With fast fashion and quick turnover key commercial ingredients of today's garment and apparel industry, excess textile production is prompting the sector to gravitate towards more recycling and re-use of materials, to conserve energy, increase sustainability and lower raw material costs.

"Fast fashion and low-quality production results in consumers valuing garments less, and disposing of clothing more often," says Caroline Bartlett, technical consultant at UK research and consulting firm Oakdene Hollins.

As of 2009, she explains, Britain alone consumed more than 2m tonnes of textiles; around half of which was clothing. About 1.1m tonnes of that ended up in the municipal waste stream with just 500,000 tonnes recovered in some way, either through reuse or recycling.

Looking at the European Union (EU) as a whole, around 14m tonnes of textile waste is currently generated per year, of which just 5m tonnes are recovered, and three-quarters of that reused, according to Bartlett.

In the US, the waste situation is even worse: consumers recycle only 15% of all clothing and textiles, which means that more than 21bn pounds of post-consumer garments that could be recycled, instead wind up in landfills or incinerators, according to the US-based but international Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART).

Recycling textiles instead of disposing of them as waste can make a significant environmental impact, according to British environmental charity Waste Watch. For example, if everyone in the UK bought one reclaimed woollen garment each year, it would save an average of 371m gallons of water, and 480 tonnes of chemical dyestuffs, it argues.

Reclaiming fibres helps to avoid polluting and energy intensive processes that are often needed to make textiles from virgin materials, including savings on energy consumption and water conservation.

According to research by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) it takes an average of 8,500 litres of water to grow one kilo of cotton lint, which is enough to make just one pair of jeans.

"Textile production is very resource intensive, with significant energy, water and chemical requirements," says Bartlett. "Consumers are buying and disposing of huge volumes of clothing, and...do not see most of the impacts the production of our clothing has."

Collecting and re-processing
So, with the evident benefits of textile recycling schemes, many companies and organisations are placing great emphasis on second-hand textile collecting and re-processing. Textile banks, for example, are widespread in the UK, contributing to Britain's high collection and recycling rates.

Social action group the Salvation Army operates 2,000 textile banks in Britain alone, donating clothing to the homeless and selling them in charity shops, with un-wearable items being sold to merchants to be recycled.

Unsold or un-wearable clothing often get sent to Oxfam's textile recycling plant Wastesaver, in England, where clothes are sold as raw materials to the textile recycling industry. Currently, the facility sorts 80 tonnes of clothing a week into around 100 different grades, depending on garment type, condition, style and fabric - although the service was hit by a fire last year.

In Germany, the SOEX Group is one of the world's largest shoe and textile recyclers, collecting over 100,000 tonnes of used clothes and shoes a year, with its Wolfen-based plant capable of processing up to 600,000 pounds of clothing a day.

The plant's sophisticated technology is able to select specific ingredients, such as clothing made only from wool, cotton and acrylic, while a special mixing unit is capable of customising combinations, such as wool and silk blends only, for example.

In the theme of zero waste, if some of the goods are deemed too worn to be resold during the sorting process, they are sent to the plant's recycling facility where they are turned into new, marketable products such as insulation for the automobile industry.

While wearable textiles can be resold, unwearable ones also have important uses, and can be shredded for fillers in things such as car insulation and furniture padding, while woollen garments, for example, can be sold to specialist firms to make yarn or fabric.

According to SMART, 95% of all clothing and household textiles can actually be recycled or repurposed, with the 5% that does have to be disposed of as rubbish consisting of garments either wet, mildewed or contaminated with oil, paint or another hazardous material.

Steps by high street brands and retailers
So, with textile recycling initiatives and awareness growing, some of the main sources of waste are beginning to make a shift. In 2010, for example, international fast-fashion company H&M recycled 1,600 tonnes of materials to create new garments, and in early 2011 the company also enacted a recycling cycle by transforming remnants from the production of its 2010 collection designed by French fashion house Lanvin into a new 'Waste Collection'.

Some high street brands and retailers have taken strides forward, such as the UK's Marks & Spencer, which haa partnered with Oxfam to offer vouchers to customers who take old M&S garments to an Oxfam shop for donation.

And while textile recycling initiatives are, of course, largely beneficial for the environment, Clive Bilby, business development manager at UK textile recycling company Retrograde Ltd says the main driver behind the push towards recycling textiles is financial.

"As demand for raw materials and the cost of transportation increases, the financial incentive to use locally recycled materials has increased," he explains, adding that he has seen first-hand evidence of textile recycling initiatives growing and expanding rapidly in recent years.

Over the last two years, for example, Retrograde has doubled the size of its operation every 12 months, also increasing the range of materials it can collect and recycle for its clients.

Jackie King, on the other hand, executive director of SMART, thinks consumers are the primary driving force behind recycling clothing and textiles. "As people become more environmentally conscious, they are seeking more and more options for recycling all types of products," she says.

Either way, what is certain is that textile recycling going forward is vital: "The recycling of goods will become an ever more critical source of raw manufacturing materials as 'virgin' raw materials become more-and-more scarce in the future," King adds.

Click on the links below to view other articles included in this management briefing:

just-style management briefing: Sustainable solutions to boost textile recycling

just-style management briefing: Textile and clothing recycling worldwide

just-style management briefing: Textile waste recycling regulations