We’ve just entered a new decade and with it comes the awareness that we need to make a greater commitment to preserving and protecting our resources, environmental and otherwise. Consumers and retailers are starting to get on board with the concept of sustainability, which has become a necessity, not a luxury. Recyclable, recycled, renewable and regenerated materials are entering the mainstream and helping make products more environmentally friendly and safer for future generations.
Having just read that paragraph might make you ask “what’s the difference between ‘recyclable,’ ‘recycled,’ ‘renewable,’ and ‘regenerated’ materials?” You wouldn’t be the first person to ask for clarification. Each of these types of materials has a distinct classification and suitability for different purposes. Footwear company Rothy’s produces shoes which contain recycled, recyclable and renewable materials – using recycled plastic bottles or renewable merino wool to create threads to knit their uppers and recycled materials to create their foam insoles.
Recyclable materials are resources that have the ability to be naturally and organically reused in one capacity or another. Post-consumer plastic bottles, worn-out fishing nets, discarded rubber tires and even coffee grinds are used to make clothing, sneakers and accessories. Industrial materials such as airbags, seat covers, carpets and linings are used to make outerwear, luggage, accessories and handbags.
Recycled materials are the process by which old fibers, textiles or clothing are recovered for reuse. Companies such as Patagonia are using recycled wool and cashmere fibers to create new sweaters. Mud Jeans has created a circular business model based on selling jeans, taking the used jeans back, when returned by the consumer at the end of their wearing, then recycling the used jeans into new ones. One of the challenges presented with using recycled fibers such as cotton, wool or cashmere is that the fibers will degrade over time. Many steps in the recycling process of fibers can weaken or shorten the fibers. In order to process these virgin fibers into recycled materials additional fibers or substances have to be added to boost the integrity of the materials. Some companies may add in new, virgin wools, cottons or recycled polyester or rayon fibers to create the new fabric or material. Some companies take existing garments and scraps to repurpose, reuse or upcycle one garment into another, thereby diminishing the need for new fabric altogether.
Regenerated materials are created by dissolving the existing material and extracting either the fibers (such as cellulose) or restoring and purifying the material to create yarn (such as Econyl© nylon). Viscose, rayon, acetate, triacetate, modal, Tencel©, and Lyocell© can all be regenerated cellulose fibers which are generally blended with other fibers to add strength, whereas the Econyl© nylon actually is regenerated into the exact same compound with no degradation, but can be spun into carpets, swimwear, accessories, etc.
Renewable materials are materials that have the capability to be naturally and organically replaced in a set period of time. Arguments can be made for and against considering some of these to be renewable materials, but one thing is for sure, they’re all derived from natural sources and those sources can be renewed.
- Organic cotton – Cotton itself is a very thirsty crop and the pesticides used to maintain those crops are incredibly polluting. Many companies are moving toward using organic cotton instead, eliminating the use of pesticides and toxic chemicals. Using natural dyes, or colored strains of cotton further reduces the amount of chemicals dumped into the environment.
- Bamboo – Bamboo is a fast-growing, resilient grass and can generally be grown without pesticides. It’s also breathable, biodegradable and, some say, antibacterial. However, most of the world’s harvestable bamboo is grown in China, without much oversight to confirm it’s being grown organically or what type of land is being cleared for farming. Currently the FTC requires companies to label bamboo fibers in apparel products as “bamboo-based rayon.”
- Hemp – Hemp is another fast growing, rapidly renewable fiber that can be grown without pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals. With restrictions regarding the growth of cannabis plants, from which hemp is harvested, being lifted, more hemp based fabrics are bound to become available and will be a much more affordable option for many companies.
- Organic Wool – Wool is the ultimate renewable fiber. Look for wool from humanely treated animals and fibers that are chlorine-free. Organic wool has become more available to consumers and is produced without treating the animals with toxic chemicals.
Sustainability isn’t just a buzz word these days, it’s a necessity. Our resources are finite and deserve to be treated with respect for the planet. By incorporating recycled, recyclable, renewable and/or regenerated materials into our supply chain and figuring out ways to reduce or eliminate toxic, polluting and non-degradable materials from our products we can help preserve our planet and resources for generations to come.