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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Textile recycling efforts take a back seat to fast fashion in China

China is the world’s largest textile producer and consumer, throwing away 26 million tons of clothes each year, mostly made of unrecyclable synthetics.

Textile waste is an urgent global problem, with only 12 percent recycled worldwide, according to fashion sustainability nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Even less — only 1 percent — are castoff clothes recycled into new garments. In China, only about 20 percent of textiles are recycled, according to the Chinese government — and almost all of that is cotton.

Chinese clothing industry is dominated by “fast fashion” — cheap clothes made from synthetics, not cotton. Produced from petrochemicals that contribute to climate change, air and water pollution, synthetics account for 70 percent of domestic clothing sales in China.

A recycling factory in Zhejiang province on China’s east coast repurposes discarded cotton clothes to try to deal with the urgent waste problem. So, too, are young innovative designers in Shanghai, by remaking old garments into new ones or creating clothing out of waste items such as plastic bottles, fishing nets, flour sacks and even pineapple leaves.

But these efforts are dwarfed by giant fast-fashion brands churning out cheap synthetic garments for a consumer base spreading rapidly across the world. Experts believe real change is only possible through an elusive zero-waste workflow or Chinese government intervention.
China’s domestic policy doesn’t help as cotton recycled from used clothing is banned from being used to make new garments inside China. This rule was initially aimed at stamping out fly-by-night Chinese operations recycling contaminated material.

Chinese cotton has a taint of its own, said Claudia Bennett of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation. Much of it comes from forced labor in Xinjiang province by the country’s ethnic Uyghur minority. Globally one-in-five cotton garments globally is linked to Uyghur forced labor
According to a report from independent fashion watchdog Remake assessing major clothing companies on their environmental, human rights and equitability practices, there’s little accountability among the most well-known brands.

The group gave Shein, whose online marketplace groups about 6,000 Chinese clothing factories under its label, just 6 out of a possible 150 points. Chinese fast-fashion e-commerce juggernaut Temu scored zero.

However at the Wenzhou Tiancheng Textile Company, mounds of discarded cotton clothing, loosely separated into dark and light colors, pile up on a workroom floor. Jacket sleeves, collars and brand labels protrude from the stacks as workers feed the garments into shredding machines. It’s the first stage of a new life for textiles at one of the largest cotton recycling plants in China.

But factories like this one are barely making a dent in a country whose To achieve a game-changing impact, what fashion expert Shaway Yeh calls “circular sustainability” is needed among major Chinese clothing brands so waste is avoided entirely.

But now it means the huge spools of tightly woven rope-like cotton yarn produced at the Wenzhou Tiancheng factory from used clothing can only be sold for export, mostly to Europe.

Making matters worse, many Chinese consumers are unwilling to buy used items, something the Wenzhou factory sales director, Kowen Tang, attributes to increasing household incomes.

Recycled garments have a much higher price tag than fast-fashion brands due to their costly production methods. And that’s the problem, said Sheng Lu, professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware.

With higher costs in acquiring, sorting and processing used garments, he doesn’t see sustainable fashion succeeding on a wide scale in China, where clothes are so cheap to make. “Companies do not have the financial incentive,” he said. For real change there needs to be “more clear signals from the very top,” he added, referring to government targets like the ones that propelled China’s electric vehicle industry. At least for now, “fast fashion definitely is not out of fashion.

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