When you see a garment made of '80 percent recycled polyester', do you think; 'Aha now I'm making a good choice?' Unfortunately, this may not be the case…
In 90 percent of cases, this recycled polyester consists of RPET (recycled polyethylene terephthalate) from collected soft drink bottles. Sounds like a wonderful way to make sustainable clothes, but after these clothes are worn down, we often can't do anything with them afterwards (with current technologies). This is all while an RPET bottle can forever continue to be recycled into an RPET bottle. The clothing industry is once again acting linearly, yet the reuse of RPET bottles into RPET bottles is circular.
Florentine Gillis is founder of Circle Closet - the largest fashion rental platform in BeNeLux and a speaker on circular business models.
No doubt the fashion industry is doing this with the very best of intentions. They are also being steered down this path by outsiders, such as the 2025 Recycled Polyester Challenge, an initiative of Textile Exchange. However, some fundamental parts of this "circular" strategy are wrong: The beverage bottle industry is now a circular chain and is being brutally interrupted by the fashion industry. Besides PET bottles being downcycled into low-quality clothing, the unprecedented popularity for RPET in the fashion industry creates a shortage of RPET in the beverage industry. Consequence: prices go up and the beverage industry has to use more virgin new material to meet their own production numbers.
In addition, the consumer has the idea that they have bought a circular product and worse; that the producer is very sustainable. So less pressure for the producer to really put something circular on the market. In the long run, this strategy does not help win the war, because in the end we are not building a circular economy, but once again a linear economy. Time and energy that producers would be better off putting into a truly circular strategy as far as I am concerned.
We are not building a circular economy, but a linear one
Producers should focus on establishing a so-called ‘closed-loop system’. So how exactly does this work? From the outset, consideration should be given to producing clothes that last and are suitable for reuse or rental. The design of the product should aim for easy repair, remanufacturing and recycling. One issue is that producers like to work with mixed fabrics (e.g. cotton and polyester). Until recently, these so-called 'blends' were difficult to recycle. In recycling, you want to break down the clothes into homogeneous yarn, from which new clothes can be made. Companies like US-based Circ are now making this possible to do. Inditex (the parent company of Zara, among others) has even invested heavily in it.
But why can clothes made of RPET be difficult to recycle? This is because in the production of low-quality clothes, low-quality yarn often remains after recycling, if the clothes already end up in the recycling machine and not in the incinerator. Each time, the quality of the yarn gets worse and so at the end you can only make stuffing material from it. Circularity focuses precisely on that closed system, turning cotton clothes into cotton clothes and polyester clothes into polyester clothes. Yes, polyester techniques are still in their infancy and do not yet have the scale to allow large retailers to work with them. However, attention and money will allow these new techniques to scale up faster. Moreover, there are already enough examples in the market where a closed-loop system does succeed, such as Dutch brands Mud Jeans, New Optimist and Martan.
These brands actively take responsibility for the downstream of their clothes. For example, they work with deposit systems or you can lease your jeans, with Mud keeping ownership and responsibility for them and making sure they are made into new jeans again.
Fortunately, there is light on the horizon. With the Extended Producer Responsibility (UPV) introduced in the Netherlands in 2023 (and coming soon to the EU), things are hopefully going to change. From 2025, producers must prepare 50 percent of the kilograms of textiles they put on the market for reuse or recycling, at least 25 percent of which must be fibre to fibre recycling. By 2030, that rises to 33 percent. We are far from there, but it is quite an improvement from the 1 percent measured in 2021.