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We recycle, we upcycle, we downcycle, is it working?

By Jackie Mallon


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From plastic we get polyester, from mushroom roots we get leather, and from dialogue we get inspiration to reinvent the textile industry. A panel discussion during Texworld trade fair provides a status report on the fields of recycling and upcycling, both of which seem to be having their moment in the sun, are at the center of circularity conversations and all over international runways. Four experts break it down for us and reveal next steps.

Call to consumers

Yimin Deng, an ambassador for Remake, a sustainable and ethical non-profit, is a Parsons grad who approaches the issue of sustainability with a millennial’s can-do spirit but believes in the power of the purchasing dollar. “At Remake, it’s important to educate consumers and designers of the implications of their buying decisions,” he explains. “You cannot circular your way out of this mess. Overconsumption is the root of the crisis. To be more sustainable we first need to redistribute, and reconstruct before we spin into something new. Instead of shredding everything up, we need to have more of the mindset of Eileen Fisher who uses whole textiles to make something new. But recycled materials is not the magical cure for our critical condition.”

Malvina Hoxha, manager of business development at Lenzing fibers which for 25 years has been creating Tencel Lyocell made from 80 percent wood scraps, asks the audience, “What are we, the consumer, demanding? When we propose a new fiber to a brand or retailer, innovation costs money. You need resources to do the right thing but no one is willing to pay for it. What do we need in order to be convinced?”

Jessica Kelly founder of THR3EFOLD, an organization which enables designers to connect with ethical factories to buy and sell deadstock fabric, believes that brands and consumers are trying to figure it out respectively, but there’s an imbalance. “I’m from North Carolina and my friends and family there are not thinking about sustainability in clothing. Pushing the conversation out of the niche of this room is necessary to shift the consumer mindset.”

Photo courtesty of Adidas

Examine our values

“It’s all about community,” says Kelly who acknowledges the preciousness of discards, employing the term “Deadstock marketplace” to describe the focus of her business. She believes that when manufacturing went offshore we lost all connection to the people who make our clothes which has contributed to our lack of appreciation of the labor that goes into clothing and what that is worth.

“I operate in the dark world of the sorting facility,” says Adam Baruchowitz, founder of Wearable Collections, a clothing recycling company. Although he doesn’t develop a single textile, he is up to his neck in them daily. “Used clothing is a commodity and treated like other materials––glass, plastic, paper,” he says. “I try to educate the sorting facility on what is going on in downcycling, when fabric can be used for insulation, carpet batting, acoustic padding and other low grade fiber products. Everyone stands to benefit from recycled materials but currently there’s no value placed on it. We need more commitment by the likes of Adidas or Nike to use however many tons of such-and-such material by 2025. If there was more value placed on the materials in my truck, there’s more incentive of me to collect more materials so I don’t have to put the onus on you. We need efficiencies built into everyone’s systems.

Deng recently made an evaluation of his own: “Every year the share of imported textiles is 4.7 percent of total imports. That roughly works out at 348 dollars per person. It is important to tell people to just stop buying. The global south is still developing, textile waste will inevitably increase, and it is destructive to condition the rest of the world to aspire to be an American consumer. That is a very wasteful concept. Currently our human activity has reached beyond predatory boundaries, we cannot afford the rest of the world to look up to us.” For him the value lies in education: “Consumers have the political power to demand change rather than just wait around for brands to develop their conscience.“

Invest in innovation

“One big issue is that materials come in in one big delivery and there’s no fast way to separate fibers, so I’m discussing the idea to slow down the sort,” says Baruchowitz, who identifies the biggest hold-up to critical innovation is investment.“I think that when it comes to innovation, it’s not really sexy. Compared to the size of the industry, a 50 million dollar investment is nothing.”

Deng taps technology as key to future circularity. “Embedding digital systems in garments so that even when it is sent to a consignment store, you can see the authenticity of the product.”

At Lenzing, global textile waste is primarily addressed through their trademarked Refibra technology. “We collect cotton scraps from factory cutting rooms, make it into a pulp, blend 20 percent of it with Lyocell for a new fiber,” says Hoxha, In November 2018, the company announced plans to increase the cotton content to 30 percent.

Photo: Marine Serre SS19, Catwalkpictures.com

Is fast fashion still the villain?

“At Remake we are committed to breaking up with fast fashion,” states Deng. The organization brings fashion students from different institutions to visit factories in China, Nepal, Cambodia, and Mexico to meet with garment workers. “It’s paramount to humanize the people behind fashion,” he says. A film documenting one such trip entitled “Made in Mexico” will be screened in select cities this spring.

Opinion is divided on the reputation of fast fashion. “These organizations are delivering on our demands,” says Hoxha. “H&M and Zara wouldn’t exist if we didn’t want that product. These brands are catering to us. If we want better, we have to demand better.”

Kelly even extends a vote of gratitude to H&M for pushing the conversation forward, and Baruchowitz agrees, “The bogey man is often made to be H&M and on the other side is Eileen Fisher, but whether it’s companies pushing the ticket just a little or those taking ownership like Patagonia, it’s the disruption of models we’re seeing that’s encouraging. No matter what size, everyone can participate.”

Kelly recalls an encouraging visit to a H&M factory in India: “It had leading labor standards, daycare for the employees’ kids, a machine that dyes denim with one glass of water. This is not a linear discussion. H&M is putting more dollars behind sustainability than many companies and willing to take the public heat when they screw up as well.”

Optimism for the future?

”Secondhand purchasing is going up while retail is not,” Baruchowitz says. “The trends are shifting. We’re experiencing an implosion. In the 50s and 60s we produced 80 percent of our clothing at home, now we hear the protests “It can’t be done. We can’t produce enough for the demand.” That’s all BS. We have to recenter. I don’t think the solutions are there yet, but I see the opportunity, and waste management isn’t going away. But sustainability is not relying on dumping our garbage elsewhere. When you extend clothing by one extra life, and it’s in Guatemala, or Chile, what happens then? One of the cool things I’m hearing is that money is being spent to create plants to turn that stuff into fiber board that can be deployed around the world. A lot of it comes down to Extended Producer Responsibility. Closing the door on plastic has caused massive disruption but it’s good. I’d like to see local solutions for all we collect, convenience of collection hubs, value placed on the clothes and shoes that otherwise would end up in landfills. But I’m optimistic.”

“We talk to both start-ups and multi-million dollar companies,” says Hoxha. “They invite us in, we educate them on our fibers, but a new organization or direct-to-consumer, or even a ten-year-old brand, is more in touch with their consumer, more in control of their message and willing to collaborate than a company in the billions of dollars bracket. There, they bring me in, I show them the product, they like it, and then we talk about price. That’s always the argument. Those companies have the financial resources to build systems from the ground up, could work with the Ellen MacArthur foundation. Can it be done? Yes. Is it affordable right now? No. But once these large companies tap into the available resources, they will see.

Deng likens the current crisis to living in the middle of a storm. “But what’s exciting after is the rainbow. We must seize the time to mobilize, create the changes we want. Fashion is a microcosm of world issues and you can be a catalyst for positive social change.”

“I’ve seen different cycles,” adds Baruchowitz. “In 2011 I had a meeting with Sourcemap about their traceability software company and I said I would love to know what happens to the million pounds of materials I collect. We concluded that fashion industry would never go for that. Fast forward and now Sourcemap is hosting the Higg index which helps brands and retailers monitor their sustainability performance. That’s a great step forward.”

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Main photo courtesy of from Wearable Collections

Wearable Collections