The world defines its sophistication with three Cs - class, culture and clothes.
Among the three Cs, clothes have begun to define both class and culture. Clothes are also something which many have in excess and yet it seems like there is a serious dearth of garments. However, in the race to meet the demand for clothing, brands are relying on fast fashion. This fast fashion has not only resulted in overconsumption of clothes, but has also caused scarcity of raw material like cotton.
There is mounting pressure on textile industry to clean up its act, which has proven hazardous to the environment. With numerous sectors advocating recycling of used products, this option has also surfaced in the textile sector. Recycled cotton is a ray of hope that can alter the notion that textile sector does little to nothing about environment issues.
Inevitable cotton shortage
Demand for cotton has always been high, as it is one of the less expensive natural fabrics. According to the USDA report, global 2014-15 cotton production was around 119.2 million bales, which was one per cent below that 2013-14.
In 2014-15 cotton's global consumption growth rate dipped down to 1.7 per cent from earlier the estimate of 2.5 per cent, following less consumer demand. However, South and Southeast Asia displayed robust growth. The raw cotton prices stabilised in 2014-15, following which cotton spinners are now benefitting from favourable conditions. Moreover, cotton consumption growth in 2015-16 has been smooth unlike in 2014-15. Apart from China, consumption in India and Pakistan is anticipated to increase by three per cent, to 5.6 million tons and 2.6 million tons, respectively. These three countries alone account for 64 per cent of total world's cotton consumption.
Cotton consumption was high prior to recession in comparison to post-recession consumption. Global cotton consumption is likely to grow by two per cent and reach 25 million tons by the end of 2015-2016, according to ICAC. Consumption is further estimated to reach 7.7 million tons approximately, which is far below the ten million tons mark in the mid 2000s.
According to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, consumption of clothes in 2010 was 69.7 million tonnes, which is up from 47.4 million tonnes just a decade earlier. These statistics translated to about 10 kg of clothes per person in 2013. Even though cotton consumption has slightly reduced, but this is only a temporary phase. Cotton is used in combination with other rich natural as well as man-made fibres, which makes it indispensable. In addition to this, high cotton consumption will lead to severe cotton scarcity in near future. Recycled cotton fibre will be a must during the crisis.
An average person throws away 70 pounds of clothing annually, which adds up to 3.8 billion pounds of avoidable waste. "Until now old clothes have often been used as filler material for underneath wall-to-wall carpeting, but when the carpeting is removed or the building is knocked down, the material goes to the landfill anyway," says Lewis Perkins, senior vice president of the San Francisco-based Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which develops sustainable new uses for discarded products.
According to estimates released by H&M, approximately 95 per cent of textiles discarded every year could be easily recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency has mentioned that approximately 12.4 million tonnes of non-durable textiles were produced in 2013 in the United States of America alone. This figure amounts to 4.9 per cent of total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). Nevertheless, the recovery rate in 2013 for all non-durable textiles was only 14.8 per cent.
Cotton recycling can reduce wastage of water, power consumption, use of chemicals, etc. However, some experts believe that recycling is not the best way to deal with cotton textile waste. Recycling of textiles employs perilous materials, and once the fibre is recycled, it may become worthless for second time recycling. For a full circle approach composting is a better option.
There are differences in opinion with regard to cotton recycling, but the advocates of recycling are not worried about the watchful approach of non-believers.
A helping hand
Recently, a few companies from Sweden have collaborated to make world's first garment from recycled cotton. "The scalability of this process is enormous. The technology allows us to recycle all materials that contain cellulose," says Henrik Norlin, business development manager at Re: newcell, the company that made the pioneering material. The company is currently working to build a fabric-recycling factory, which aims to process approximately 2000 tonnes of fabric annually. The company also plans to expand business in other European countries including Britain and Germany.
Among the fast fashion retailers, H&M is using recycled cotton to produce their new range of denims. The company is planning to launch 16 fresh denim styles made from recycled cotton. H&M will launch these special denims online and in stores for men, women and children. Another company MyDyer has introduced IIKO, which is a collection of t-shirts made with Recover, a recycled cotton yarn from Spanish textile maker Hilaturas Ferre.
Recover utilises raw material recovered from cotton fabric scraps collected from apparel factories. These fabric scraps are otherwise discarded or destroyed. "In the heavier- gauge yarns, Recover also contains a percentage of recycled cotton made from used clothing that has been garneted back to fibre," said Michael F Spann Jr, who handles sales in United States of America for Recover.
"New R&D to maximise the application of post-consumer textile waste is already in progress in collaboration with I:CO and H&M, which will bring about a whole new family of Recover yarn products in 2016," said Isaac Nichelson, founder of the sustainable fashion consultancy Sustainable Source Studios and chief sustainability and marketing officer for Ferre's Recover. US Blanks, American Apparel and Reformation, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Everlane, Zara, H&M, Primark, Puma and VF Corp use Recover yarns in their products.
Market for next generation
Recycled cotton is required from the point of view of environment as well. In order to produce an average t-shirt it takes approximately 700 gallons of water considering all the factors from growing the cotton to finishing the final product. Using recycled cotton fibre can reduce this water quantity to 10 gallons.
Isaac Nichelson, founder of the sustainable fashion consultancy Sustainable Source Studios, who recently spoke at the International Fibre Recycling Symposium in San Francisco, said, "The goal is to see 10 per cent of all apparel globally employing recycled fibers by 2020. With recycled cotton, the sky's the limit because there's so much raw material to divert from landfill and incineration."
Consumption of cotton has increased, as people tend to own more clothes than required. A few years back, Chinese men owned only one work shirt, but today this figure has gone up from one shirt to seven shirts. Scenario in another developing country India is also the same. With growing consumption, textile industry is now looking for alternatives. "With 25 per cent of all farmland devoted to cotton and millions of people starving in the world, we are already beyond 'Peak Cotton,' and the current solutions the industry is looking toward are not sustainable," Nichelson said.
There is an urgent need to explore sustainable alternatives and recycling cotton is one of the best alternatives. Though restraining consumption of clothes is also an available option, but considering the fact that cotton accounts for around a third of the world's textile consumption, there is a huge potential to use recycled fibres instead of fresh ones.