Textile Recycling : Do a circular economy and fast fashion go together?

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK - CIRCA SEPTEMBER, 2014: inside H & M store at Copenhagen Airport, Kastrup. H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB is a Swedish multinational retail-clothing company, known for its fast-fashion clothing.
© Heorshe - stock.adobe.com

Textiles: From linear to circular

In the past, textiles did not hold much significance in waste management. The Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) introduced important milestones, such as the waste hierarchy, in the EU back in 2008. Specific directives for certain types of waste had already been adopted in the EU two to three decades ago, such as for packaging (94/62/EC), vehicles (2000/53/EC), or electrical and electronic equipment (2002/96/EC). Textiles only gained attention with the amendment of the Waste Framework Directive (EU) 2018/851 in 2018.

Currently, the EU is actively promoting the transition from a linear economic model to a circular one. Circular economy principles emphasize the reduction of waste, the reuse of materials, and the recycling of products to create a more sustainable and regenerative system. The integration of textiles into the circular economy is part of the EU's broader strategy to minimize the consumption of resources and the production of waste. In recent years, "A new Circular Economy Action Plan For a cleaner and more competitive Europe" (COM(2020) 98 final) and "EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles" (COM(2022) 141 final) have been published, focusing partially or even fully on textiles. Notably, in 2023, the EU released a proposal for another amendment to the Waste Framework Directive (COM(2023) 420 final), which further elaborates on strategies for handling textile waste.

Related article: The EU wants to fight the deluge of textile waste

Textile Fibers

Textile chain input materials primarily consist of textile fibers, categorized into natural and man-made fibers. Natural fibers include those of plant origin (e.g., cotton), animal origin (e.g., wool), and mineral origin (e.g., asbestos). Man-made fibers result from technical processes, using fiber materials from both natural (known as man-made cellulosic fibers – MMCF, e.g., viscose) and synthetic polymers (synthetic man-made fibers - SMMF, e.g., PET), or even inorganic materials like glass.

Global fiber production amounted to 117 million tons in 2022. A more detailed breakdown of fiber production by fiber type can be found in Figure 1. The share of natural fibers is around 33.4 million tons (i.e. 29%), with cotton accounting for the lion's share at 25.5 million tons. The other, plant-based, natural fibers are lagging behind with 6.0 million tons, with jute (3.4 million tons) and coir (1.3 million tons) alone accounting for around 77% of this sub-category. Natural animal fibers (1.9 million tons) are of secondary importance today, with wool accounting for around 1.1 million tons. The production volume of man-made fibers was 83.3 million tons, which corresponds to 71% of total fiber production. PET fibers are mainly responsible for this category with 63.3 million tons, PA (6.7 million tons) and other synthetic fibers (6.0 million tons) are of lesser importance.

Overall, approximately two-thirds of fiber production relies on fossil raw materials (PET, PA, and other SMMF: 76.0 million tons), while only around one-third (natural fibers and MMCF: 40.7 million tons) is based on renewable raw materials. It's important to note that even natural fibers, derived from renewable resources, require (fossil) energy for processes such as harvesting, agricultural chemicals, etc. Depending on the fiber type, the amount of crude oil required (for energy or as a material) ranges between 1.5 and 3 tons per ton of fiber.

Related article: Bye bye bye: Europe's problem with used textiles exports

Figure 1. Production volume of textile fibers in 2022. The figures are in million tons, the height of the columns reflects the production volume.

- © Bartl

The textile processing chain

The production of clothing and other textiles is a complex process that unfolds in several stages. These individual process steps are dispersed globally, primarily concentrated in countries with low social and environmental standards.

The key input materials for this process are textile fibers, predominantly derived from fossil raw materials as outlined above. These fibers undergo various stages in the textile processing chain, including being spun into yarn, woven or knitted into a fabric, dyed and finished, and finally cut and sewn into the finished product.

Each of these process steps entails the consumption of energy and resources, leading to emissions such as greenhouse gases (mainly associated with energy consumption) or wastewater (especially in dyeing and finishing). Consequently, the textile industry is renowned for its significant environmental footprint.

The total energy consumption varies significantly and is largely dependent on factors such as yarn thickness and the grammage of the textile and is illustrated in Figure 2(a). Due to these factors, the total energy requirement can fluctuate between approximately 100 and 400 GJ/t, as depicted in Figure 2(b). This translates into a crude oil requirement ranging from 2.5 to 10 tons for every ton of textiles.

