What Is Recycled Clothing: how is it made and where can I find it?
Recycled clothing is a great choice if you’re looking to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle and create an ethical wardrobe. But knowing where to start isn’t always easy. There isn’t much that can ever truly be recycled because most materials and products aren’t created with a circular design process. For example, most clothing made from synthetic fibres can be recycled but it was never intended to be.
Consumers will generally buy a polyester dress and after a few wears, either donate it to a charity shop or throw it in the bin. It’ll then go to a landfill site where it will take hundreds of years to biodegrade, releasing microplastics into the ground and atmosphere as it does so.
In June 2019, the UK government rejected a proposal to ban textiles from landfill. Our government is instead focusing on recycled clothing, which means shoppers need to know what it is, how it’s made and where to find it.
How are clothes recycled?
There are four processes for creating recycled clothing. The first is resale and upcycling via the likes of UK charity shops and design projects, the second is resale to foreign countries for used clothes markets, the third is raw material recycling for natural textiles and finally, raw material recycling for synthetic materials, like rayon, polyester, polyamide and viscose.
Clothing made from natural materials like wool and cotton is pulled apart and cleaned. The fibres are then spun back into yarn to make new fabrics. However, this process gets trickier when a garment is made from a cotton and polyester mix.
Polyester textiles must be shredded into chips which are melted down and used to create new polyester fabrics. While other synthetic materials are broken down using chemical processes and the raw materials are used by other industries, like car manufacturing.
Fast fashion has created a system of supply and demand that does not allow for circular practices or for investment in proper recycling processes. It’s cheaper to create, sell and buy cheap clothing that is quickly disposed of and replaced than to create clothing that lasts and that can be safely recycled and remade. The former option creates an endless cycle of production that puts pressure on garment workers and irreversibly harms the planet.
We spoke with Frankie Phillips, Founder of sustainable fashion brand TOBEFRANK about the process of creating truly sustainable pieces, her experience of working in Asia’s garment industry and the mission behind her eponymous label.
Tell us about your brand, what’s the story?
The first version of TOBEFRANK started in 2011 when I was 22. It was made in England, totally transparent but very expensive. I showed the whole supply chain with the machinists and pattern cutters all in the limelight.
After three years of pushing the brand while working full time, I realised how little I knew of the industry and how much I needed to learn, so I moved to Beijing to work as a designer for Jack and Jones. After two years there learning about supply chains I moved to Hong Kong, developing new ideas with the end goal of re-launching TOBEFRANK.
Once you’ve built friendships with people in the factories and seen the pollution caused by badly managed factories you cannot turn a blind eye. I left Asia in 2018 on a mission to start TOBEFRANK and prove that you can make clothing properly without it literally costing the earth.
How did your experiences of working in the industry influence your interest in sustainable fashion?
The part I loved about my first job were the people I worked with. The pattern cutters, the merchandisers, the machinists. It really opened my eyes to how many people are needed to make clothing, and how talented everyone was.
I became passionate about communicating the menchanisms of the supply chain. I thought customers, like myself would want to know where their clothing came from. However, whenever I presented to a buyer, whether it was at Liberty or House of Fraser, they would all say the same thing, “people don’t care where their clothes come from”.
Living in Asia changed my life. I travelled a lot and I saw first hand the damage done to our environment. The turning point was my first Christmas in Beijing – there was a reported threat to westerners living in South Chaoyang and the army came to evacuate us. Though it wasn’t proven, it was reported that an uprising had been launched in a village in northern China. Its inhabitants had become so desperate due to their lands and lives being destroyed by clothing production pollution they wanted to fight.
A month or so later I took a detour on a sourcing trip to see this village. I saw dirty rivers with dried up purple soil from the denim dye houses, I saw crumbling houses and a deserted, empty place. That day will stay with me. I didn’t directly cause this damage but my hands still felt dirty.
Even in a ‘good’ supply chain approved for our high street UK stores I saw dirty water pouring from factories, I saw people living in small weather-beaten huts and it tore me up. How did I have a roof over my head, and they didn’t? and I could bet my life they were working longer hours than I was. I began doing part time courses to learn more about the environment, ethical policies, sustainable development and the change of agriculture.
During my time in Beijing I implemented different ways of working to limit water use and reduce production wastage and after two years in Beijing I moved to Hong Kong to manage Next’s production development in Asia. Here I implemented a new way of working for the sourcing process.
It took me six months to convert the whole office to sourcing BCI cotton instead of conventional cotton and even then, it wasn’t a rule. The people I worked for wanted change but at this rate, the world would end before It could happen. I thought, if I can’t persuade retailers to push for sustainability, I’ll lead the way myself.
Tell us about how you do things differently – how does one create ethical and recycled clothing?
With TOBEFRANK we started by focusing on waste fabric – this was primarily fabric cuttings from previous production runs. We take this to a recycling plant and turn it into new fibre ready for spinning.
