When it comes to making environmentally conscious choices in our everyday lives, one of the
first things that often comes to mind is recycling. From paper and plastic to glass and metal, we
are encouraged to recycle as much as possible to reduce waste and protect the planet. But
what about fabric? Is recycled fabric eco-friendly? How does it compare to conventional textiles?

In recent years, there has been a remarkable shift in the fashion industry’s approach to sustainability. Over 50 leading textile, apparel, and retail companies, which included major players such as Adidas, H&M, Gap, and Ikea, were challenged by the non-profit organization Textile Exchange to increase their utilization of recycled polyester by 25 percent by 2020. Surpassing all expectations, these companies not only achieved this goal two years ahead of schedule but also exceeded it by elevating their usage of recycled polyester by an impressive 36 percent. However, as a growing number of brands switch to recycled materials, it’s important to look at sustainability claims with a critical eye. In this article, we will explore the topic of recycled fabric and whether or not it can truly be considered an environmentally friendly option.

What Does “Eco-Friendly” Actually Mean?
Before delving into the specifics of recycled fabric, it’s important to understand what the term
“eco-friendly” actually means. While there is no single definition for this phrase, it generally refers to products or practices that are not harmful to the environment. However, this can be a subjective term and what one person considers eco-friendly may not align with another’s views. In order to accurately assess whether recycled fabric is truly eco-friendly, we need to examine certain metrics.

Eco-friendliness can be measured in a variety of ways. This includes factors such as energy consumption, water usage, and carbon emissions during raw material creation and textile  production. Another important metric is the product’s lifespan – how long it will last before needing to be replaced or discarded. Additionally, we must also consider the materials used and their impact on the environment.

Why Is Conventional Fabric Unsustainable?
Conventional fabric, often made from natural resources such as cotton or wool, has some major
environmental impacts. Firstly, the production of conventional fabric requires large amounts of
water and energy, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Additionally, the use
of pesticides and chemicals in cotton farming and other textile production can have harmful
effects on both the environment and workers.

Moreover, conventional natural fabrics have a relatively short lifespan – compared to other materials such as plastic or metal – and therefore end up in landfills where they can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, while often more durable, are not kind to the environment for several reasons. These materials are petroleum-based, which means their manufacturing process is energy-intensive and releases harmful greenhouse gases.

Furthermore, washing synthetic fabrics often leads to the release of microplastics into water systems, which can be damaging to aquatic ecosystems. Additionally, polyester and nylon are non-biodegradable; they persist in the environment for hundreds of years after disposal, contributing to landfill waste and potential environmental damage. This environmental footprint combined with the issues surrounding their disposal creates a compelling argument against the environmental friendliness of synthetic fabrics.

Types of Recycled Fabric
Recycling fabric involves taking old or unused materials and repurposing them into new products. This process helps reduce waste and decreases the need for new resources to be extracted from the environment. There are various types of recycled fabric, including post-consumer recycled fabric (made from old garments or household textiles), pre-consumer recycled fabric (made from industrial waste such as scraps and cuttings), and upcycled fabric (where fabrics are transformed into new products, often with added value).

Post-consumer recycled fabric stands out as a key player in the sustainable textile landscape. It involves the meticulous process of converting old garments, household textiles, or even other materials like plastic bottles into new, usable materials. By breathing new life into these discarded items, post-consumer recycled fabric extends the lifespan of textiles and other products and minimizes the environmental footprint associated with producing entirely new fabrics.

On the other hand, pre-consumer recycled fabric is derived from industrial waste, which predominantly includes manufacturing byproducts like scraps and cuttings. This type of recycling focuses on utilizing excess materials generated during the production of textiles, thereby reducing the volume of waste materials that would otherwise be discarded. By repurposing these industrial leftovers, pre-consumer recycled fabric promotes resource efficiency and helps industries minimize their environmental impact.

Upcycled fabric takes a more creative approach to recycling textiles. It involves the transformation of existing fabrics into new, innovative products, often with added aesthetic or functional value. This process encourages designers and manufacturers to think outside the box and explore new ways to breathe fresh life into old textiles. In doing so, upcycled fabric not only diverts materials from landfills but also fosters a culture of creativity and resourceful design, where the possibilities for repurposing seem limitless.

So, Is Recycled Fabric Eco-Friendly?
While the concept of recycling may seem inherently eco-friendly, the sustainability of recycled
fabric depends on several factors. For example, the production of recycled fabric requires less
water and energy than conventional fabric but still has a significant environmental impact. The
process of recycling also involves using chemicals and energy to break down old fabrics and
turn them into new ones.

Additionally, not all recycled fabrics are created equal. Some materials, such as polyester, can only be recycled a limited number of times before their quality degrades. Recycled synthetic fabrics, such as those made from PET (plastic) bottles, still release microplastics just like conventional plastic-based synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. Additionally, for many textiles to achieve true sustainability, they must be recycled. While PET bottles can be recycled around ten times, many clothes made from PET-based fabrics simply won’t get recycled, and thus won’t achieve their full eco-friendly potential – leaving plastics in the landfill as per usual.

On the other hand, natural fibers like cotton and wool can be recycled multiple times without losing quality. Therefore, it is essential to consider the entire lifecycle of recycled fabric when determining its eco-friendliness. While it may have a lower environmental impact in terms of waste and resources used, there are still emissions and chemicals involved in the production process.

When it comes to carbon emissions, recycled fabric still has a smaller carbon footprint compared to virgin fabric. A 2017 study from the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment shows that recycled polyester could reduce emissions by as much as 32% compared to conventional polyester. That’s an incredibly significant amount, making recycled polyester an eco-friendly choice compared to conventional synthetic fabrics.

Finally, it’s important for brands to ensure that their recycled polyester and other recycled textiles are actually made from recycled materials. As untrustworthy suppliers seek to cut costs, they may provide materials that claim to be a certain percent recycled, but actually aren’t. This is known as “greenwashing” and, whether on purpose or accidental, can mislead consumers into thinking they are making an eco-friendly choice when in reality, the fabric may still have a negative impact on the environment. Therefore, companies must be transparent about their sourcing and manufacturing processes and undergo recycled polyester testing or provide certifications or third-party audits to prove their eco-friendliness claims.

In conclusion, recycled fabric presents a promising alternative to conventional fabric in terms of sustainability. While its production process can still have environmental impacts, it requires fewer resources and generates less waste. However, the eco-friendliness of recycled fabric is not a given, but varies depending on the type of fabric and how it is recycled. Hence, consumers must remain discerning, considering the full lifecycle of their clothing choices and prioritizing materials that are truly sustainable and low-impact. By doing so, we can all contribute to a more sustainable textile industry and a healthier planet.