Related article: EU wants EPR schemes for textiles

Figure 2. Energy consumption of the individual process steps of the textile production chain (a) and cumulative energy consumption for final garment (b).

- © Bartl

The fast fashion business model

The term “fast fashion” has gained significant prominence in the clothing industry in recent years. It refers to a business model where textiles are rapidly brought to market in short cycles, offered at low cost, and sold with a limited shelf life. Garments are designed, produced, and brought into stores swiftly to align with the latest fashion trends, with the main focus being the shortening of time-to-market. This rapid turnover leads to unsustainable resource consumption and an increased environmental impact, while simultaneously boosting sales figures.

Inditex, a prominent entity in the textile industry, commanding a substantial 27% share of the market, has undergone remarkable expansion. Its sales surged from EUR 5.6 billion in 2004 to an impressive EUR 32.6 billion in 2022, signifying a six-fold increase over the span of 18 years, notwithstanding a considerable downturn in 2020 attributable to the global pandemic.

The conventional fast fashion paradigm is undergoing rapid transformation. Notably, enterprises such as Shein, a Chinese powerhouse, have adopted an exceptionally dynamic approach, unveiling an astonishing 6,000 to 9,000 new products daily on their online platform and social media channels. Shein witnessed a staggering surge in sales from EUR 14.7 billion in 2021 to EUR 28.1 billion in 2022, closely trailing Zara's substantial turnover of EUR 32.6 billion. Despite the success of its "super-fast business model," Shein has encountered criticism for its apparent disregard for environmental and ethical considerations. This critique extends to allegations of design appropriation, with fashion designers and artists frequently raising objections about Shein replicating their creations. These disputes manifest in complex legal battles with outcomes often fraught with uncertainty. The rapid growth trajectory of the fast fashion sector shows no indication of deceleration, with projected turnover reaching an extraordinary EUR 185 billion by 2027.

Related article: The world's first automatic large-scale textile sorting plant is in Sweden

Growth in the fiber market

Clothing is a fundamental human need, and it's unsurprising that clothing consumption, along with the associated production of textile fibers, is growing in tandem with the global population. However, the growth rate in production volume far outpaces population growth, as depicted in Figure 3. Per capita consumption has surged from 6.7 kg/capita in 1980 to 14.3 kg/capita in 2022. This robust increase in per capita consumption, combined with a significant rise in the global population, results in an exceptionally strong growth in fiber production, escalating from 24 million tons in 1970 to 117 million tons in 2022. The surge in per capita consumption can be attributed to the rapid expansion of the textile industry, fueled in part by the success of the (super-)fast fashion business model.

Figure 3. World fiber production and global world population.

- © Bartl

A closer examination of production figures in the fiber sector reveals that growth is primarily concentrated in the SMMF category. This fiber category has expanded significantly, surging from 4.8 million tons in 1970 to about seventeen times that amount in 2022 (83.3 million tons), as depicted in Figure 4. On average, this results in a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 5.6%, or a doubling time of 12.5 years. MMCF have also seen substantial growth, increasing from 2.0 million tons in 2000 to 7.3 million tons, but their long-term growth rate is more moderate compared to SMMF (3.6 million tons in 1970). Ultimately, MMCFs account for just under 9% of SMMF.

Figure 4 also illustrates the production volume of cotton. Until the mid-1990s, cotton production exceeded that of SMMF. However, by 2022, the volume of SMMF was more than three times that of cotton (approximately 25 vs. 83 million tons). Cotton production is expected to further stagnate in the coming years, as the yield per hectare has already reached its limit, and additional arable land cannot be diverted from food production.

Figure 4. Production volume of cotton and synthetic man-made fibers from 1970 – 2022. CAGR shows the development of the production of synthetic man-made fibers with an annual growth of 5.6% on the basis of 1970.

- © Bartl

If the growth in the SMMF sector continues at a similar level over the next few years, the volume is projected to double from the current 83 million tons (2022) to about 166 million tons by 2035. This implies a corresponding doubling of the demand for (fossil) raw materials and energy, along with associated emissions. Considering the previously mentioned requirement of up to 10 tons of crude oil per 1 ton of textiles, a dramatic development in the textile sector can be anticipated in the coming years.

