Recycling your clothes – is it as good as it’s made out to be?

Kate Hall

‘Recycling’ is one of my favourite words. It stirs inside of me feelings of potential, innovativeness, and inspiration. The idea of turning old or waste products into new products seems like wizardry. I get excited at the idea that my drink bottle could someday be used to make fabric.

After watching the documentary, The True Cost, which touched on the drawbacks of garment recycling, I decided to look deeper into the process of recycling fashion. The information I found made me realise that recycling was not the magical process I once thought it was. We all know there are many benefits to recycling fashion, but there are also major downsides. The process which we may think reduces landfill and waste, is not all rainbows and butterflies.

Although you may have ample spare time to research this topic extensively (said no one ever!), I have done the work for you and tried my best to answer a few questions and suggest a few ideas about fashion recycling that you may have queried yourself, or never thought of before… you’re welcome.

"Be critical with information, challenge the norm, and never be afraid to ask questions."

1. Is recycled polyester a sustainable fabric source?

One of the most sustainably viewed fashion fibres is polyester. Polyester is produced from pre-used plastic bottles which are washed, crushed, and melted to make a fibre suitable for clothing production. Polyester is perceived as a green textile option because it uses resources that already exist, and would otherwise be rendered useless. This a great because plastic bottles cannot be turned into new bottles- recycling is not an open-ended loop. After used plastic is broken down, it can only be made into a lower quality product, such as fabric. Don’t worry, this was news to me too!

The downside of polyester, is that garments made from this material almost always end up non-recyclable. To create fabric, polyester is mixed with chemical backings or bonded with other synthetic material which cannot be extracted. To add to these revelations, polyester itself is made of a non-renewable and synthetic source: oil.

Polyester may seem an ethical option, but the eye-opening facts of its production and limited recycling qualities, make it apparent that we need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to sustainable fabric.

2. At what point does clothing donation stop being special?

If you’re already on the ethical consumer buzz, then you understand that a good thrift shop find is worth celebrating. Society tells us to donate everything to charity, making us feel a tiny bit better about throwing out our clothes- at least they are going to someone in need, right? News flash: approximately 90% of donated clothing doesn’t make it to someone else’s wardrobe, and ends up in landfill.

Next time you go to donate clothes to your local thrift store, stop and think about each item: which friend would enjoy it the most? Can it be made into a rag? Could I tinker away on the sewing machine and turn it into a funky cushion?

3. Can H&M really recycle the clothes that they ask us to donate?

H&M talks about sustainable fashion far more than any other fast fashion chain. Their efforts to join in with the ethical fashion movement are often seen as a scheme to right their wrongs and cover up their mass clothing production. But what about their promise to recycle clothes that are given back to them?

After learning about the production process of polyester, I found that other fabrics are no different. If you look at the tag on your shirt, you may find over three different kinds of fabrics. These have been merged together in intricate processes which are quite impossible to undo. H&M’s effort to recycle comes as a nice gesture, but reducing the number of clothes we buy and looking after our current wardrobe, is the best we can do to reduce landfill and help the environment.

I’ve attempted to begin the fashion recycling conversation, but I’m no expert. Be critical with information, challenge the norm, and never be afraid to ask questions. In fact, feel free to ask many more below! Join in the conversation.

Image source: Eileen Fisher

Kate Hall

I live and breathe sustainable living and ethical fashion. This alternative way of consuming and existing dominates my every waking moment- and sometimes more. Ethical fashion and living are no longer my hobbies, it has become my mission... to change the future of fast fashion and the way we consume. My husband and I strive to live a zero-waste lifestyle, live at thrift stores, and always look to 'up-cycle' rather than throw out. Eco-living is not a choice for me, it's in my blood, and I am trying with all my power for it to be the new 'norm'.