GuestSeptember 28, 2021 AATCC Newsletter

Repurposed Textiles: Are Leftover Fabrics the Key to Sustainable Fashion?

By Nicola Davies

In a single year, the fashion industry generates a whopping 13 million tons of fabric waste. That means approximately 64% of the world’s garment production ends up dumped in landfills, where it will take the next 200 years to decompose. Another 15% of fabric is wasted during pre-production, discarded on cutting room floors as scraps.

The implications of this wastage to our environment are dire. With 20,000 liters of water being used to manufacture a single kilogram of cotton, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of the global wastewater generation. The industry also contributes to 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, ranking alongside energy and transport as one of the most polluting industries in the world. It is undeniable that fashion is in dire need of transformation to a more sustainable operating model that combats waste through recycling and repurposing.

Repurposing vs. Recycling

Although repurposing and recycling are often used interchangeably by some industry experts, they refer to two distinct approaches to sustainable fashion. In textile recycling, fabrics are shredded or broken down chemically into individual fibers before reuse. Alternatively, repurposing aims to repair and reuse fabrics in a way that increases their value.

waste to jewelry

Fabric waste crafted into handstitched circular disks to create a necklace and earring set. Credit: Ritu Jadwani.

Ritu Jadwani, a sustainable Fairtrade entrepreneur and curator, points out that reusing deadstock fabrics and used garments is cost-reductive in minimizing the amount of fabric needed for a new collection. “Apart from garments, fabrics can also be refashioned into other accessories such as one-of-a-kind rugs, sound absorption systems, patched quilts, and even jewelry.”

 

Repurposing carries an advantage over  recycling because several garments are made up of a diverse mix of material fibers, making recycling complicated or impossible. Furthermore, recycling always leads to a reduction in the value of the fabric and is therefore not cost-effective to scale up.

one-of-a-kind patched jacket

A one-of-a-kind patched jacket with front stand collar and pockets, made from handwoven wool and hand block printed silk poly. Credit: Ritu Jadwani.

 

Repurposing is not a new practice in the industry. In 1996, Stella McCartney launched her first collection using repurposed vintage lace and silk fabrics. In the same era, several designers, including JJ Noki and Christopher Raeburn, used surplus fabrics such as army parachutes and cut up vintage garments to design new pieces. In 1997, Orsola de Castro launched the unique ‘From Somewhere’ label, which exclusively used cut-offs from luxury designers and old swimsuits to create new outfits.

 

“In countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, textile repurposing is an age-old tradition,” explains Jadwani. “In Eastern India, an ancient tradition called ‘Kantha’ uses repurposed old textiles and Saris to make beautiful scarves, jackets, and quilts by layering them and adorning them with the darning stitch.”

Perhaps the comfort of fast fashion eclipsed the eco-fashion trends of the 90s and 2000s. However, it is evident that sustainability is making a comeback. In 2021, fashion weeks across the world saw an uptick in the use of repurposed fabrics with Marni launching a collection labelled ‘Finding beauty in leftovers’ in Milan. Furthermore, while repurposing was typically considered incompatible with higher-end labels, reclaimed fabric has penetrated brands such as Balenciaga and Miu Miu, suggesting there is space for used fabrics in the luxury arena.

The Repurposing Process

The first, and arguably most important step in repurposing, is sourcing the fabrics. Some interesting ways designers are doing this include:

  • Duro Oluwo, whose patrons range from first ladies to fashion editors, visits old and defunct mills to identify vintage fabrics.
  • Batsheva Hay sources faux silks and floral chintzes from eBay.
  • In some instances, consumers have directly approached designers like Rianna+Nina and Chapova Lowena to sell their vintage textiles.
Scarves from fabric waste

Unique scarves with tassels made from repurposed fabric waste. Credit: Ritu Jadwani.

However, for mass repurposing efforts, brands may have to use skilled workers who can sort through hordes of post-consumer textiles. “Some garments may be missing a fabric label, and sometimes designers need to know the exact composition before designing. In these cases, testing will have to be done, which is taxing for larger quantities of fabric,” says Jadwani.

Jadwani notes that manufacturing industry practices may also impede the sourcing of fabrics. “Some manufacturers have contracts with hi-end designers, stating that the fabric cannot be sold or used by anyone else. Some fabrics are either burnt or shredded to prevent plagiarism.” To source this deadstock, copyright laws will have to be redesigned with repurposing in mind.

The designing process for repurposed textiles also differs from the traditional fashion pathway in that designers have to sketch designs based on the available fabrics. “Designers are bound by certain colors and fabrics that are available to re-use,” says Jadwani. “If I need a bright red and I only have a maroon available, my design is going to be compromised. The composition of the fabric can also present design challenges because each type of fabric requires a distinct finishing process. A designer will have to intelligently position the scraps to bring them together.”

Some designers have argued that the limitations of repurposing can be overcome by creativity. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many premium fabric mills had to shut down. Yet, several brands, including Alexander McQueen, rose to the challenge, discarding conventional beliefs and reusing deadstock to create high fashion.

To a certain extent, consumer and designer expectations will also have to managed. For example, a repurposed sweater may need to be made up of yarns of different colors based on availability. But if the designer is able to do this right, the possibilities are endless.

The repurposing design and production process is significantly distinct from the typical fashion value chain. If the industry is to successfully scale up the process in a way that brings about significant environmental impact, brands must begin to invest in the necessary tools. “Designers can also work together with manufacturers to create new solutions. If we collaborate with large manufacturers, repurposing can be scaled for mass production,” says Jadwani.

Is Repurposing Commercially Viable?

Encouragingly, the new generation of consumers are environmentally conscious and willing to invest in sustainable fashion. “The uniqueness of each repurposed item makes it more commercially viable,” Jadwani adds. A recent consumer survey identified basic and uninteresting styles as the primary reason many consumers were reluctant to explore repurposed garments. However, consumers were eager to adopt repurposed fashion if they were stylish, reasonably priced, accessible in mainstream outlets, and clearly labelled.

It is estimated that sustainable fashion practices could save the industry $192 billion by 2030. Yet, it is apparent that embarking on such a radical transformation of traditional fashion practices will not be easy. Firstly, sustainability will have to transition from a mere buzzword to an industry-wide obligation, because an industry that fails to protect the environment is not future-proof. Furthermore, it will take cross-industry collaborations and working together with the government to reframe legislations and address systemic challenges to repurposing.

Author:
Nicola Davies

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