Is that cosy fall outfit you’re wearing contributing to climate change? I’m sorry to say that it might be.
The apparel and footwear industries account for more than 8% of global emissions, which is more than all international airline flights and maritime shipping trips combined. At first glance, that’s baffling. But when you stop to think about the entire supply chain of a garment, it begins to make sense. To start with, it takes a lot of greenhouse gases to produce the raw materials that go into clothes, from raising the sheep to make wool for your sweater or cows to make leather for your boots. Then, all of these materials must be shipped around the world to be processed and manufactured in a complex global supply chain.
Take brand-new cashmere, which comes from cashmere goats that graze in Mongolia. They graze on grasslands, eating away at plants that would otherwise take carbon out of the atmosphere. “Unlike another animals, cashmere goats will eat the entire grass plant, including the roots, which means the plant dies,” says Kimberley Smith, Everlane’s head of apparel. “They then move on to other pastures.”
For hundreds of years, nomadic herders have moved their flocks from one region to the next, leaving the grazed area to lie fallow for years until new grasses grow back. As the global demand for cashmere has grown, this has led to overgrazing and the depleting of grasslands.
Recycled cashmere is one way to avoid this problem, and brands like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Stella McCartney are replacing virgin cashmere with the regenerated variety. The latest fashion brand to make the switch is Everlane, which launched its new recycled cashmere, which has half the carbon footprint of brand-new cashmere, this month. The project is part of the company’s focus on recycling and material innovation (earlier this year, I wrote about its efforts to swap out virgin plastic with recycled plastic).
“In general, creating fibers from scratch is a far more carbon-intensive process than taking existing garments regenerating the fibers within them,” says Smith. “Most of the carbon comes from earlier in the supply chain, producing the raw materials.”
The concept of recycling fibers is not new. In Italy, companies have been taking apart wool garments—including cashmere—and recycling the threads within it since the 13th century. In the 19th century, “rag men” in the city of Prato made new products from old wool garments, rather than sourcing new wool. Over the past decade, Patagonia and Eileen Fisher have incorporated recycled cashmere into their collections.
Everlane, for its part, is singularly focused on achieving the lowest carbon footprint possible with the fabric. For instance, while other companies sometimes source recycled cashmere then re-dye it to achieve the right color, Smith has gone out of her way to work with a mill that collects cashmere products then separates them by color: the blue sweaters go in one pile and the red ones go in another, etc. Then they clean, break down, and regenerate each yarn by color, so they don’t need to be re-dyed, cutting out one carbon-producing part of the process.
Recycled cashmere is not identical to new cashmere, Smith says. Mills collect old cashmere garments and break them down, but this weakens the yarns, making them more susceptible to breakage and pilling. To tackle this problem, Smith has worked with an Italian mill to spin 60% recycled cashmere with 40% extra-fine merino wool.
Everlane isn’t set up to collect customer’s old cashmere sweaters to recycle yet, but it hopes to do so in the future. Smith envisions a future where we don’t make clothes out of new materials at all but we simply take the billions of clothes that are already made every year, break them down, and turn them into new fibers that will go into new clothes, in a perfectly closed system.
The problem at the moment is that many of our garments contain mixed fibers. Our cotton jeans are blended with nylon for stretch, for instance. And our wool sweaters are blended with cheaper materials like polyester, to make them more affordable. “Right now, mills and other manufacturers haven’t perfected the technology to break down mixed fibers, separate them out, and regenerate them,” says Smith. “But we are getting better at recycling fabrics that are made from a single fiber.”
Cashmere is perfect for this, because it is easy to find 100% cashmere sweaters. And since Everlane is mixing cashmere with merino, which is also wool, it is possible to turn these recycled cashmere sweaters into new yarns. But this kind of recycling technology also works with some other fabrics. For instance, I recently wrote about how the t-shirt brand Marine Layer is using cotton from old t-shirts to make new ones.
Many brands are pursuing similar goals: Women’s shoe brand Rothy’s uses discarded plastic bottles to make its flats and sneakers, and swimwear brand Summersalt uses industrial plastic waste, including fishing nets, to make its swimsuits. Even larger players in the market, like Levi’s, Madewell, and Athleta have switched to recycled plastic to make some of its products. There’s still a long way to go to achieving adoption of emerging recycling systems, but Smith is on the lookout for new technologies as they appear.
“Mills are not just developing recycled fibers, they’re also working on their quality to ensure they are comparable to virgin fibers,” she says. “And that’s important because it means the garments will last a long time, and the customer won’t even be able to tell that the fibers are recycled.”