion, attributing it to the sheer volume and lower-quality fast-fashion goods that muddle the utilization potential.
The golden rule for a recycler is to make clothing that is recyclable — and the front-runners may be surprising.
“Some of the brands that are not fast fashion are not making fashion that is recyclable — and that is frustrating to a recycler. Whether something is ethical and recyclable – maybe there’s a dichotomy there,” Bethell said.
Regardless, Bethell sees a spiking consumer interest in recycled content.
“I think the consumer will absolutely be looking at how much recycled content is in their clothes. The consumers are voting with their dollars,” he said.
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