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Textiles and sustainability 

The fundamentals on understanding the textile industry and sustainability

This guide is intended to demystify some of the processes around the textile industry, so that you can make well-informed decisions about which textiles to use, how to care for your surplus materials, ways to make the most of what you have on hand, and how to get your finished products ready for selling.

Contents

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See an unfamiliar word? Head to our Textile Waste – Glossary of Terms to learn some new vocabulary.


Starting with the basics: what are textiles?

Photo of textiles folded on a low table with baskets beneath it and rolls of carpet and more patterned textiles closer to the foreground on the right.

Image: Textiles at the Yodomo Creative Reuse Hub, photography by Paul Fuller

In order to appreciate the common streams for textile waste, it is helpful to recognise firstly what textiles are. 

According to Brittanica, the definition of “textile” is as folllows: 

“Any filament, fibre, or yarn that can be made into fabric or cloth, and the resulting material itself. The term is derived from the Latin textilis and the French texere, meaning “to weave,” and it originally referred only to woven fabrics. It has, however, come to include fabrics produced by other methods. Thus, threads, cords, ropes, braids, lace, embroidery, nets, and fabrics made by weaving, knitting, bonding, felting, or tufting are textiles. Some definitions of the term textile would also include those products obtained by the papermaking principle that have many of the properties associated with conventional fabrics.”

As you start to imagine all of the materials in your everyday life, you can appreciate how vast the world of textiles is, and consequently, how many types of textiles there are.

So, if we head back upstream to the starting point of clothing production, and pinpoint every textile element within a garment, we can swiftly make a list of all the materials - and energy and resources involved - at each step. This also means we can trace back and see the textile waste that accumulates through this production cycle. With that in mind, we now come to the ever-important question of, “what is textile waste?”


What is textile waste?

Textile waste can come in many forms, and from different sources. Their origin can determine how useful the textile waste may be to new streams. Or if indeed, it should be classified as “waste”.

In basic terms, textile waste is anything that has not found a purpose in its intended supply chain, and therefore does not hold value to the manufacturer, producer or maker. This is where we subsequently need to reconsider the term “waste”, as one business’ offcuts could be another business’ treasure.

With all the materials that fall under the category of textiles, the most common stream available, and one that must spring to mind, is clothing. The Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion report (2017) from WRAP - the global climate action NGO - found that, “an estimated £140 million worth of clothing is sent to UK landfill each year”.

A black and white image of a landfill dump of unidentifiable waste and garbage, with fumes rising above and seagulls looming overhead.

Photo by Bakhrom Tursunov on Unsplash

Obviously, clothes that are newly produced aren’t intended for landfill or incineration. So how do they end up there? Where, we might wonder, does textile waste come from?

**For the purpose of this guide - and in relation to the Hackney Creative Reuse program - we will refer to all unwanted textiles as “waste”, however, we recognise that many users of such textiles are professional makers and brands. For this reason we have also included a glossary of terms; this guide gives an overview of textile waste as a whole, however, it is up to you - especially if you are selling products - to choose the terms that most suit your product and audience. We will go further into detail on this later on in the guide.


Where does textile waste come from?

Discarded textiles in colourful piles on the floor of an abandoned factory.

Photo by Francois Le Nguyen on Unsplash  

“Textile consumption and production is highly globalised, involving millions of producers and billions of consumers across the world. In Europe, the sector employs 1.7 million people and Europeans consume on average 26 kg of textiles per person per year.” ~ The European Environment Agency report: Textiles in Europe's circular economy first published 2019.

The above statistic relates solely to consumer behaviour, with people discarding clothing and other household textiles when no longer wanted or needed. In WRAP’s Textiles Market Situation report (2019), the organisation identified that “20,000 tonnes of used textiles were collected for re-use and recycling (in 2018)”, and “336,000 tonnes of used textiles ended up in the household residual waste (in 2017)”. For WRAP’s reports, ‘textiles’ includes clothing, items such as shoes, bags and belts, as well as household-type textiles such as bed and table linen, and leisure textiles such as sleeping bags expands on the Britannica dictionary definition of “textiles”. Regardless of how the discarded textiles were collected, they are still classed as waste. With that in mind, the household is one textile waste stream.

