Can garments made from recycled post-consumer waste be legitimately classified as sustainable clothing?

Sustainable Clothing: Does Fabric Made From Recycled Consumer Waste Qualify?

From catwalks to trade shows, in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of various innovative textiles made from recycled consumer waste. And in the constant search for more sustainable clothing, it can be easy to get excited about whichever new material or process is touted as the solution to the dire ecological problems we currently face.

For example, at Pitti Uomo 94, makers of eco-puffer jackets Save The Duck unveiled their Ocean Is My Home range of technical outerwear, made from old nylon fishing nets. While I was less excited about the design of the clothing than the production process behind it, this is definitely a venture I can get enthusiastic about.

Indeed, I’d love to see some high-performance textiles made from the floating islands of polyethylene filth we’ve jettisoned into the world’s oceans. Transforming this terrifying toxic flotsam into a useful product would be a huge step forward. But although ingenious, could we legitimately look on garments made from the resulting fabrics as sustainable clothing?

As long as the recycling process itself doesn’t cause harm in some other way, recycling evil shit is an unconditional good. This isn’t in doubt. Simply put, recycling either means we can manufacture less evil shit, or at the very least solves the problem of what to do with all the evil shit we already made. Often both. It’s hard to fault this.

But evil shit, by definition (my definition, right now), means stuff that isn’t sustainable. If an item of so-called sustainable clothing is made using recycled materials from a process that in itself isn’t sustainable, then in truth the newly-made recycled item cannot genuinely be considered sustainable either.

Does that make sense?

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

It’s simple logic: if our ultimate goal is to stop producing all products that are unsustainable, then eventually the raw materials for our recycling process will dry up as no more evil shit is produced. Thus recycling unsustainable materials is a good idea while things are bad, but isn’t sustainable in the long run.

And by definition sustainable means precisely “in the long run.”

For sure, recycling is certainly a good solution to the problem of what to do with the mountains of evil shit that already exist in the world. But once all that evil shit stops coming – as we hope it one day will – we will also have to stop manufacturing our nice new products made from discarded evil shit ( fishing nets, PET bottles, or whatever clever process for reusing evil shit it might be).

can garments made from recycled post-consumer waste be classed as sustainable clothing?
Can garments made from recycled post-consumer waste be legitimately classified as sustainable clothing?

Clearly then, while recycling is undoubtedly a good thing, fashion items that are made by recycling materials of this kind cannot be accurately labelled as sustainable. Environmentally friendly clothing, ethical fashion, or simply recycled? Probably. But sustainable clothing? I’m going to say no.

For clothing to be sustainable – indeed for anything to be sustainable – its manner of production needs to be autonomous. This means not relying on raw materials that will eventually dry up  – whether because they are rare natural materials or man-made materials that we need to stop producing in order to secure our future.

Essentially this is the same argument that I’ve made elsewhere regarding vintage clothes: they’re only sustainable for as long as there’s a ready supply (and with ever decreasing standards of manufacturing, the future of vintage looks far from certain). But ultimately the goal is to eradicate the use of these materials – if not altogether, then certainly as much as we can.