Recycled fabric suppliers disrupted the fashion scene around 2017 for good reason. They provided a sustainable manufacturing solution that performance brands had been craving. For years, the green advice was to switch from petroleum-based synthetics like polyester and nylon to more natural fibers like cotton and hemp – bonus points if organic. But those fibers don’t hold up for swim, winter jacket, and yoga brands in wet, harsh conditions. Recycled polyester finally offered a sustainable alternative without sacrificing quality.
However, if you have been keeping up with the news, you’ll know that recycled polyester isn’t the cure-all once hoped. But it did spark a movement. Thanks to increased demand, other sustainable options became popular.
In this article, I will talk about all the recycled textile options available and share some of the best suppliers in the industry.
BUT BEFORE WE START
Have you heard about the super secret document that everyone in the fashion industry uses, but no one is talking about? Probably not. That is because you can’t find it on Google or Instagram (believe me, I’ve tried).
It’s a form I have used for over 13 years at every job I have ever had. Literally everyone from brands to fabric suppliers, use it, but you can’t find it anywhere publicly.
The best part? It can cut your sourcing time in half, and save you tons of money in product development! This is the kind of info consultants charge the big bucks for. And, I’m giving it away for free until the end of the month.
So, get ready to make fashion startup life a whole lot easier, and GRAB YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF THE NOT SO SECRET SOURCING DOC HERE.
HERE’S WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:
Let’s start! By the end, you’ll understand recycled fabrics and know the best suppliers for you.
WHY ARE RECYCLED FABRICS SO POPULAR?
While it might seem like the fashion gods determine all trends, industry insiders know that progress is comes from customer demand. On the day-to-day fashion level, trends use sales data. If a new style doesn’t sell, the brand will make less of it. If a new style sells well, brands won’t just make more; they will make multiple variations of it. Recycled fabric suppliers have seen record sales because consumers are wanting environmental change. And brands that adopt these trends faster are gaining the most.
A PRACTICAL SOLUTION
Recycled fabrics perfectly suit performance brands. And part of the reason recycled fabrics have become so popular is largely thanks to the rise in athleisure styles. Typically, these types of designs need polyester and nylon for moisture management and durability. Natural fibers just don’t perform as well. Period.
Now, without quality tradeoffs, performance brands can offer high-performing products with diverse fiber options, all while making a positive environmental impact.
TBH, I am still on the hunt for a good pair of cotton workout leggings that last and don’t stretch out. If you know any, email me. While there have been advances, to my knowledge, they just can’t compete with the synthetic stuff.
Recycled fiber technology has been around for a while – since 1993, to be exact. But, early recycled fabrics felt pretty gross, like squeaky styrofoam.
Back then, the technology just wasn’t there to create a product that consumers actually wanted to buy. Yea, it was cool that they could make fabric out of old water bottles. But, no one actually wanted to put it on their body.
Thanks to decades of increased demand, fiber suppliers invested more and more money in recycling technology to continue to improve the feel of the fibers. And, today, many recycled fabrics match or exceed virgin textile quality.
And this is really what I want you to take away from this story…
People can demand sustainable options all they want, but there needs to be financial investments into technology to actually make it happen.
WHAT IS RECYCLED FABRIC?
In its simplest definition, recycled fabric takes waste, breaks it down into simpler components, and recreates new sustainable fabrics.
The most mainstream recycled fabric is polyester, which is made from ocean plastic, specifically plastic bottles and fishing nets. However, suppliers can also make recycled fabrics from many different sources.
Waste can be pre-consumer or post-consumer. Pre-consumer waste is factory waste that the customer never sees. Examples of this would be textile mill remnants, factory cutting room scraps, and even unsold inventory from retail stores. Manufacturers collection post-consumer waste from customers. Examples of this would be a shirt you no longer want anymore or other clothing on its way to the garbage.
RECLAIMED VS. RECYCLED
The terms ‘recycled’ and ‘reclaimed’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings.
