Recycling on the Runway

Will sustainable sourcing hit the high street?
Recycling on the Runway
Publ. date 23 Oct 2019
In the past years, the fast fashion industry has received plentiful attention for its questionable environmental sustainability. This attention has been mainly focused on the chemical production processes, planned obsolescence of its products and the destruction of unsold stock. If the product circle could be closed, the fashion industry would significantly decrease its consumption of raw materials and its environmental impact. Undoubtedly fueled by consumer interest for transparency, big and small companies have taken it upon themselves to begin closing the loop on apparel.

The amount of new sustainable fashion brands and collections has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, it is not all smooth sailing. Amongst the most common global challenges in sustainable fashion we find sourcing of quality material waste, systems efficiency, scaling up, cost-competitiveness and communications towards consumers. However, once companies succeed in sustainable and effective sourcing, big improvements are made on other challenges as well.

Plastics steal the show

From McKinsey’s recent Apparel CPO survey, it becomes evident that 75% of companies in the fashion industry are planning to start the use of recycled polyester resulting from plastic waste and 66% percent also wants to include recycled polyester from post-consumer garment waste.1   Spanish-based apparel brand ECOALF, is an example case that tackles the challenges of the circular economy in fashion by taking a dip in the plastic soup. The brand is known for its integration of sustainability, as garments are made from recycled plastic bottles, cotton, fishing nets, used tires and coffee grounds.

ECOALF does not have a corporate responsibility department. We don’t need one, we don’t want one, we ARE one. 
- Carolina Alvarez-Ossorio, Global Marketing and Communications Director at ECOALF

ECOALF partners with its foundation Upcycling the Oceans (UTO) to clean up the bottom of the ocean and simultaneously source raw materials for its apparel production. When fishing nets get discarded in the ocean, they become extremely harmful to wildlife and coral reefs. The nets reclaimed by ECOALF were either retrieved from the bottom of the ocean or directly from the fishermen and resulted to be a surprisingly useful material. As fishing nets are often made from high quality nylon fibers, they are therefore relatively easy to transform back into raw materials and reweave them into new fabrics. The process of mechanically recycling the nylon fibers simultaneously offers a significant reduction in water and energy consumption compared to a conventional petrochemical-based process.

Commitment is still couture

When waste materials are gathered, they are also processed locally by ECOALF’s partners. Collaboration is based on Minimum Order Requirements, which result beneficial for scaling. Furthermore, ECOALF also engaged in collaborations with brands such as Goop, Barneys New York, Apple and Swatch where it offered its branded fabrics. ECOALF recently left its brainchild, Sequal, a joint venture that supplies recycled materials for third parties. Currently Textil Santanderina and Antex are the remaining parties involved in the joint venture.

The demand for recycled materials from the High Street is evident. However, besides the beforementioned example, the majority of sourcing executives are reluctant to play the pioneering role. Only 26% of companies surveyed by McKinsey were likely to involve in capital expenditures or co-investments that allow closer partnerships with suppliers on circular economy innovations.1 Particularly looking at the reversed logistics of post-consumer apparel waste, most solutions are still underdeveloped. This means that investments in innovation are necessary to reduce the relative cost of the conversion process.

Currently, most suppliers are rewarded for positive performance on sustainability through volume increase and multi-seasonal volume commitments. Commitments through partnerships and financing support are rare. Often working on a seasonal basis, suppliers therefore take risks when investing in innovation and sustainability. Even though the buying party does not carry the financial risk of investment, more increasingly so, it carries the reputational and financial risk of unsustainable practices.  

Building your case for reverse logistics

There is enough waste for everyone, and ECOALF proves the case reverse logistics in fashion is certainly possible on a medium to small scale. Naturally, high street retailers need larger scale conversion of materials. To make groundbreaking discoveries, commitments to sustainability through investment and close partnerships are needed. Curious to find out how mature your reverse logistics are? Contact Johana Schlotter via or +31 6 28 02 18 80 to find out more.


1 McKinsey & Company: Fashion’s new must-have: sustainable sourcing at scale, October 2019

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