Fashion brands have not fully embraced sustainable practices involving chemical recycling, particularly in adopting innovative methods to transform old textiles into new ones for a more eco-friendly approach. High-tech materials like circulose-containing viscose, utilized in these fabrics, are not readily available and come with a significantly higher cost compared to traditional virgin materials derived from oil, cotton, and wood.
Despite increased awareness of plastic waste crisis in the post-COVID era, there is lack of enthusiasm among fashion brands to prioritize the use of these environmentally friendly materials. This trend raises concerns, with environmentalists predicting by 2050, global plastic waste could accumulate to a staggering 400 million metric tonnes. A recent National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) report ‘Plastics: The Potential and Possibilities’ underscores India alone contributes an average of 3.4 million metric tonnes of plastic waste annually.
The heightened focus on creating a greener environment in a post pandemic world emphasizes the urgency of addressing the plastic waste issue. However, the slow adoption of sustainable practices in fashion industry remains a significant obstacle to making meaningful progress in combating this environmental crisis.
Apparel segment tackles plastic waste
As plastic waste is predominantly non-biodegradable, it undergoes a slow breakdown into smaller fragments over decades, posing a persistent threat to various animal, plant species. The fashion industry is gradually addressing this issue by moving beyond the production of biodegradable bags and is actively engaged in transforming fashion through the utilization of recycled plastic, although there is still room for improvement.
One promising avenue is recycled polyester, which utilizes fibers derived from plastic bottles. This approach offers a significant opportunity to repurpose plastic waste more efficiently and diminish the carbon footprint of the fashion sector. Circulose, a pulp typically made from recycled cotton, is gaining popularity in the creation of clothing materials, particularly in combination with circulose-containing viscose, producing fashionable garments that offer an excellent fit.
Renewcell AB, a Sweden-based company specializing in circulose production, introduced its first commercial recycling plant in 2022 with a substantial capacity of manufacturing 60,000 metric tons of pulp. Despite this, the company has faced challenges, experiencing low order levels from major retailers such as Zara, H&M, and Levi Strauss. Meanwhile Renewcell reports recent stock value decline of over 80 per cent and an operating loss of $17 million for the first nine months of 2024.
Recycled polyester, circulose gain popularity
Zara and H&M have incorporated circulose-containing viscose into many of their garments, offering a luxurious, silky feel that drapes elegantly, especially suited for fitted tops and dresses. Renewcell's pulp, a key component in circulose, proves versatile, as it can be spun into yarn, woven, or knitted into fabrics. Remarkably, a ton of cellulose can yield three tons of viscose fibers, translating to approximately 20,000 T-shirts.
H&M, as the primary shareholder in Renewcell, is actively committed to increasing the use of recycled materials, aiming for 30 per cent by 2025. Inditex, a major player in the fashion industry with 621,244 tons of clothing sold last year, is similarly focused on incorporating 25 per cent new sustainable fibers by 2030.
However, not all fashion retailers are aligning with sustainability goals. Boohoo, a UK-based online fashion retailer, faced criticism for not upholding its promise of sustainable clothing. Allegations of low pay and poor working conditions in their factories have tarnished the company's efforts to supply items at lower costs.
The adoption of recycled polyester is touted as a greener alternative, consuming significantly less energy than virgin polyester production and resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable fabric production not only aids in conserving water resources but also mitigates the adverse effects associated with traditional textile production, which often involves the use of harmful chemicals. As the apparel industry looks ahead, embracing sustainable practices emerges as a crucial pathway to a more environmentally conscious future.