Reclaimed textiles are fabrics or clothing originally destined for the landfill. But, designers and brands rescue and repurpose them. Think of reclaimed textiles as the step before recycling. They work well for small, limited runs and one-of-a-kind pieces.
Finding a roll of vintage fabric at an estate sale and using it to create a small collection of shirts would be a perfect example of this. Garments made out of deadstock are also technically reclaimed fabric.
- More sustainable than recycling – because it does not use all the resources needed to create new fabrics.
- Unique – especially if you are using vintage textiles.
- Affordable – generally, these fabrics are heavily discounted. When fabrics go to recycling, suppliers know they will get pennies on the dollar. If they can sell them as reclaimed fabrics, they can make a bit more money than with recyclers. But it will still be a great deal for the brand.
- Once it’s gone, it’s gone – if you find a fabric that your customers love, once once you use it all up, that’s it.
- Not scalable – designers who use reclaimed fabrics are constantly on the hunt for the next best fabric. Because they can not reorder like in traditional supply chains, they are left constantly sourcing.
- Quality – because fabrics are old or rejected, there might be flaws like discoloration, degraded strength, and other abnormalities.
As I mentioned earlier, recycled fabrics are collected items that are broken down and made into something new.
For example, did you know that fabric performance degrades over time? Because of this, deadstock fabric or reclaimed fabrics might not be the best fit for performance items. For example, a highly technical jacket for Olympic athletes would likely use recycled polyester because it would give the manufacturers more control over the quality any performance of the textiles.
- Consistent quality – the same fabric can be re-ordered, and brands know what type of quality they are getting.
- Scalable – because re-orders are possible, it is easier to make more
- Simplified sourcing – think SOPs (standard operating procedures). The process of ordering new fabrics and making more units is easily repeatable, saving time and money.
- Tested performance – most recycled fabric suppliers will invest in testing their top fabric qualities. This means that brands are able to receive a test report to know how fabrics will perform under different conditions like sun, chlorine, and even physical stress and abrasion.
- High energy use – suppliers need a lot of energy to break down the used materials and turn them into something new.
- Potentially expensive – especially for low MOQ. Generally, MOQs are higher with recycled textiles than with virgin textiles. To use these types of materials, brands will either need to increase product prices or accept lower profit margins.
- Ongoing environmental issues – the juice might not be worth the squeeze. There are lots of problems with recycled fabrics (like microfibers – I’ll get to more on that in a minute) that we are only just learning about now. Between the increased price and negative environmental impacts, they simply might not be as great as we once thought.
WHICH IS BETTER?
Well, that is really up to you! But for me, the biggest reason I lean towards recycled fabrics over reclaimed is scalability. With reclaimed fabrics, you will always be on the “I need to find more fabric” hamster wheel.
Brands like Christy Dawn and Reformation are both proof of this. Both brands started with deadstock fabrics and, as they gained popularity, had to change their supply chains to use recycled and other eco friendly fabrics.
HOW ARE RECYCLED FABRICS MADE?
Many people don’t realize there are different fabric recycling methods. There are two main types, each with its own supply chain and each with its own set of pros and cons.
PHYSICAL / MECHANICAL RECYCLING
Here’s how mechanical recycled fabric suppliers create new fabrics:
1. Old textiles collection – These fabrics can come from consumers throwing old garments away or from other supply chain partners.
2. The material sorting – The materials are divided by fiber content and color.
By sorting by color, suppliers are able to create colored fabrics that do not require an additional dye process (read: are extra eco-friendly).
It is also important to note that for high-quality fabrics to come out on the other side, pure garments need to go in. So, shirts that are 55% organic cotton and 45% polyester are generally not suitable for the recyling process.
3. Materials prepping for the recycling process – Suppliers remove trim like elastic waistbands, labels, buttons, and zippers from the garments.
4. Material breakdown – Everything is put into basically a giant blender, to breakd down the garments into their fiber state.
