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Commentary & Critique – Design for Recycling

Recycling and upcycling falls into two main categories: that which utilizes pre consumer waste – the waste produced through the manufacture of goods, prior to the finished product reaching the consumer; and that which utilizes post consumer waste – waste that is produced through the disposal of manufactured goods when they are no longer needed by the consumer. In both cases, the process requires the re-contextualization of the by-product of production as a resource instead of surplus.


Approximately 2 million tons of clothing is purchased per annum in the UK, while the average consumption in Sweden is 15 kgs per person [1], of which 50% ends up in landfill.[2] The average lifespan of a piece of clothing is generally considered to be 3 years, with fast fashion considerably shorter. Some items are even thrown away after a single use, or never worn at all before being discarded.


Textiles are almost entirely recyclable, upcyclable or downcylable.[3] Cotton and wool fibre can be shredded, mixed with new fibre and re-spun, while monofilament polyester can be melted down and re-spun a limited amount of times, or chemically recycled. Damaged quality garments can be redesigned and remade. Low-grade textile waste can be used as factory wiping and polishing rags, or used for car and building insulation, and seat stuffing.


Textiles sent to landfill constitute a particular problem. Polyesters and other synthetic materials do not decompose in a scalable time frame, while wool emits methane through decomposition, a major contributor to global warming. Landfill takes up valuable land space, and causes air, water and soil pollution, discharging carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, and chemicals and pesticides into the earth and groundwater. The OECD estimates that by 2020 we could be generating 45% more waste than we did in 1995, identifying Recycling and Reuse as one of three main waste management principles. “If waste cannot be prevented, as many of the materials as possible should be recovered, preferably by recycling.” The OECD has a long-term goal to “turn Europe into a recycling society, avoiding waste and using unavoidable waste as a resource wherever possible.” Waste prevention is by default “becoming more important, with one of the key tools to encourage waste prevention identified as eco-design.”[4]

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There are many brands and independent designers working with recycled materials, both pre and post consumer waste, and producing desirable clothing. Nudie Jeans are a Swedish denim brand deeply invested in the rich tradition of denim culture. Jeans for Nudie are culturally iconic, reflective of a lifestyle and character, offering a way of thinking, a concept, and an undying passion, fuelled by the traditions of denim and the characteristics of the fabric itself. They believe that no other garment has more character, or shares the same soul and attitude. Each pair shaped by your individual lifestyle, becoming as intimate, and as reflective of you, as a second skin through wear. Nudie Jeans mourn the death of a pair of well-worn jeans, like the passing of a close friend.


Cotton fibres last much longer than the garments they are made into, one of the reasons Nudie started to recycle old worn-out jeans into new fibre and new denim jeans. Together with ISKO, an international leader in denim manufacture, the partners developed a processing technology where old denim jeans are cut into pieces, milled down to a cotton pulp, and turned into new yarn, used to manufacture new fabric, and new denim jeans. Since the fibres of pure recycled cotton are quite short, virgin organic cotton is added during the spinning process, to produce a hard wearing, durable denim textile. The fabric is a red cast, pure indigo denim, with the undyed weft its own blue grey hue from the recycled yarn, resulting in a distinctive, slubby denim with a soft feel. The slubs, are a natural consequence of the irregularities of the recycled yarn.


According to Sandya Lang, Nudie Jeans CSR Manager, one of the challenges to the process is the supply of a consistent quantity of old jeans. The response to which is Nudie’s in-store Repair: Reuse: Reduce initiative, which rewards customers who donate their worn out jeans with discounts on new jeans. This type of consumer take-back scheme was first initiated by Patagonia in 2005, and Marks and Spencer and H&M have since instigated similar schemes. The process of recycling old jeans into new fibre is still quite cumbersome however, with a lot of hand labour required to remove all the buttons, rivets and thread before the fibre can be reprocessed. This high labour requirement could be seen as an impediment to the ROI of the usual faster, mainstream fashion system. But in the sustainable triple bottom line, where people and planet have equal importance to profit, fair employment of a greater number of people is considered a benefit.


This recycling process is currently more expensive than Nudie’s pure organic cotton denim, due mainly to high transportation costs, as ISKO’s factory is in Turkey. Other manufacturers have overcome transportation issues through working locally, such as the Italian manufacturers working with Prato’s Cardato recycled wool fabrics, where a long tradition is already in existence for recycling wool fibre.


Amplifying their recycling efforts since spring of 2012, Nudie produce limited edition standard styles in their existing denim line, as well as producing limited edition exclusives for retailers such as Barneys NYC, from fabric recycled from old worn out Nudie denim Jeans.

This post is one of a series of three articles written for MISTRA Textile Toolbox, a web platform aimed at creating systemic change within the fashion industry through ‘interconnected design thinking and processes for sustainable textiles and fashion’.

[1] The Swedish Institute

[2] Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) http://www.defra.gov.uk/publications/2011/03/30/pb13206-clothing-action-plan/

[3] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/textiles.htm

[4] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/index.htm

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