Recycling is undoubtedly the most efficient action to reduce the environmental footprint of the textile industry. However, to have a clear impact, it is important to think about the different levers of action that exist.
Recycling can refer to countless distinct processes. This is particularly the case in textiles where industrial waste is recycled and fabrics are upcycled or downcycled. Each of these concepts accounts for a number of manufacturing or (re)manufacturing techniques.
Each initiative to rework textile waste is valuable, however, some obvious areas for improvement are not highlighted. By detailing the textile supply chain, we can observe the various key stages of waste creation. A 2015 MIT study, picked up by Fashion Revolution, shows that about 15% of manufactured fabric is lost to waste, particularly at the cutting stage, representing nearly 60 billion square meters of discarded fabric each year.
Fabric cutting: an immense source of waste
In the vast majority of cases, fabric manufacturers are not garment makers. Fabrics are delivered in rolls to the garment factories (especially woven fabrics). Once these fabrics are received, it is time to cut them. The garment maker must optimize the placement of the cutting elements on the fabric to maximize its use. Today, most of the placement is done by computer, using specialized software.
It is estimated that the average utilization rate of a fabric after cutting is between 80% and 85%. This means that between 15% and 20% of the fabric is unused and treated as production waste.
Fabric cutting: how to optimize?
Several solutions co-exist to treat this dry loss.
Upcycled solutions aim for example at reconstituting yarn from fabric scraps. However, upcycled yarn has the disadvantage of being less robust and therefore always needs to be combined with new high quality fibers (on average, 30% recycled yarn is used for 70% "new" yarn).
Scrap fabrics are often shredded before being transformed into insulation materials, mattress stuffing, carpets, etc. Downcycling allows for the reuse of textile industry waste, but with the disadvantage of underutilizing a noble resource to make products with little added value.
The Azala solution
Upcycling and downcycling solutions have many advantages, but not all are optimal. It is possible to develop an intermediate process to maximize the use of small fabric scraps by optimizing cutting.
First, focusing on pre-cut placement, while software is getting better and better and some promising solutions are reducing waste rates, the majority of fabric utilization remains sub-optimal as it stands.
A simple solution (tested and approved) is to systematize the maximum use of fabrics: how do we do it?
The parts of a garment are not geometric pieces that can be assembled (e.g.: sleeve, collar, leg, etc.), hence the impossibility of using 100% of the fabric in rolls. However, on the 15% to 20% of unused fabric, it is possible to place geometric shapes that can be assembled. For example, we can place identical squares within the unused parts of the fabric. Thus, instead of having irregular scraps of fabric after cutting, we end up with a quantity X of fabric squares. This is a simple way to significantly reduce the waste rate (depending on the size of the squares).
Squares for what?
When we collect our identical fabric squares, we have a raw material of the same quality, which we can then reuse - in the form of patchworks, for example. Thus, we make patchworked clothes with the original fabric. Without mentioning the undeniable aesthetic side, it is easy to understand the logic. Of course, this process is more expensive than using fabric, since the fabric squares have to be reassembled, but it is qualitatively the same.
Depending on the size of the squares and the initial cut placement, we can reduce the waste rate from 15% to less than 5% (tested and approved). On a global scale, we are talking about nearly 40 billion square meters potentially saved.
For the remaining 0%-5% of waste, the use in garment manufacturing is vast. Without any technological investment, it is possible for example to recreate a quilting in shredded micro-waste.
Whether industrial or artisanal, solutions exist to recycle 60 billion square meters of discarded fabrics.
The Azala solution is easily reproducible and requires no investment for garment manufacturers. This technique aims to offer a concrete solution to a huge friction point, 60 billion square meters of waste, that is several billion garments thrown away before they are even made.
A major difficulty of recycling is economic. There are many techniques and know-how that can drastically limit the production of waste but few economic opportunities for manufacturers. In the same way that a fabric manufacturer is not a garment maker, a garment maker is generally not a stylist and distributor. For some efficient solutions to emerge, the impetus must come from brands and distributors, but also from consumers...
Original quote : “For example, it is estimated that 400 billion square metres of textiles are produced each year globally and 60 billion square metres (equalling 15% of all textiles produced) end up as cutting floor waste (MIT, 2015).”
Source : Fashion Revolution written evidence to the ‘Sustainability of the fashion industry’ inquiry, U.K. Environmental Audit Committee : Fashion Revolution. (s. d.).
Primary source : MIT 2015
Sofiane Bouhali for Azala