Unlike curbside recycling programs that turn plastic bottles into new plastic bottles, aluminum cans into new aluminum cans, etc., old clothes hardly ever become clothes again. When clothes are broken down, their fibers get shorter, making them difficult to reassemble into a sturdy new piece. More often, they’re “downcycled” into items of lesser value, such as insulation, rags, and mattress stuffing for their next (and likely last) life.
As it stands now, less than 1% of clothing material is kept in the fashion industry—and most of it is scraps from factories. To provide some context for this figure, Lauren B. Fay, founder and executive director of The New Fashion Initiative, says, “It’s important to remember that these fast fashion brands overproduce continually, so recycling is really a bare minimum responsibility.” As little as 0.1% of clothes are recycled or upcycled (turned into a piece of clothing of higher value) after being worn, according to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report on the textile economy.
In order to get these true recycling numbers up, some fashion brands are working toward a completely circular model of designing clothes that can be broken down and reassembled. So far, this is relatively rare: For Days, Eileen Fisher, and MUD Jeans are some of the few companies attempting it at scale.
In the meantime, a growing number of brands are partnering with independent recycling companies to give customers the option of sending in their old clothes to be recycled (again, most often downcycled) for store credit. “Brands are in the best position to offer incentives to customers to recycle and have the framework to establish the logistics and marketplace to make sure items are recycled and not landfilled,” Eisenberg explains of the value of these partnerships for recycling companies. For brands, they offer a way to express environmental values and attract more customers.
Some textile recycling centers also operate their own collection sites in most major cities across the U.S. Once they get their hands on this old stock, the recyclers decide how to best upcycle/recycle, downcycle, or trash it.