We use organic cotton and also make dresses from the seeds left over from cotton production. The mill producing this seed fabric is actually the only mill with actual vegan certification. They use vegetable dyes and don’t use an enzyme wash – enzyme washing uses small bacteria that eats away at the fabric base to make it smooth.
We also are working to become circular. We are already circular in many ways but until we have many full runs of production with all the waste being reused and a solution for clothing after it’s been used by the wearer, we cannot call ourselves officially circular – however this is our business goal.
All our trims are made from re-melted waste metal from other brands production. All our thread is recycled or organic and all our interlining is recycled too. We have many more projects in development, some will work and some might not, but that’s also the beauty of having a brand like this, we can be creative and really push the boundaries.
How does the idea of recycled clothing work?
There are basically two types of recycled clothing – pre-consumer which is where the fabric cuttings left over from previous production runs are used to make new items, and post-consumer which reuses garments that have already been worn it and then thrown away.
At the moment we create pre-consumer recycled clothing. We collect fabric cuttings from other brands’ previous productions which have already been bagged up in plastic bags ready to go to landfill. We take these and turn them into new fabrics. Even the dust left over after production is donated to a chimney company for insulation.
Our mission is to also work with post-consumer recycled clothing but the difficulty here is mainly logistical. The clothing, once collected needs to be unpicked, all trims removed and cleaned. It is possible, but to do this and pay someone living wages and then start the process of turning it into new clothing is expensive which means the retail price would be pricy too. However, this is something we are actively looking at.
What’s your process for creating clothes from recycled or recyclable materials?
Our recycling plant takes in on average 800 tons of fabric every month which would normally go into landfill, that’s a huge amount that’s wasted. Cotton is the thirstiest crop so essentially, it’s not just the fabric that’s wasted, it’s all the water that was used and the time it took to grow.
When the fabric arrives at the recycling plant it’s sorted by colour then turned into fluffy fibre before being spun back into yarn ready to be knitted into new fabric. As well as the fabrics themselves being recycled it’s key to not forget the trims or the thread – for a piece to be labelled ‘recycled clothing’ it has to walk the walk.
What are the benefits of this for people and planet?
Firstly, I believe that profit is relevant to any business – profit is needed throughout the supply chain for people to thrive and prosper. Fair pay from the cotton farm to the person packaging is vital for a business to be sustainable.
Sustainability isn’t just about using an organic fabric it’s so much more than this, and it’s not just about the environment either, it’s about people. Our factories are all audited but this isn’t what we rely on. I have my own framework which I have built up over the last few years – it’s based on three areas, Innovation, Responsibly and Transparency and this is implemented across our entire product development.
Creating clothing which is made correctly has a hugely positive effect on the environment and people. Cutting out chemicals means people are not breathing them in at work, paying people fairly means that the communities are happy and healthy.
Using organic cotton means that pesticides are not polluting the soils and water isn’t wasted, this in turn helps the communities when growing their own crops to eat, simply just having clean soil means healthy food. `
Tell us about your latest collection
Our latest collection is about standing up for the world we want. We are now at a point where the world is dramatically changing – floods, fires and now a pandemic – we are becoming very vulnerable in our home. But what did we expect? We have treated our planet so poorly for decades.
With fashion being the second-most polluting industry in the world but the biggest employer worldwide it’s so incredibly important for the industry to change. We’re creating a ‘change the world’ tribe – a community of people who want to make a stand and make changes for a better world.
We have created 100% recycled statement T-shirts with ballsy honest messaging so the wearer can make a peaceful stand. Sometimes in this type of situation it’s hard to know how to make a stand for what you believe in, making a statement with our clothing is a creative and fun way to turn a powerful message into something inspiring.
Our Don’t be a Donald T-shirt is our most popular piece, I think it’s because it has so many levels, addressing race, sex and climate change, it’s something that many people can connect with. We say, ‘in a world where you can be anything, Don’t be a Donald’
What’s next for To Be Frank? What do you hope to achieve?
We have some exciting projects lined up, from our new ‘rubbish range’ – recycled clothing arriving in August. Plus, dying with natural dyes while supporting a local women’s empowerment project to introducing the zero-waste face masks.
Something which is very worrying during this recent tragedy is the amount of plastic disposable facemasks which will be thrown away over the next few months, this is going to further pollute the environment.
We have worked with our supply chain to make a zero-waste mask, using recycled material leftovers and reusing whatever has been wasted in the next production.
Despite what many brands or retailers might think, they exist because of shoppers. As shoppers we have so much power to change things. I like to think of our customers as our investors, every penny spent with us is an investment into how we evolve as a brand. I believe it’s important for us to be transparent in what we do and how we make our clothes because the investors have the right to know where their money is going.
In that sense, when we as shoppers spend our money with brands who do not uphold our values, we are investing in a company we don’t believe in and supporting them in what they do. By changing the way we shop and thinking about where we put our money, we can make such a huge impact and we really can change the world.