5. Yarn spinning – I think this one is self explanitory .
6. New fabric creation – And, just like in virgin fabric manufacturing, suppliers then weave and knit the yarns into fabrics.
Chemical recycling uses, you guessed it, chemicals to break down fabrics, garments, and even the fibers themselves to then create new fibers and fabrics. The main difference between mechanical and chemical recycling (aside from all the chemicals used) is that mechanical recycling reuses the natural fibers, whereas chemicals completely break them down to their molecular components and create new ones.
Chemical fabric recycling is typically done at a completely different facility, and usually by a completely different company.
Here is how chemically recycled fabric suppliers make new fabrics:
- Steps 1-3 are the same – as mechanical recycling. But this time, it is extremely important that all the fiber sources are pure. Because a chemical reaction is taking place, and different chemicals react differently with different fibers, we need to make sure only 100% cotton, or 100% polyester sources are going into the recycling system.
- Chemicals are added – in the case of 100% cotton recycling, the chemicals used will break down the cotton fibers into a solution that is similar to rayon. In the case of 100% polyester recycling, the chemicals will break down the plastic into a liquid that is almost identical to virgin polyester.
- Yarns are extruded – because chemical recycling creates new fibers, those fibers need to be made from the liquid solution. AKA the extrusion process.
- And just like in mechanical recycling, the yarns are spun, and then knit or woven into fabrics.
PROS AND CONS OF MECHANICAL AND CHEMICAL RECYCLING
From the description of how recycled fabrics are made above, I bet you are probably thinking that mechanical recycling sounds like a much more eco-friendly process because it does not use heavy chemicals. And, you are right.
However, because mechanical recycling breaks down the fibers, the fibers become weaker, creating lower-quality fabrics. While mechanical recycling has come a long way, and some suppliers have gotten really good at it, there will always be a slight loss of quality every time those fibers pass through the recycling system.
With chemical recycling, as long as the new fibers do not mix with other fiber types like spandex for stretch fabrics, they can technically go through the recycling system forever and create the same standard of quality every time.
RECYCLED FABRIC SUPPLIERS TO TRY (BY FIBER)
Here are a few of my favorite recycled fabric suppliers that are worth working with:
RECYCLED POLYESTER FABRIC SUPPLIERS AND RECYCLED NYLON FABRIC SUPPLIERS
Recycled polyester (aka rPET) and recycled nylon are two very similar fibers. Both are petroleum-based. Generally, manufacturers that make one will also make the other.
What’s cool about rPET specifically is that, unlike other fiber recycling processes, this one might actually be more environmentally friendly than creating virgin materials. The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment did a study and found that rPET uses 59% less energy than virgin poly, and that making the switch from virgin to recycled can reduce CO2 emissions by 32%.
UNIFI / REPREVE
While I bet you have never heard of Unifi, I am willing to bet you have heard of REPREVE®, a well-known brand for recycled polyester fabrics. REPREVE was one of the first recycled fiber suppliers to become a household name. To be clear, UNIFI is the parent company of REPREVE. UNIFI then sells the yarns to fabric mills to create textiles. But, sometimes, if you ask nicely, UNIFI will share a list of textile suppliers they sell their branded yarns too.
UNIFI also has REPREVE® Our Ocean, which is basically REPREVE, made from ocean plastics. BTW, it’s important to look at each supplier’s definition of fabric recycled from “ocean plastic”. For UNIFI, it is bottles at high risk of ending up in the ocean. UNFI deals with the root cause of ocean plastic. They make sure to collect bottles within 50K of coastlines. So, to be clear, they are not necessarily cleaning up the Oceans.
Additional Sustainable Fiber Options
There are other special REPREVE yarns, including the Smart Dye collection, that allows for lower temperature dyeing (saving heat and electricity). Sultra is another special type of yarn that is super soft and works well with catatonic dyes. Catatonic dyes create heather fabric effects.
Since the success of REPREVE, UNIFI has also expanded its product offerings to recycled nylon.
