“I’m looking forward to the day when it is normal to turn in your old, favorite T-shirt into a store, then pick up a recycled shirt made from other people’s old favorite shirts,” says Michael Natenshon, founder and CEO of Marine Layer, a San Francisco-based fashion label that is best known for its soft T-shirts. “There’s a kind of poetry to knowing your T-shirt was reincarnated from another T-shirt.”
This reality may be around the corner, thanks to brands like Marine Layer and factories that have been quietly working on designing a new system of fabric recycling. On the 28th of April, Marine Layer drops a new collection of men’s and women’s T-shirts, called Re-Spun, made up of 50% recycled cotton T-shirts and 50% other sustainably sourced recycled and virgin fibers. The brand partnered with a textile factory in Alicante, Spain, on a new recycling technique that requires no chemicals, dyes, or even water.
Over the past few decades, engineers have perfected the art of recycling different materials, from plastic to paper to aluminum, allowing us to reincarnate old products into new versions of that very same product. The Evian bottle you tossed in the recycling bin may appear on a shelf at the grocery store a year from now; the magazine you finished over the weekend may reappear on your doorstep in the form of a future issue. (Of course, all of this depends on functioning recycling systems, which, as my colleague Adele Peters points out, rarely work as planned.)
But until recently, there has not been a good way to recycle clothing into new garments. Modern clothes are made of complex textile blends that include both natural and synthetic fibers. They are difficult to break down, since plastic-based nylons and polyesters melt at high temperatures. Also, for much of the last century, clothes were considered durable goods, rather than disposable goods, so the problem of recycling clothes seemed less pressing than recycling, say, plastic bottles. But fast fashion made clothes so cheap that many consumers now think of clothes as disposable. 100 billion pieces of clothing are churned out every year. They may circulate in the economy for a while–perhaps getting resold at a secondhand store or donated–but then they end up in landfills. The average American throws out 80 pounds of textiles a year. Since most clothes contain some synthetic fibers that are not biodegradable, they will sit in landfills forever.
A new era of fashion recycling is finally arriving. A startup called For Days, for instance, has created a T-shirt subscription service that allows customers to return a shirt after they are done wearing it, and the company will recycle that material into new T-shirts. Adidas has launched a new shoe that is designed to be recycled when the customer is done with it. And today, Marine Layer launches a new collection of T-shirts made from customers’ old T-shirts.
The science of recycling
To the customer, the process of recycling T-shirts seems deceptively simple: You send in an old T-shirt, and it gets transformed into another T-shirt. But in practice, as Natenshon found out, the process is more complicated. “I have many more silver hairs from just trying to figure out how to recycle these T-shirts,” he says.
First, Marine Layer had to gather old T-shirts: 75,000 to be exact. The week of Black Friday in 2018, Marine Layer put out a call asking customers–and the general public–to drop off their old T-shirts in stores, or through pre-paid mailing envelopes, to receive up to $25 in store credit. The company needed 10,000 T-shirts to launch its first collection, and received far more than they expected.
Two years before that call went out, Marine Layer’s production team spent months scouring the market for a manufacturer that had the capability to recycle T-shirts from old T-shirts. Right now, it is becoming more common for brands to use synthetic materials–like nylon and polyester–that are recycled from old water bottles. (Recycled synthetic fibers tend to be stronger than recycled cottons and wools, which is why brands have quickly adopted them.) Everlane, for instance, is planning to transition entirely to recycled synthetics by 2020.
While Natenshon was open to using recycled plastic–and ended up using recycled plastic bottles as part of the Re-Spun fabric blend–he really wanted to incorporate fibers from old T-shirts into the line. This would help create a circular system with the T-shirt line. “The fast-fashion industry has generated so much textile waste,” he says. “The biggest problem we have right now is keeping that stuff out of landfills. We thought the most meaningful way for the customer to close the loop was to contribute to the recycling process.”
In the spring of 2017, the Marine Layer team discovered Recover, a Spanish factory that has found a way to break textiles down and re-spin the fibers into new yarns. It was founded by a Spanish family in 1947, and has been working for decades to develop this particular fabric recycling technique. Recover is well known in the industry for its commitment to sustainability. It runs on solar energy and it’s certified by several third-party organizations, including the Global Recycled Standard, which verifies that recycled content is present in products and also ensures responsible production.
Since most clothes today are made up of fabric blends (like cotton mixed with nylon) Recover has figured how to break down fabric blends, separate different fibers, then extract the cotton to recycle it. Recover is careful to keep the length of the fibers as long as possible during the shredding process, because longer cotton fibers create high-quality cloth that is more resistant to pilling. Still, this recycled cotton is not as strong as virgin fibers. So Recover strengthens the cotton by weaving it with other fibers that are also sustainably sourced, including organic cotton, hemp, recycled water bottles, or recycled nylons.
There are a few unique parts of Recover’s process. One is that Recover separates fibers by color, then through a proprietary color-matching process, re-creates each color. This approach means that the factory does not need to use any chemicals or dyes in the process, which are often toxic. Marine Layer’s Re-Spun T-shirt line has many colorful patterns. This required many T-shirts of each color. “What we found is that the color is not as consistent as it would be if we gave the factory a Pantone color card and asked them to just create a match,” Natenshon says. “But we kind of like that there are variations in color and that each batch gives them soul and character.”
The other unusual part of the process is that it requires no water. Recover does not even use water to clean the old clothes: They are industrially cleaned using ultraviolet rays at the fiber level. Meanwhile, one kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of virgin cotton requires 15,000 of water to turn into fabric, according to a study from the University of Valencia. This includes the farming, processing, and dyeing process.
Getting the customer on board
Recover’s factory can process almost any garment to recapture the fibers within. But Marine Layer wanted to focus, at first, on T-shirts, partly because that’s what the company is best known for. Natenshon often tells the story of how he started the company because his girlfriend threw away his favorite threadbare T-shirt, and he wanted to re-create it, visiting dozens of mills until he found the exact kind of soft T-shirt fabric he was looking for.
Natenshon also realized that much of this first collection was about introducing consumers to the concept of a circular system for making T-shirts, and perhaps more broadly, for all garments. For the last six months, the brand has had a special Re-Spun section on its website, where it describes this project and invites customers to request a free mailer to send in their T-shirts. “We thought it was easier to tell the story by focusing on a single, familiar object, like a T-shirt,” he says.
But there was also a practical reason to get customers interested in T-shirt recycling. For the Re-Spun collection, Marine Layer relied on customers to provide the raw materials, so it was important to make them feel invested in the process. It’s a savvy insight: Data suggests that consumers are increasingly concerned about the fate of the planet and are looking for ways to decrease their environmental footprint.
In the end, people sent in more than 5,000 shirts within the first 48 hours after Marine Layer put out the call. Now the company has collected 75,000 shirts, with more coming in every day, which opens up new possibilities for Marine Layer. Natenshon says that 40% of these shirts are coming from people who had never previously purchased from Marine Layer; a side effect of the Re-Spun program is that it is introducing new people to the brand.
Natenshon is now thinking about how to scale the Re-Spun operation so that half of all its T-shirts, and many other clothes within Marine Layer’s collection–like dresses and button-down shirts–might be made of recycled fibers. The company is currently working on a fleece sweater that will be made from Re-Spun yarns. All of this will require Marine Layer to collect thousands more old T-shirts. The good news is that old T-shirts are a raw material that the world now has in abundance. “There are more than enough old T-shirts ending up in landfills to fuel this program,” Natenshon says. “It’s just about getting people to send them in. People’s old shirts have nostalgic value to them, and now there’s a way to give these old shirts a new life.”