Looking more broadly, the item of clothing - with all the components required to make it, barring any hard stuff like buttons - sees various points at which materials might be discarded. 


The lifecycle of a garment

These are the processes that need to occur for a garment to come to life.

Barley Massey of Fabrications, Learn to Sew course: spools of thread in various colours and sizes piled on top of each other

Fibre processing: 
Not every part of the plant is required to create a fibre, which means the excess parts are discarded. For example, the straw that protects linen fibre or seeded cotton fluff aren’t needed in fibre production, and thus are considered waste. Dirty bits of wool scouring are also unneeded and often discarded. Creating synthetic fibres is a different story, with there being more control over inputs. Because of this, the waste generally only comes from energy or untreated water. That said, raw materials may have multiple uses. For example, did you know that cotton seed is used for vegetable oil?

Yarn processing
In order to weave or knit a fabric, you firstly need to spin the yarn. As with fibre processing, there are cleaning and finishing stages required to produce a quality yarn. Ultimately there will always be discards of either fibre input or finished yarn graded as low quality in the yarn production stage.

Fabric processing: 
In fabric processing, the fabric will be graded throughout each stage, with damaged or lesser quality fabric being discarded. Due to over-ordering, changes in orders, producing surplus in case of damages, and general human/machine error, there is likely also fabric that is simply discarded because it is no longer required.
This is known as post-industrial waste or pre-consumer waste, as well as overstock or deadstock, which we will come back to. 

Cut-Make-Trim: 
This process occurs in the garment manufacturing facility. It refers to the cutting of fabric, making of the garment, applying trims and quality checking, and usually packing the finished item for distribution. Rather than intact yardage of fabric being discarded at this stage, it will be the randomly-shaped offcuts known as
cutting-room floor waste, or again pre-consumer waste and post-industrial waste. It is also likely that production samples and finished garments that do not pass Quality Control will be discarded at this point; sometimes they will be given to the buyer to be sold in sample sales, but often factories are subcontracted, meaning there is no direct line to the company and garments are subsequently discarded.

“On average, about 15% of fabric used in garment production is cut, discarded, and wasted which constitutes to the pre-consumer waste category.” ~ Harmful effects of textile waste, 2020.

Distribution and retail: 
O
nce the finished garments have made their way from the factory, there are still chances for the clothing to be damaged or simply unsold. Retailers sometimes burn or slash their unsold stock so that it cannot be resold by others, which you may have seen backlash about.

Consumers: 
As we have already covered, households will discard clothing items when no longer wanted. Consumers might put them in residual bins to be landfilled or incinerated depending on the local council, or in re-use banks to be resold by charities or exported.

Other textile items such as bed sheets, leather bags, trainers, sofas, curtains and others will go through similar processes to end up as waste.


Textile waste for reuse

Two wooden boxes with textiles, one of which has a sign that says "Free to take, just pop in and tell us what you'll make"

Scrap textile boxes at the Yodomo Reuse Hub, photography by Paul Fuller

In terms of textiles, “reuse” is usually via hand-me-downs, preloved free and e-commerce retailers and websites, charity shops and clothes swapping. Re-use can also refer to textiles coming from deadstock or surplus sources, because the textile is being given a new lease of life.

Repurposing is more often associated with altering a textile waste stream for a different purpose to the intended design, for instance making a shirt from a bedsheet, though is nevertheless still included in reuse statistics.

The WRAP Textiles Market Situation Report (2019) stated that “most of the UK used textiles that are collected for re-use and recycling are destined for the re-use market: 32% is re-used in the UK, sold mostly in charity shops, and around 60% is exported”. This figure highlights an invisible 8% of textiles, but is split by waste (5%) that goes straight to landfill or incineration due to its poor quality, and by recycling (3%).

Most of the used textiles exported are thought to be for the re-use market in the destination country, rather than for recycling. Of course, there are devastating economic, environmental and social issues with exporting unwanted goods for another country to deal with. For more on this topic, we recommend the Wardrobe Crisis podcast on Kantamanto market in Ghana.


Textile waste for recycling

Recycling refers to either the mechanical or chemical process textile waste will undergo in order to ready it for a new product.

industrial recycling bin against a white wall

Challenges with textile recycling

Textile waste can be described as being “downgraded” during the recycling process. This is because the item is changing state from its intended purpose and therefore loses inherent value.

