Sustainably Made and Consumed Clothing

11.28.16. 11.28.16, Wired

Patagonia's latest push into sustainably made and consumed clothing is the Re\\\collection line. It includes 10 pieces total, between men's and women's garments.

Patagonia’s Re\\\collection line of jackets, vests, and pants is not made exclusively from recycled materials, but it’s close. “We got as near as we could humanly get to 100 percent recycled,” says Miles Johnson, Patagonia’s creative director of product design.

The collection includes ten styles, counting both men’s and women’s clothes. The look is classic Patagonia—tailored, yet cozy—but unlike the company’s other products, each piece sports 100 percent reused down, wool, and polyester. The labels, zippers, and buttons contain between 50 and 80 percent reclaimed material. “I would have loved the threads that sew the actual garment together to have been recycled too,” Johnson says. “But used thread would break.” Even without it, though, Re\\\collection signals a smart advancement for recycled apparel.

Not a lot of outdoor clothing companies incorporate old materials into their new products, and the ones that do are small. One is Nau, a company based out of Portland Oregon which last year debuted a line of recycled-down jackets. Like Nau, Patagonia sources its used down from a company that collects, cleans, and treats feathers from old duvets and pillows. The process is time consuming, and the output small. Johnson says they’re using absolutely everything the supplier can produce

That’s just the down. Sourcing used threads, wool, and polyester poses an entirely different challenge. These and other secondhand materials tend to lack the strength and performance of their virgin counterparts. To make them fit for new garments, suppliers have to harvest, clean, and separate the reusable stuff from the chaff. “It’s a difficult process,” says sustainable textiles expert Jana Hawley, director of the University of Arizona’s school of family and consumer sciences. It’s also a slow process. Machines do some of the work, but the recycled textile industry is still largely human-powered. “Say you pulled all the sweaters off a conveyor belt,” Hawley says. “You have someone pulling out the acrylic from cashmere by hand. It takes human knowledge.”

Hawley sits on the board for the Council of Textile Recycling, and says the group often talks about instating a labeling system for new textile products. Imagine manufacturing a sweater with a built-in RFID tag that contains all the garment’s material details. Such a tag could make it instantly sortable, once it winds up at a Goodwill. It could also help streamline the process by which ethically fraught materials like down make their way to companies like ecologically sensitive companies like Patagonia. “Down is typically a red flag for animal rights activists, because of how it’s sometimes harvested,” Hawley says. “If at the first manufacturing site it’s tagged with an RFID tag, then you can track it better, collect the down that’s harvested correctly, then it’s easier to pull it into the second life.”

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