Waste Not
While circularity is a global initiative, groundwork is being laid domestically. In March 2024, Campbell Hall, NY-based Accelerating Circularity announced its next phase of action, Building Circular Systems, in an effort to expand circular textile-to-textile systems to reduce both greenhouse gas impact and the volume of textiles being sent to landfills. This phase will include more collaborations with additional partners and a broadened geographic scope.

Brands, retailers and industry players are realizing “that the system needs to change to go from a linear to a circular one and it will take all of us,” said VP of Programs for Accelerating Circularity, Shelly Gottschamer, emphasizing the need to build circular supply chains to turn textiles into mainstream raw materials.

Earlier this year, Eastman announced a partnership with Patagonia to address textile waste. The outdoor firm
teamed up with the Kingsport, TN-based firm to recycle 8,000 pounds of pre-and post-consumer apparel waste,
which Eastman processed through its patented molecular recycling technology, called carbon renewal technology. This process involves breaking down Patagonia’s garments into molecular building blocks that Eastman can use to make new fibers. Evernu, a Seattle firm, just launched a 360 Hoodie designed by Christopher Bevans that is 100% recyclable and constructed using 3D seamless technology. It is created with Nycycl, which is derived from cotton textile waste.

For a larger picture of what is happening domestically, we have asked textile executives three important questions.

Apparel featuring Eastman’s Naia Renew

Waste Not / QUESTION 1

What is your firm’s approach to textile recycling in America?

“Circularity is possible only by addressing two parts of the equation, 1) careful selection of the raw materials 2) increasing the durability of the textiles. Regarding material selection, we have products now launching that enable circularity with more than 50% carbon footprint reductions. On the second part of the equation, we are working on improving the durability of our products beyond the industry expectations and
will have new products to the market
this summer.”

– Ramesh Kesh, SVP Milliken & Company; business manager of Polartec

“We operate one of the world’s largest material-to-material molecular recycling facilities for our polyester renewal
technology in Kingsport and we plan to build a facility in France, plus a second U.S. site, for a total investment of
approximately $2.25 billion. We have also made a commitment to increase Naia Renew fiber, made via molecular
recycling, to be 50% of our portfolio by 2025 and more than 90% by 2030. We’re ensuring that more than 25% of
recycled content feedstock to make Naia Renew fibers is derived from waste textiles by 2025. In January 2024, we
launched three bridal styles with Reformation, made with Naia Renew ES fibers, produced from 60% certified
recycled content achieved by allocation of recycled waste material using a GRS-certified mass balance process.”

-Claudia de Witte, sustainability leader for Eastman’s textiles division

Eastman apparel waste

“Virgin cotton fibers can be paired with modest amounts of recycled cotton fiber to create apparel. Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green denim recycling program has collected over 5.2 million pieces of denim since 2006. The denim is transformed into insulating material for various applications like building insulation, thermal packaging insulation and pet bed inserts. Participating retailers include Anthropologie, MUJI and Madewell.”

– Mary Ankeny, VP of product development and implementation operations, Cotton Incorporated

“Unifi’s proprietary Textile Takeback program is designed to reduce waste generated from fabric production or at the end of an article’s lifecycle. The initiative collects and recycles polyester-based fabric waste, including both pre- and post-consumer fabrics, and transforms it into REPREVE. Unifi inputs its own textile waste into this process in addition to sourcing yarn and fabric scraps from partners. In the summer of 2023, we launched a white staple fiber to expand Textile Takeback product offerings. The next phase is to expand the offering of filament yarns via the Textile Takeback process. In February 2024, Unifi committed to transforming the equivalent of 1.5 billion T-shirts worth of textile and yarn waste by FY2030.”

– Meredith Boyd, EVP and chief product officer, Unifi, Inc.

“Kingwhale is collaborating with brands in the U.S. market to establish a closed-loop circular system. Our approach
involves reclaiming used apparel and transforming it into new products using our cutting-edge chemical recycling
technology, REVIO. This process converts products made of polyester and polyester blends into high-quality
polyester fiber, comparable to virgin polyester. We’re addressing daily waste by utilizing chemicals derived from
used kitchen oil in our dyeing processes.”

–  James Huang, president of Kingwhale

Denim with REPREVE from Unifi

Waste Not / QUESTION 2

What are the biggest recycling challenges?

“A primary obstacle is designing garments for recyclability from the start. A 100% polyester garment can actually be recycled quite easily, so Unifi is committed to creating the means for various industry partners to participate in a more sustainable textile supply chain. Other challenges include multiple fiber types in fabrics. Garment appliques and certain textile finishing chemistries can also interfere with the process.”

– Meredith Boyd, EVP and chief product officer, Unifi, Inc.

“Less than 1% of textiles are recycled back to textiles. We need to get beyond talking bottles, regardless of where they are collected, or fishnets to make a meaningful contribution. Something that does not get talked about a lot is the effect of entropy in recycled products. When we move from a linear to circular economy, waste is reduced but it comes at the expense of entropy.”

– Ramesh Kesh, SVP Milliken & Company; business manager of Polartec

Apparel waste recycling at Eastman

“One of the most pressing challenges pertains to the complexity of sourcing feedstock that meets specifications
and recycling technology requirements, while still offering products that meet value chain expectations. There is
then a lack of centralized collection aggregation points at-scale and manual sorting processes further compound
the issue. A reliance on manual labor not only drives up expenses but also compromises the accuracy of sorting,
potentially leading to contamination of recyclable materials.”