A key challenge with current textile recycling is that most clothing and materials are of mixed fibre composition. With current processes, there is yet to be an efficient way to separate the fibres from one another, and specifically natural fibres from synthetic fibres that are spun differently. Current recycling practices involve mostly mechanical shredding for speed and cost, but chemical processing can be used on pure synthetic materials.

Even if, for instance, the recycling facility involved mechanically shredding clothing into scraps to be re-spun as a cottonised yarn (a fibre resembling cotton), this new raw material has reduced in quality and will ordinarily require the input of a virgin raw material during spinning to increase the quality and therefore the value.

There are also the additional steps involved in readying a textile item for recycling, such as removing components e.g. zips. Then the question comes up of what you can do with this additional newly created waste stream.

Additionally, as demand for faster and cheaper textile items has increased, the quality in each step of the textile processing has reduced. This then further impacts the viability of downstream recycling.

Applications for recycled textile fibres

There are two main recycling applications for UK used textiles: wiping cloths (used to wipe spills and surface contaminants in manufacturing industries – commonly referred to as ‘wipers’), and non-woven products. The latter involves mechanical shredding as mentioned above, but instead of being used for new yarn, the textile pieces are made into non-woven textiles (imagine something that is felted), such as acoustic underlay and mattress-spring coverings.

Benefits of sending materials for recycling

By taking textiles currently destined for landfill or incineration to use as a raw material feedstock for yarn and fabric production, the environmental impacts along the supply chain can be minimised. Exported textile waste - with associated emissions and negative impacts on destination countries - could be reduced.

Unfortunately, when you are not a waste authority, you are unable to choose whether your textile waste (from household or otherwise) goes for reuse, export or recycling.


Textile waste for landfill or incineration

Smoke from factory going up into atmosphere

Photo by Daniel Gimbel on Unsplash

Whether sent to landfill or incinerated, the wasted textile materials will eventually break down into their molecules.

A landfill site is a build up of discarded waste materials, including textiles, food and plastic. Anything that goes in your household residual bin will usually head to landfill. With landfill, the waste materials are broken down through an anaerobic digestion process. This releases gases including methane, adding to the greenhouse effect, and synthetic particles from fibres and dyes will run off into wastewater during rain.

Some local authorities, like the majority of London, will opt for incineration. When space is limited, and due to the hundreds (if not thousands) of years it takes for synthetic materials to biodegrade in such a setting, burning the waste can be more effective. These days, the heat from this combustion burning of such materials is captured and converted into gas for electric power. However, even though heat is captured, the air pollution is not. Synthetic particles from dyes, finishes and fibres will be released into air where they can be breathed in, or land on soil and in water.

Regardless of the method, both are associated with affecting low-income localities most, due to where the facilities are situated. With waste exports in particular, anything not resold at markets will usually end up in landfill in the export country, subsequently taking up land and increasing pollution. Furthermore, the value inherent in that product will be diminished.


Re-use or recycling

Embroidery workshop using reuse materials

Assuming that throwing away textiles is out of the question for the numerous reasons listed above, the decision for consumers, then, is whether you re-use or recycle textiles already in your possession.

According to WRAP’s Materials Pricing Report, “prices for textiles from charity shops stood at £330/t (per tonne) in May 2019, broadly in line with the five-year average (£329/t)”.

In terms of retaining value, limiting energy associated with the item, and avoiding creating your own waste streams, re-using and repurposing textiles is more economically and environmentally sound. And if we are to consider the textile export statistic above that outlines how textile waste from household discards is 60% exported with 32% sold in UK markets, then keeping a textile item in use for longer before it is downgraded will also be socially beneficial.

“Most of the pressures and impacts related to the consumption of clothing, footwear and household textiles in Europe occur in other regions of the world, where the majority of production takes place. This is the case for 85 % of the primary raw materials use, 92 % of the water use, 93 % of the land use and 76 % of the greenhouse gas emissions.” ~ The European Environment Agency report: Textiles in Europe's circular economy first published 2019.


What is deadstock and surplus fabric?

Photo of textiles hanging on white rail with watercolour patterns

Reuse textiles at the Yodomo Creative Reuse Hub, photography by Paul Fuller.

