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Is recycled cotton an innovative fabric?

It's a fact that the textile industry is confronted with a big challenge: reducing its environmental impact. And cotton growing in particular!

3 key points to remember about recycled cotton:
- An alternative to virgin cotton by reducing the environmental impact (water, energy, chemical products) and upcycling textile waste.
- The differences with virgin cotton: appearance and feel that are sometimes different, a limited amount of recycled post-consumer cotton production.
- Recycled post-consumer cotton is the cotton that comes from end-of-life textiles. Recycled pre-consumer cotton is essentially made from manufacturing scraps in textile factories.

The fact is the textile industry faces a major challenge: reducing its environmental impact. Cotton manufacturing, in particular, is water, energy and chemical product intensive. With this in mind, recycled cotton has emerged as an alternative to manufacture sustainable fabrics.
That said, if the concept of recycling (collecting materials to produce new materials from them) seems clear to many of us when you take a closer look, it is not as simple as it appears.You quickly learn that there are different ways of recycling fabrics… The challenges and issues are not the same, whether it be the production offcuts or used t-shirts having had a decent lifespan. So, let's start by explaining what pre-consumer or post-consumer recycled cottons are!

What is recycled cotton?

Why use recycled cotton?

What are the environmental benefits of using recycled cotton?

Virgin cotton production is known for its considerable impact on the environment. It consumes a lot of water, requires intensive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and contributes to the soil and water pollution.
By comparison, recycled cotton's footprint is more positive. Its production does not require virgin cotton to be grown, helping to preserve some natural resources and reduce the environmental impact linked to this stage.

What is recycled cotton and how is it made?

Recycled cotton is produced from cotton waste, such as fabric offcuts, used clothing or clearance stock. By giving these fabrics a new lease of life, recycled cotton reduces the consumption of natural resources to produce virgin cotton.

A circular approach:

The use of recycled cotton is entirely in line with the principles of a circular economy. It helps, in effect, to upcycle waste and reintegrate it into the manufacturing cycle, reducing the amount the final of waste and encouraging (slightly) more responsible consumption.

Post-consumer recycled cotton: a new lease of life for clothes

Post-consumer recycled cotton comes from textiles that have reached the end of their life cycles. You know, the clothing banks after leaving the store, for example?Well, they could become new cotton garments. Used textiles are, therefore, collected, sorted, shredded... and transformed into new yarns.

This approach favours sustainability by using waste at the end of the life cycle. With the recycling process done locally, this further limits product transport, and, subsequently CO2 emissions. What else? Dyeing is either entirely avoided or partially done. However, the yarn manufacturing process today allows a maximum of 30 % of this type of recycled cotton to be incorporated.

This recycled cotton has already been successfully tested to manufacture 100% cotton fabrics. No restrictions apply when it comes to dyeing: the yarn can be left as raw (more or less unbleached), dyed in a plain colour or used for printed fabrics.There is nonetheless a catch: the yarn dye can vary from batch to batch due to the variety of recycled raw materials used. This varies much more than for post-industrial recycled cotton (which we will talk about just after), where the composition is more homogenous.

Despite its significant advantages, this process has a few weaknesses. The sorting of end-of-life textiles is not yet automated, which requires human intervention, potentially limiting the volumes processed. On top of that, the production (done in the “Euromed” area: Euro-Mediterranean free-trade area) leads to a higher cost than the usual finished product. Only one supplier currently offers this type of recycled cotton! 

But there is good news! Despite preconceived ideas, the yarn feel and appearance no longer has that slightly coarse appearance.

Post-industrial (or pre-consumer recycled cotton: transformed production scraps.

The other way of recycling cotton is to use pre-consumer (or post-industrial) cotton. Here, we're talking about collectiing production offcuts (from factories). And combined with the minimal waste design technique (a means of reducing scraps as much as possible thanks to a clever pattern-cutting design), it makes for a promising combo!

Just like with post-consumer cotton, this type of cotton helps to reduce natural resources (namely, virgin cotton). It does not require growing new fibres, intensive water irrigation, pesticides or chemical fertilisers. It helps to reduce soil and water pollution, along with greenhouse gas emissions linked to conventional farming.

Lastly, in the case of mottled colours, the dyeing process can be entirely avoided, representing an additional benefit in environmental impact reduction terms.

Added bonus: this type of recycled cotton can be used for 100% cotton or blended fabrics (cotton/polyester, cotton/lyocell, etc.).

What are the challenges associated with recycling cotton?

Aside from its strengths, there are nevertheless some disadvantages…

Pre-consumer recycled cotton can have a slightly different visual appearance and feel than conventional cotton.It feels “less smooth”: you can sometimes see small "neps", tiny fibre blemishes that form during recycling. It doesn't affect the fabric's quality, but some people might dislike it.
Lastly, there is currently a technical constraint: the maximum amount of recycled cotton in a new yarn is 30 %.

So, what's it to be, pre or post-consumer cotton? Post-consumer recycled cotton is fully in line with the circular economy approach, giving end-of-life textiles a new lease of life. However, today, its limited production cannot match the requirements of large-scale industrialisation.

Ultimately, the choice between pre-and post-consumer recycled cotton is down to companies, depending on their priorities and constraints. Everyone can, in turn, play a crucial role by adopting more responsible consumer habits and making our clothes last as long as possible, by repairing them if need be, whatever the source of cotton used.

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