For years, the fashion industry has been trying to find a way to turn old clothes into new ones, the way we currently recycle cardboard or aluminum cans. Now, the technology has finally arrived. And if you stop by an H&M store in Stockholm, you can see the process before your eyes.
The company has installed a machine the size of a shipping container called Looop in its store in the Drottninggatan shopping district. It invites customers to bring a garment they’re planning to discard—say, an old T-shirt or cotton dress—and watch it get broken down, then rewoven into a sweater, scarf, or baby blanket through the glass walls of the machine. The process takes about five hours, but when it’s complete, the customer can pay $15 for the finished item.
Pascal Brun, H&M’s head of sustainability, says the point of this particular machine isn’t to recycle garments at an industrial scale. After all, H&M is a $26 billion global company that makes millions of garments a year. The idea is to show customers how fabric recycling works so that they’ll be motivated to bring in their old clothes.
The machine in the Drottninggatan store is, in fact, a replica of the real recycling system that has just been developed. “For this, we really need the customer to be involved in the process,” says Erik Bang, innovation lead at the H&M Foundation, which invests in sustainable technology for the entire fashion industry. “We’ve built this machine as a miniaturized version of a real process to show customers how crucial they are to the process.”
Right now, 87% of the material in clothes ends up incinerated or in a landfill after its final use, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading sustainability nonprofit; the rest tends to be used in things such as rags, insulation materials, and mattress stuffing. Only 1% of the material used to produce clothes is recycled into new clothing. Not only is this environmentally devastating—it also represents a loss of more than $100 billion worth of materials every year. H&M, in particular, is one of the worst offenders of fast fashion—in 2018 it said it had $4.3 billion worth of unsold inventory. The company has made previous efforts to position itself as a sustainability leader but has come under fire for being deliberately vague.
“Several years ago, we realized we needed to invest heavily in fabric recycling, but one major stopgap would be collecting enough discarded clothes to make this work at scale,” says Bang.
The H&M Foundation has invested in Looop technology, which was developed by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel and Novetex Textiles. The system cleans garments and shreds them into fibers, which are then spun into new yarn, which is knitted into new garments. The system doesn’t use any water or chemicals, and the process is designed to have a lower environmental footprint than making clothes from virgin materials. Looop is now beginning to scale up this technology to an industrial scale, and when that happens, H&M hopes to start manufacturing clothing using these recycled fibers.
Looop is just one of many high-tech fabric recycling systems about to enter the market. H&M Group also recently announced that it has invested in Finnish biotech firm Infinited Fiber, which has found a way to liquefy bio-based fibers—such as cotton or viscose—then recreate the fibers into a soft new material that looks and feels like cotton. “We are breaking down the fibers chemically,” says Petri Alava, cofounder and CEO of Infinited Fiber. “The technology allows us to continually recycle these fibers without degrading them.”
H&M has already partnered with Infinited Fiber to create garments using these regenerated fibers. They can be transformed into a range of fabrics—for instance, jersey and denim. Alava says that the infrastructure for collecting and sorting through clothes for recycling is still in its early stages and will need to be developed for large scale operations to become feasible.
Ultimately, though, recycling fabrics is just one part of H&M’s broader sustainability strategy. The company’s goal is to become climate positive by 2040, which means cutting more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits. Fabric recycling is a step toward this goal, but H&M will have to make massive changes to its business model to truly be sustainable. Bang acknowledges that it’s important to reduce the overall number of clothes H&M produces. To this end, the company is looking at creating clothing rentals or a secondhand market for its products. “Sometimes, the most sustainable solution is not to recycle a garment,” Bang says. “You also want to keep that item in circulation for longer, so it gets as much use as possible. Fabric recycling is just one tool in the toolkit.”