Recycling Challenges in Fashion: A Piece of the Circular Economy Puzzle

The concept of repurposing and recycling materials is important to consider when pursuing a circular economy. In contrast to the familiar input-output-waste economy model, fig. 1 displays key ideas of the circular economy model, which seeks to use materials swirling around an economy in the most efficient manner.

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A T-shirt may be recycled into a pair of running shoes at the end of its life, for example. But what challenges lie in the way of efficient recycling? Landfilling or recycling are two basic avenues that products cross at the crucial intersection of the use phase’s end. As discussed in a previous article, recycling rates for garments and fashion products are abysmally low.

This means that most of the products produced today in the fashion market end up sitting somewhere on the Earth, left to rot away or incinerated. From a business perspective; money has been left on the table—abandoning resources already processed, refined, treated, mined or grown. Plenty of growth and opportunity remain in recycling fashion products. In the collective British wardrobe alone, we find an estimated £89 billion worth of clothes.

When discussing obstacles, it is important to expand on recycling techniques. ‘Mechanical fiber recycling’ is the conversion of materials into new products without changing the chemical structure (shredding, respinning, re-bonding, etc.) while ‘chemical fiber recycling’ breaks down materials into chemical components allowing them to be recycled into various end products with additives or processes.

The main difference between the two is the potential end value of the product. Mechanical recycling often damages the fibers, which lowers the potential for conversion into new products while chemical recycling may be beneficial in reducing pesticide, water and petroleum demand. Both have potential for high-value recycling.

The intersections between the chemical industry, fossil fuels, fashion and material processes have contributed to the industry’s massive footprint—yet also provide unique opportunities for innovation. Trends are moving in positive directions. In a 2020 study surveying respondents from 34 countries, the majority cited environmental concerns motivating their disposal behavior of clothes and just 1.55% threw their clothes in the trash. It is important to consider the limitations of the sample (small size, skewed toward educated, access to online surveys) in any conclusions drawn.

How would you catalyze a transition to a circular economy model in the fashion industry?


Hilton, Simon. “The Chemical Recycling Of Clothes. Part 1; The Challenges”. AG CHEMI GROUP Blog, 2020,

Liu Z., Wang X. (2012) Study of Influencing Mechanism of Waste Clothing Recycling. In: Zeng D. (eds) Advances in Computer Science and Engineering. Advances in Intelligent and Soft Computing, vol 141. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Niinimäki K., Karell E. (2020) Closing the Loop: Intentional Fashion Design Defined by Recycling Technologies. In: Vignali G., Reid L., Ryding D., Henninger C. (eds) Technology-Driven Sustainability. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Paço, Arminda et al. “Fostering Sustainable Consumer Behavior Regarding Clothing: Assessing Trends On Purchases, Recycling And Disposal”. Textile Research Journal, 2020, p. 004051752094452. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/0040517520944524.

Whitson-Smith, Jade (2016) A dematerialised approach to fashion design. In: Circular Transitions, 23rd ­-24th November 2016, Tate Modern. (Unpublished). 

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