Why textile recycling is not the answer to reducing the climate impact of fashion

The fashion industry has a big climate impact. As a potential way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint, there are a lot of ongoing initiatives aiming to recycle textile fibers. However, if you study the fashion brands’ carbon accounting closely, you see that virgin textile fibers, which recycling aims to replace, only account for around 10% of the total carbon footprint. This means that virgin fibers have a minor climate impact. Instead, the main impact is fossil fuels used in the textile factories that produce our clothes. You can argue that it is important to address the total carbon footprint, including virgin fibers, and I would agree. However, since textile recycling also has a carbon footprint of its own, the gain from recycling fibers is even less than the 10%. Indeed, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency found that for example chemical recycling of cotton has a worse carbon footprint than incineration of used cotton fibers. I raised this issue in an article in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on the topic of textile recycling and the fashion industry’s climate impact earlier this year.

Needless to say, there may be other environmental gains by recycling textile fibers. By recycling fibers the land used to grow textiles can be used to grow for example food. The water use and biodiversity issue of pesticide use when growing cotton can also be an argument for recycling the fibers. But biodiversity and pesticides can also be an argument to switch to organic practices or, as will discuss here, regenerative agriculture.

An issue that is often overlooked in the fashion and climate debate is that growing fibers such as cotton can be done in a way to sequester carbon dioxide from the air in the soil and fibers. Many of you have probably heard the term regenerative agriculture. It’s a way to use agricultural practices to reverse climate change, or in less bombastic terms, sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. An early example of this, which made me aware of the issue, was the collaboration between American non-profit Fibershed and company The North Face in producing a climate beneficial wool hat. They argue that producing the wool hat had a net positive impact on the climate, i.e. it sequestered more climate gases from the atmosphere than it released. In this case, it was sheep that sequestered more carbon dioxide than they released and in the meantime produced wool for clothing. The North Face has since expanded their climate positive range but seems to be sticking to wool.

In Sweden, a group of fashion companies are looking to use Swedish wool for clothing. Although this wool might not have been farmed using regenerative agricultural practices, it is most likely still a gain for the climate as most Swedish wool is otherwise burned, releasing carbon dioxide. Moreover, many technical garments are nowadays made out of plastic fibers, from fossil fuels, and if existing wool can replace these fibers, it’s a gain for the environment.

However, it is not only wool that can sequester carbon dioxide. Fibershed and farmer Sally Fox shows that also textile fibers such as cotton, hemp and linen have this potential. Lately, luxury fashion has learned about regenerative agriculture and even started sourcing regenerative rubber. In my opinion, such regenerative agriculture appears more promising than recycling cotton, as recycling has a carbon footprint of its own and results in lower quality fibers. Of course, we can question the greenhouse gas calculations. There is indeed an ongoing debate as to when and how you can use the term climate positive but certifications are being developed. Fibershed is working with researchers to develop their calculations. Moreover, regenerative agricultural practices as a means to slow climate change has generated research interest more generally .

Regenerative or climate positive fibers are likely to be more expensive than current conventional fibers. Considering current overconsumption of textiles, buying less and of better quality, keeping the items for longer should be possible for many of us. It may not be everyones’ cup of tea, but at least the more wealthy part of the world could afford to buy less and, when we do buy clothing, go for climate positive fibers. In addition, we need to keep our clothing longer as the easiest way to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint is to buy less and reuse our items more.

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