- Claudia de Witte, sustainability leader for Eastman’s textiles division

“The challenges for the industry related to the mechanical recycling of cotton are the limitations — including recycled fiber length, resulting yarn and fabric quality, durability, dyeability and potential contamination.”

– Mary Ankeny, VP of product development and implementation operations, Cotton Incorporated

“The primary challenge we face is waste sorting, due to the complex blend of materials present in fabrics and
finished products. We aim to streamline these materials into mono-materials. This includes elastane stretch
fabrics, waterproof membranes, trims, and accessories. We’re actively pursuing solutions and foresee a future of
supplanting traditional fabric materials with novel mono-material alternatives, propelled by our ongoing research
and innovation.”

–  James Huang, president of Kingwhale

With the new Beyond Begins Today initiative, every new product launching in 2024 will either reduce Polartec’s impact on the planet, endure the test of time or contribute to the circularity process.

Waste Not / QUESTION 3

What is the future of recycling in the textile industry?

“At Eastman, we encourage consumption reduction, extending the lifetime of garments, and then when garments
reach end of life, recycling is the appropriate solution. And every part of the supply chain, from the fibers
manufacturers to the end consumers, and back from end consumers to the sorting points should play their part in
this circle and be responsible. We are committed to collaboration along the value chain to accelerate momentum for circular textiles. And with new legislation being written to guide company principles and practices, we eagerly
await clarity in this space, which will hopefully accelerate circularity efforts and provide a more conducive
environment for sustainable practices.”

- Claudia de Witte, sustainability leader for Eastman’s textiles division

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to incorporate recycled cotton in applications such as diapers, wipes, cosmetic and wound care products, insulation materials, product packaging, and more. Our research team is also looking at ways to turn discarded cotton textiles into glucose as an alternative to repurposing, recycling or disposing worn garments. Glucose is used to produce ethanol and can be used in the cosmetics industry to manufacture hygieneand esthetic products. 

– Mary Ankeny, VP of product development and implementation operations, Cotton Incorporated

“We need to be careful about the line of thinking that natural yarns will solve the problem because they naturally biodegrade — not all natural yarns have a good sustainable footprint. Similarly, biodegradation of synthetics always needs to be considered with the quantifier of time, temperature, humidity and oxygen. The biodegradation process that happens in real life cannot be mimicked with lab tests and that is why there is time limit imposed for each test.”

– Ramesh Kesh, SVP Milliken & Company; business manager of Polartec

“The biggest opportunity Unifi sees for the industry is capturing the value of a garment at the end of life. Systems have to be set up to collect, sort, and prepare garments for recycling, with the emphasis being on the initial design of the garment. Our Textile Takeback aims to transform the industry by providing a sustainable way to recycle landfill-bound textiles and create new products. Unifi believes circularity holds the key to fashion’s take-make-waste model by giving garments second, third, and even fourth life cycles.”

– Meredith Boyd, EVP and chief product officer, Unifi, Inc.

“The future of recycling in our industry is predicated on the adoption of technology to improve traceability and
sorting efficiency, ensuring greater transparency. By exploring the viability of mono-materials as replacements for
conventional materials, we’re optimistic about the plethora of possibilities. Moreover, we envisage cities and
communities evolving into recycling hubs, which will require a synergistic effort between brands and supply chain
partners to tackle recycling challenges collaboratively.”

–  James Huang, president of Kingwhale

Routing Through Resale

For brands, one important path to circularity in the supply chain is the secondhand market. According to thredUP’s 2023 Resale Report, the global secondhand market is set to nearly double by 2027, reaching $350 billion. This market is expected to grow three times faster on average than global apparel overall.

Smartwool recently teamed up with thredUP for their Second Cut resale program because “consumers, especially younger ones, are changing the way they shop,” said Alicia Chin, director of sustainability and social impact at Smartwool. Growth of the secondhand market is primarily fueled by online platforms. “When we launched on thredUP in September 2023, we saw a 99 percent sell-through rate over 90 days on the site,” she commented.

Smartwool chose thredUP, a managed resale model, to pilot resale and gain insight on consumer demand, while also attracting new customers with Smartwool Second Cut Resale. At smartwool.thredup.com, consumers can both purchase secondhand women and kids’ Smartwool apparel and accessories, and donate gently used women’s and kids’ items from any brand through a takeback program to obtain a Smartwool shopping credit.

Last April, Smartwool released its first circular hike sock, the Second Cut Hike Sock, made with repurposed yarn from consumers’ old socks via the brand’s Second Cut sock takeback program. Since the launch of the takeback program in 2021, Smartwool has collected 1.07 million consumer socks.

General Manager of thredUP’s Resale-as-a-Service, Ann Starodaj, explained how the firm works with brands. For many, “all you do is give us the creative assets. We have the technology to do the landing page. We build the website.” Participating brands include Madewell, Frame, Athleta and Fabletics.

Consumers trade in clothing from their closets via a Clean Out Kit that thredUP sends from one of their distribution centers. thredUP gets the package that is sent in; does the quality inspection, itemization, price analysis, listing, storage, fulfillment and customer care. Anything that comes back through takeback that is your brand, gets listed on your shop site.

While some brands have the infrastructure to perform reverse logistics and take on resale and takebacks independently, most do not. “We understand the customer engagement,” said Starodaj, adding, “and we make it as easy as possible so brands don’t have an excuse.”