Rags To Riches: Key Players Are Missing Out On Circular Fashion

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In the glamorous Schmatta (rag) biz this week, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association won a fight to keep a measly 40,000 low-paying jobs in America by continuing to dump our unwanted clothes onto African countries. The domestic apparel industries in these countries suffer terribly when used American clothing is so much cheaper than new locally-made clothing. So now we’re punishing Rwanda for not taking our trash. Trash we could turn into designer-level fashion fabric, if current textile recycling facilities weren’t so painfully outmoded. They don’t seem to realize circular fashion is what all the cool kids are wearing these days.

Photo by the author of “Alterations” a performance by Suzanne Lacy, Susanne Cockrell, and Britta Kathmeyer at SF MOMA.

Meanwhile in Europe… I just returned from the Circular Fashion Games in Amsterdam. This event was sponsored by the C&A Foundation, a foundation built by the forward-thinking family who owns C&A stores. In this event, I had the honor of working with Enschede Textielstad, a company that uses recycled yarns to make new textiles. Not stuffing for car seats. Not shop rags. But designer fabrics that would look right at home in any designer boutique.

Enschede Textielstad fabric made with recycled fibers. Photo courtesy: Enschede Textielstad

How are these yarns made? Fabric scraps and used garments are shredded and spun into new fibers. The fibers are blended with virgin fibers when necessary for durability. The cool thing about this is that the colors also come from the previous fabric. The global apparel industry wastes about 80 billion meters per year just in cutting room scraps, according to this study. Most designers aren’t considering Zero-Waste Fashion, so as long as there are cut & sewn clothes, there will be cutting room scraps. Instead of throwing those scraps away to spend eternity in a landfill, some savvy spinners are taking them and making them into yarns for textile producers such as Enschede Textielstad.

Here’s a walk through the mill at Enschede. And here’s the author with Enschede Textielstad founder Annemieke Koster. My jacket was upcycled by Burning Torch, and Ms. Koster’s shirt is made of recycled textiles from her mill.

Image courtesy: Susanna Schick

Why isn’t this being done in the US? Well, we used to have a thriving textile industry, particularly in the south, where cotton grows so well. A lot of those looms sit dormant while vintage Japanese looms weave selvedge denim for upwards of $14 per meter. For perspective, denim woven in Thailand runs about $3 per meter. Similar fabric made in the EU using recycled content can cost as much as $20 per meter. You would think American textile recycling companies would jump on this trend, as fashion fabrics clearly have much higher profit margins than shop rags.

While in Amsterdam, I felt like I was inside a bubble — a bubble filled with eco-fashionistas determined to steer the industry toward a less resource-intensive, less wasteful future. Returning to Los Angeles, I see it will take a lot more than a few well-meaning Europeans to change this toxic industry. It takes consumers choosing to pay more for better clothing, like choosing H&M’s Conscious collection over its other offerings. It takes designers buying circular fabrics, like the ones made by Enschede and others. It takes factories sending cutting room scraps to be recycled by organizations such as Reverse Resources. And finally, it takes recyclers realizing they can make treasure from trash instead of just dumping it somewhere else.

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