New Standards for Recycled Clothes

By Dr. Christina Dean 12 June, 2012

Dr. Christina Dean on water-guzzling clothes and how new standards for recycled clothes can help save water

Water horror stories drown our apparel and textiles in environmental misery
The R Certificate tells consumers about the recycled textile content in their clothing
A recycled PET T-shirt in Esprit's new recycled line saved up to 74% water

‘Water Guzzlers’ rule

The yummy mummy driven gas guzzler craze may have been overtaken by another of today’s biggest environmental challenges: water-guzzling clothes and textiles hanging on fashionistas who range from farmers to the urban smart set.

The sad fact is that water horror stories drown our apparel and textiles in environmental misery. The textile industry uses vast amounts of water from soaking dyes and finishing chemicals to preparing textiles for scouring and bleaching. And, of course, this cocktail of toxic chemicals engineered to make our clothes beautiful, ultimately washes out of the factories and seeps into our water tables, poisoning us all.

Water Guzzlers’ Intake

  • Growing cotton: 8,000-40,000 liters water/1kg cotton
  • Finishing of textiles: up to 700 liters of freshwater/1kg textile
  • Wastewater in production: up to 600 liters/1kg textile
Source: Bluesign Technologies, AFIRM RSL Seminar presentation, September 27, 2007. Reprinted in BSR, “Water Management in China’s Apparel and Textile Factories,” 2008


Also contributing to the environmental nightmare caused by water-guzzling apparel and textiles is textile waste that is generated within these industries. Waste in any shape or form is distasteful. But when you consider the large amount of water invested in textile and garment production, this additional waste adds to the insult. Textiles are tremendously resource-intensive. Cotton, the industry’s favourite, requires extensive water to cultivate from field to fibre. The entire dyeing story is seeped in water pollution.

This means that when you see textile waste, you should also see water waste.

Textile waste is water waste

But textile waste is both a hard issue to define and a hard issue to calculate. The horribly over-used cliché ‘one man’s waste is another man’s treasure’ does, however, sum up what is otherwise a complex challenge of defining ‘waste’. Likewise, the amount of textile waste generated during textile and garment production is hard to pinpoint and to this day is more a matter of ‘he said, she said’.

He Said

10 million tonnes of textiles are wasted in America and Europe annually

Dr. Youjiang Wang

“Recycling in textiles”Edited by Y Wang, Georgia Institute of Technology, USA, 2006

She Said

15% of fabric intended for clothing ends up on the cutting room floor

Timo Rissanen

“From 15% to 0: Investigating the creation of fashion without the creation of fabric waste,” Presenter, Kreativ Institut for Design og Teknologi, September 2005
The average apparel factory discards 60,000 pounds of usable, pre-consumer excess textiles every week, which includes brand new thread, fabric, buttons and trimmings1.


Despite a lack of consensus about the true extent of textile waste, there is still concern amongst retailers, whose bottom lines are reduced through the sizeable cutting floor waste, and environmentalists, who are keen to highlight the water and textile waste issues.

This issue of textile waste in China is particularly salient, even if it is poorly defined. China, the clothing manufacturer for the world, produces approximately 40% of the world’s textiles and 30% of the world’s apparel. Everyone knows that no factory owner worth his stitch will waste as much as a button if there is a profit to be made. And it is this attention to profit that drives an abundant, although poorly understood, secondhand market in textile waste.

It makes sense to recycle and repurpose textile waste

But whether it’s driven by shrewd business sense or the search for an environmental halo, it makes sense to recycle and repurpose textile castoffs as a means to deal with textile waste and its unsavoury counterpoint: water pollution.

Buzzwords abound for the re-use of textiles – from the old-fashioned ‘recycling’, to the trendy ‘up-cycling’, ‘reconstruction’, ‘regeneration’ and ‘repurposing’. But these differing buzzwords all lead to the same point: we should be seeking to maximize usage of materials previously deemed to be ‘waste’.

Encouragingly, these new recycling terminologies are more than just fancy words. The trends suggest that more fashion designers, brands and retailers are turning to recycling as a way to achieve sustainability that goes beyond, for example, just using organic cotton.

However, faced with this abundance of environmentally challenged outputs from the textile and garment industries, coupled with myriad ways to recycle/up-cycle/regenerate textile waste, it is little surprise that many consumers are uncertain about a product’s ‘true’ environmental savings.

In other words, the tricks of the trade need translation into something understandable for consumers.

Cue simple and streamlined standards and labels

It is for this reason that Hong Kong-based Redress launched the R Certificate*2, (application still pending) which verifies that retailers, brands and designers recycled their own factory fabric waste and/or finished clothing waste into ‘brand new’ recycled textile garments. On the surface, the R Certificate*2 appears to be a simple certification that informs the consumer about the recycled textile content in their clothing. But behind the scenes, the industry story is more complex.

We started developing the certification over a year ago and it has been an interesting process. If you want to find out more about the certification process click here.

We launched the certifircation on May 25th, to read more about the launch click here.


The R Certificate*2 was first used by Esprit for their brand new recycled collection, called ‘Recycled Collection by Esprit’. Esprit Holdings operates over 1,100 directly managed retail stores and distributes through more than 11,000 controlled-space wholesale points-of-sale worldwide.

Potential water savings

Esprit enlisted a third-party auditor, Reset Carbon, to assess the estimated environmental savings per garment to ensure that the anticipated environmental savings did translate into finished garment environmental gains. For example, one 35% recycled cotton and 65% recycled PET T-shirt saved 74% water, 18% electricity and 53% greenhouse gas.

The high water savings for these 35% recycled cotton and 65% recycled PET T-shirts were attributed to the recycled textile component, the recycled PET content and to the fact that the finished garment was not re-dyed.

Innovation in textile recycling now appears to herald a new generation of water guzzlers minimus. However, perhaps the best environmental solution is to drop before we shop and avoid shopping altogether.

1Source of this\
2The R Certificate* mark application is pending


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Dr. Christina Dean
Author: Dr. Christina Dean
Dr. Christina Dean is the founder and CEO of Redress, a Hong Kong based environmental NGO working to promote environmental sustainability in the fashion industry by reducing textile waste, pollution, water and energy consumption. Redress achieves this by conducting educational sustainable fashion shows, exhibitions, seminars, competitions and research. Prior to establishing Redress in 2007, Christina was a journalist and prior to this a practicing dental surgeon. In 2010, Christina was listed by US online magazine Coco Eco as one of ‘2010’s Most Influential Women in Green’. In 2009 she was listed by UK Vogue as one of the UK’s ‘Top 30 Inspirational Women’.
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