Speaking of ocean plastic, I am sure you have heard about Parlay for The Oceans, thanks to their headline-grabbing partnership with ADIDAS. I personally know the Parley team, and have even gotten to participate in a beach clean up (you can watch the video here). I can tell you firsthand – they are the real deal.
Not only are they on the ground working to clean up the oceans, but they are giving back to local communities in more ways than you could imagine. I won’t get into it all here, but expect a dedicated blog post about them soon!
Econyl became popular around the same time as REPREVE. But, while REPREVE was first known for its polyester, Econyl, just like the name suggests, focused on Nylon. One of the things that I really like about Econyl is that they feature brands that use their fibers and fabrics on their website (hello, free PR).
Another top recycled fabric supplier is the Italian company Fulgar. Fulgar has a range of yarns, but their most popular is the Q-NOVA range, which is a recycled nylon 6.6.
CARVICO JERSEY LOMELILNA
Another Italian company, Carvico, specializes in all types of recycled athletic fabrics, though they are probably best known for their recycled polyester knit fabrics made for swimsuit styles. So, if you are looking to skip the yarn supplier stage and jump straight into fabric sourcing, Carvico might be the best option for you.
RECYCLED COTTON FABRIC SUPPLIERS AND RECYCLED RAYON FABRIC SUPPLIERS
Quick recap from earlier. Mechanical recycling of cotton creates more cotton fibers, while chemical recycling of cotton creates rayon. If you are interested in learning more about cotton recycling – check out this post.
Recover Fiber is probably the most famous cotton recycling company. They take old garments and transform them into their own brand of rayon fiber RECOVER. They have partnerships with brands like LandsEnd, DL1961, Primark, and Revolve.
Renewcell is another big player in the cotton waste-to-rayon game. Circulose is their brand of rayon fiber. Renewcell works with brands like Levis, Adidas, and Zara – so you know you’ll be in good company.
Lenzing also uses cotton industry scraps to create new rayon fibers with REVIBRA rayon, which falls under the Tencel family. What makes these fibers extra special is that they are carbon-zero.
COTTON WORKS BY COTTON INC.
Leave it to the ultimate cotton people at Cotton Inc. to have an entire arm of their business dedicated to mechanical cotton recycling – Cotton Works. Cotton Works works (get it?) at solving problems like creating high-quality recycled cotton yarns, reducing the costs of processes to make it easier for brands to adopt the technology, and investing in testing to further research.
RECYCLED WOOL FABRIC SUPPLIERS
Did you know that animal fiber textiles are generally the most expensive material? You definitely don’t want to let those fibers go to waste. There is actually a rich history of wool recycling in Italy with an origin story of financial necessity (you can read more about it after clicking the Monteco link below).
For an entire article and factory tour about my wool recycling favs, Monteco – click here. P.S., they are startup-friendly!
RECYCLED DENIM FABRIC SUPPLIERS
Denim is a special type of fabric. That is because, unlike other fabrics, the indigo dye sits on the top of the yarns and does not penetrate all the way through. To learn more about jeans, you can check out this article about what makes a pair expensive, and this one about sustainable practices in the denim industry. It’s no surprise that denim textiles would need their own special recycling systems.
THE NEW DENIM PROJECT
Based in Guatemala City, The New Denim Project breaks down old denim and other textiles to create new ones through a hand-weaving process. As a bonus, hand-weaving uses even less electricity. This is definitely a great recycled fabric supplier for brands that use more artisanal techniques in their supply chains.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON RECYCLED FABRICS
While just a few years ago, using recycled materials would lead to inferior products, today’s suppliers (in large part thanks to customer demand, increased technology, and more research in the area) are just as good as using raw materials. Personally, I can’t wait to see just how much better they get, not just in quality but also in their positive impact on the environment in the future.
ADDITIONAL SUSTAINABLE FIBER RESOURCES
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Are you going to use recycled fabrics in your next collection? Which of these suppliers are you most excited to work with? Let me know in the comments