Inside a glass box the size of a shipping container at an H&M store in Stockholm, customers can now drop off a worn-out T-shirt and watch as new technology begins to recycle it into a new garment. The machine, called Looop, developed by Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel in collaboration with the nonprofit H&M Foundation, cleans and shreds old fabric, spins it into yarn, and then knits into a new product that the customer can pick up the next day.
The whole process, which uses no water or chemicals, takes between five and eight hours. Customers use an app to choose the type of new garment they want—from a knit shirt to a baby blanket—and then leave the old clothing with attendants. The machine sterilizes the old clothing with ozone, then shreds it into smaller pieces that are filtered to remove dirt. Depending on how worn the old garment is, technicians might mix in new material to make the final product stronger. (The new product can only be as large as the recycled garment allows—if you recycle a pair socks, you won’t be able to make a baby blanket.) The process doesn’t dye fabric, but a mix of materials can also be used to make a new color; a white T-shirt could be combined with new red material to make a new pink sweater, for example. The strands of fiber are combined and spun together into threads that the machine can use to knit the new product, for a fee of around $17.
The technology—the winner of the experimental category in Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—could also potentially be used at a larger scale, although H&M and other brands are also experimenting with new approaches to fabric recycling that can create stronger textiles by avoiding the step of shredding old garments. The retailer wanted to use the in-store installation, designed by the creative agency AKQA, to educate consumers, demonstrating the potential of apparel recycling to customers and helping to explain the challenges of textile waste.
Right now, most used clothing ends up in landfills—especially fast fashion like H&M’s. Of the clothing that’s recycled, only around 1% of the material is made into new apparel. “It is crucial to reduce dependency on virgin resources, and Looop visualizes for customers how old textiles hold value,” says Pascal Brun, head of sustainability for H&M. “Getting customers on board is key to achieving real change and transforming our industry for the future.”