Deadstock refers to stock - whether fabric, trims or clothing, or any other product for that matter, that cannot or has not been used or sold. The buyer of such goods tends to be a fashion brand or a textile producer where for a number of reasons, the stock has not been used or sold. This thereby means the stock is “dead” i.e. unable to move. 

Overstock refers to stock - again no matter the type of product - that has been over-ordered. In contrast to deadstock, overstock is more of a deliberate choice on the part of the producer or buyer who is producing or purchasing more than they require just in case - for instance, of damage, of additional sales, or because it is cheaper to do so.

Surplus can be used interchangeably with deadstock or overstock. Surplus refers to the fact that the material - in whatever form - is extra i.e. it exists in the form in which it was purchased, and has not been used or sold for another purpose.

End-of-roll is another term that determines origin; this is where a textile (fabric or trims) has been ordered and used, but there is a small amount remaining on the roll. This can be because the cut-make-trim was resource efficient, less products were bought and subsequently made, or the producer had included additional yardage. It can also be because it was over-ordered in the first place.

The lines between what is classed as surplus and what is classed as waste is blurry here as it is generally dependent on the agency taking the materials. For example, a textile recycling facility would class it as waste, because they need to do so for government classification purposes. However, communicating “surplus” gives a perception of higher quality that can be placed back in the cycle without much processing.


The circular economy 

There is a relatively recent shift towards exploring textile waste through the circular economy.

Circularity in the design sense refers to designing and making a product that can be disassembled and be reused, repurposed or recycled so that all materials can be kept in a loop. There will always be offshoots of waste, primarily energy and water, but the aim is a process of circular rather than linear production.

The circular economy is founded on three principles: eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature. As defined by the charity Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the circular economy is “a transition to renewable energy and materials. A circular economy decouples economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.”

The overall mission is to produce in a way that is good for business, people and the environment. While circularity and the circular economy go hand-in-hand, you can simply design with circularity in mind. However, without the infrastructure and a shift in consumer habits that are part of the circular economy, your product may still end up with a linear lifecycle. It is therefore important to recognise that true circular economies require the collective efforts and collaboration of all industries.


Identifying the origin of your textile waste

box filled with scrap textiles

As a consumer, it is unlikely you will be completely privy to the exact origin of your textile product or waste for several reasons, including how producers and brands do not want to be held accountable to the act of over-ordering. There are, however, some ways to give a good guess about the identity of the textile waste you have on hand.

If your textile is:

  • scrappy, then it’s likely cutting-floor waste from the cut-make-trim facility. It could also be waste from fibre and fabric production depending on the type e.g. selvedges.
  • only a few metres, then it’s likely end-of-roll
  • a considerable amount of metres, then this is likely overstock
  • damaged, then this is likely deadstock from the fabric production facility. Keep in mind that “damaged” might mean different things on different products. One article might have rips, while another might simply be slightly off-colour so that it doesn’t match the rest of the collection, although still perfectly useable
  • brand new finished products that may be tagged or labelled, then this will either be deadstock or overstock from a pre- or post-consumer point-of-sale

Deadstock and sustainability

Sustainability means different things to everyone, which is why it may be advisable to exercise caution when using the term “sustainable”, especially in your marketing communications.

Reducing demand on virgin materials

“In 2020, textile consumption in Europe had on average the fourth highest impact on the environment and climate change from a global life cycle perspective. It was the consumption area with the third highest impact on water and land use, and the fifth highest in terms of raw material use and greenhouse gas emissions.” ~ European Environment Agency report, 2022, ‘Textiles and the environment: the role of design in Europe’s circular economy’

According to the above report finding from the EEA, utilising virgin raw materials to create virgin finished materials is both environmentally and socially negatively impactful.

Making the decision to use materials that have already been produced, over a material yet to be produced, is limiting a lot of negative impacts. Of course, using what is already in existence can feel limiting in terms of design, and therefore not in line with your definition of sustainability, for instance, creating a product with your personality and therefore customer longevity.

To learn more about sustainability and textiles, and to make your business or borough more sustainable, book a consultation with us by contacting us today.

This guide is produced in partnership with Stephanie Steele, London-based textile sustainability specialist.

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