Circular economy of textiles: how to make it happen

Speaking of Economy, we usually refer to a one-way path: first the resources/raw materials, then processing, marketing, purchasing and then the end of life of the product, which becomes waste and must be disposed of. In a circular textile economy, this linear process is disrupted.

The goal of a circular way is to make waste valuable again: today we can turn it into a second raw material!

Take for example potato peels and rotten vegetables.

They are waste for us, but thanks to a specific recycling process they can be composted and re-introduced into vegetable breeding, as fertilizer. Potato peels will give birth to a new economic cycle.

It may be a little more complicated to understand how a circular economy of textiles is achieved, so let’s try to explain it plainly.

The waste product

To understand how a circular economy of textiles is achieved, we need to note that every fabric has a recyclability rate. Wool and cotton can be almost completely recycled, so they are good candidates for whoever wants to achieve a virtuous circle of fabric recycling.

The concept of waste recovery is innovative, we may think.

But actually… our ancestors already understood it and put it into practice!

Here at Comistra, in the Textile District of Prato, next to Florence (Italy) we have been involved in wool recovery since 1920! Over the years the technology has evolved and the process has been optimized, but the recovery process has always been our DNA.

So let’s talk about what we know: wool.

Circular economy of wool fabrics in Italy

There is a whole supply chain in Italy that recovers old clothes and puts them back on the market (if you are interested in this topic, we tell the story in our article “What happens to old clothes when we throw them away”).

Wool recovery is very understandable: the wool fiber in the old dress is left intact.

If the dress is pure wool, even if there are holes, loose parts, or colors that are no longer fashionable, the correct treatment can solve the problem: the old fabric is dissolved with a specific process that begins with the carbonization process.

The old rags will become new wool, full of colors. This is a real second raw material, ready to be woven again.

However, the discussion of the circular economy does not end here: to achieve a circular economy of textiles, we need to respect some product features.

Circular economy of wool: the importance of quality

Let’s zoom in on the wool fiber: we will immediately see the weave, the color, maybe the presence of threads of another color in the yarn.

Not all wools share the same quality, or the same type.

We can see it every day: some sweaters are fluffy and do not get ruined, others seem old from the very first wash, and they will soon become too old to be wore.

This depends on the processes of wool finishing (all those finishing touches that are done after the wool has been woven). But it also depends on the length of the wool fiber.

Quality and impact on the product cycle

Here, in Comistra, we know wool well in all its shades. So, let’s take our process as an example.

We know that a well-done recovery, for example with a lavastraccia that keeps the fiber long, makes it possible to extend the end of the product’s life and its quality.

But this also makes recycling possible!

In fact, if your old garment is a low quality one, unfortunately it can’t be recycled.

It has reached the end of its journey.

Goodbye circular economy!

Eco-design and circular economy of fabrics

In addition to the quality of the yarn, you can use some best practices to improve the fabric/garment quality: it’s eco-design.

So, let’s recap.

For a circular textile economy, these key elements cannot be missing:

  • Companies in possession of the appropriate recycling technology
  • Choice of recoverable fabrics, wool and cotton in primis
  • Attention to fabric quality
  • Eco-design

Remember that the last 3 points apply to the entire fashion industry…

Not just to us, who are in the recycling business!

“It is necessary to design a garment thinking that when it has finished performing the function for which it was made it should return to a second life, it should be considered a resource and not a waste”.

(Fabrizio Tesi, CEO of Comistra)