Textile recycling has come a long way since the days of the rag-and-bone man a generation or so ago, with particularly dramatic changes happening in some European countries over the past ten years. As a result, sources of advice on recycling for the textile and clothing industry have grown apace.

The move towards sustainability is strongly supported, for instance, by Euratex, the voice of the European textile and clothing industry.

"We encourage recycling and the re-use of textile articles at the end of their life cycle. We provide information and organise meetings," a senior official explains - although Euratex is not directly involved in projects which happen at national level and with companies.

Euratex says, however, that although the scope of textile recycling is continuing to expand, the motives and procedures behind it have not changed much.

"The collection of these items and their relocation is still mostly charitable," explains the official. But, others detect a sharp turn away from charity shops and the increasing involvement of commercial interests spurred by record-high used clothing prices.

"Today, anecdotally, a lot of collection companies have suggested that doorstep collections have dropped quite substantially due to public concern over where the clothes go, not knowing whether it's charity or commercial and also some suggestion that people are becoming more aware they can actually earn money from their old textiles selling on eBay or other organisations that pay. But we won't know for sure that this is happening for a while yet," says Caroline Bartlett, textile specialist at Oakdene Hollins, a UK-based environmental research and consulting company that wrote a major report on maximising the use of textile recycling for the British government in 2009.

Her organisation offers a wide variety of advice and information on the topic - and there is of course a ready audience: increasing clothing prices in western markets have motivated the growth of textile recycling companies such as European Textile Recycling (Cash4Clothes), London's LMB Textile Recycling Group and German company Textil-Recycling K&A Wenkhaus.

These companies are representative of similar organisations in the countries where they operate: buying clothing or receiving donations from the public and selling on the sorted goods, mostly to eastern European countries and Africa. But although high prices have drawn a number of new companies into the business in the UK, this has so far not been the case in the more traditional and well-established used clothing markets of Germany.

US recycling specialists
In the United States, there are a several associations and institutes that link textile and clothing manufacturers with companies who specialise in recycling textile remnants.

These institutes work to encourage recycling of scrap materials and unused fabrics. For instance, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc (ISRI), based in Washington DC, a trade association, represents almost 1,600 companies from different sectors of the recycling industry.

One sector that the ISRI represents is the textile recycling sector. According to its figures, 1.1m tonnes of textiles are recovered every year in the US from manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Textiles such as cotton, wool, synthetic and synthetic-blend fabrics are recovered and used to help produce furniture, mattresses, coarse yarn, home furnishings and paper.

Meanwhile, the Maryland-based industry association Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) also represents American used clothing, wipes and fibre industries, offering advice to companies worldwide. SMART member businesses work to convert by-products from textile manufacturing into consumer products, such as wiping cloths, automobile insulation and even clothing.

Here, Oregon-based company LooptWorks plays a role. Launched in 2009, LooptWorks' mandate is to take pre-consumer excess materials produced by textile manufacturers and transform them into new clothing and apparel products. According to a company statement, its "eco-friendly clothes" are produced by combining top-quality excess material and components that are recycled.

Japanese recycling processes
In Japan, a handful of companies are currently beginning to develop new recycling processes for textiles, such as the Tokyo-based firm Japan Environment Planning Co Ltd, which is in the process of devising new technology along with educational programmes, and has set an ambitious target to recycling all clothing sold and worn in Japan.

In addition, some of the more forward-thinking Japanese retailers have also been joining in on recycling initiatives: the Uniqlo chain of clothing stores, for example, has been a pioneer in this area.

The Japanese retailer began introducing bins at its stores nationwide in September 2006, where customers could deposit any unwanted clothing. Items that can be used again are passed on to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other aid organisations, while damaged goods are turned into heat insulation fabrics, work gloves or used as fuel for power generation. In 2010 alone, the company collected 2.6m items of clothing for recycling.

Similarly, manufacturer Onward Kashiyama Co started working with department stores that sell its clothing lines, collecting unwanted items and transforming them into recycled blankets to be donated to the UNHCR, and work gloves to be given to NGOs (non-governmental organisations).

The Marui Group Co, which operates Marui department stores across Japan, has also started a programme to produce bioethanol from cotton fibres from clothing. While elsewhere, Kobe-based Kadokura & Co has started collecting discarded clothing to be transformed into hard boards that can be used as a substitute for wood or plastic, through an innovative compression and melting process.

Julian Ryall and Leah Germain also contributed to this article.

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

just-style management briefing: Closing the loop on recycled textiles

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

just-style management briefing: Textile waste recycling regulations