A symbiosis?

At a superficial glance, one might conclude that fast fashion, when combined with the circular economy, could create a fantastic symbiosis. The fast fashion business model allows for the provision of affordable clothing, making fashionable attire accessible to a broader population beyond high earners. Simultaneously, recycling of textiles is a key component of the EU's circular economy package and has the potential to alleviate the textile industry's reliance on primary raw materials, such as polymers. Moreover, in line with the EU Circular Economy Package, textile recycling has the capacity to generate new “green jobs”.

Clothing retailers are actively working towards maximizing the sustainability of their operations and have launched activities to achieve SDG’s. Inditex, for instance, has announced its commitment to covering its energy consumption from renewable sources, incorporating sustainably produced cotton, and utilizing polyester made from recycled materials.

In reality, however, brands tend to operate “business as usual” and instead intensify their greenwashing activities. After all, all players in the fast fashion sector still rely on increasing their sales. Reducing revenue, offering durable or repairable products, cannot be in the interest of the textile industry.


As illustrated earlier, textile production is a complex process, and recycling involves retracing several steps in the production chain and, to some extent, repeating them. Consequently, there isn't a single recycling strategy; end-of-use textiles can re-enter the process chain at various points (i.e., as fibers, polymers, or monomers), requiring at least part of the process chain to be traversed again (compare Figure 2). Therefore, the recycling route should aim to go back as little as possible to minimize the repetition of process steps. Brief explanations of potential cycles are outlined below.

1. Production of Cleaning and Wiping Rags (CWR):

This process involves minimal alterations (e.g., cutting into approximately 20 x 20 cm pieces) to the physical and chemical properties of textiles. The manufacture of CWR requires low energy as no additional processing than cutting is needed. However, these CWR are disposable products that undergo thermal recovery after use. Thus, this route does not align with the circular economy concept.

2. Recycling while Maintaining Fiber Structure:

This involves disassembling the textile structure while retaining the integrity of fibers. Tearing machines can be employed to generate fibers suitable for yarn or non-woven fabric manufacturing. A consequential reduction in fiber length, and consequently a potential decrease in quality, is frequently unavoidable. As an alternative, textiles can be transformed into flock, consisting of short (non-spinnable) fibers suitable for incorporation as additives in construction materials. In both scenarios, the necessity for initiating new fiber production is obviated, leading to significant energy savings.

3. Recycling Maintaining the Underlying Polymer:

Physical properties are altered (e.g., melting or dissolving), while maintaining the chemical structure. The melted or dissolved polymer is introduced into a fiber spinning process. For instance, cotton textiles can serve as raw material for producing lyocell fibers, substituting native wood, resulting in recycled fibers equivalent to those from new raw materials. Secondary thermoplastic polymers, such as PET, can also be fed into a melt spinning process.

The main challenge for this process is the need for high-purity input streams, contrasting with textiles containing multiple polymers. High-quality sorting and/or additional separation steps (mechanical, chemical, biochemical) are essential but not yet industrially implemented. Compared to the previous routes, the energy-saving potential is lower as a significant portion of the processing chain has to be redone.

4. Recycling at the Level of the Underlying Monomer(s):

This involves physically and chemically altering the fiber. For example, fibers from PA6 can be converted to polycaprolactam, which is then used for a new polymerization to PA6. While suitable for a wide range of input materials, this route requires almost the entire process chain to be revisited.

Table 1. Fiber recycling in 2022 Fiber type Production volume million t % Recycled fibers million t
PET 63.3 14* 8.86*
Wool 1.05 7 0.07
Elastane 1.24 3 0.04
Polyamide 6.21 2 0.12
Cotton 25.5 1 0.26
Polyacrylic 1.63 0.7 0.01
MMCF 7.0 0.5 0.04
Polypropylene 3.10 0.2 0.01
*almost exclusively originating from PET bottles

Table 1 summarizes the fiber recycling situation for the year 2022. At first glance, it appears that PET fibers have achieved a high recycling rate of about 14%, amounting to 8.9 million tons. However, it is important to note that recycled PET is predominantly derived from PET bottles, resulting in essentially zero fiber-to-fiber recycling.

Wool is ranked second in the recycling rate, but given its low production volume of 1.1 million tons, the recycled volume is negligible. This is also the case for other fibers, and it is worth mentioning that there is no information available on whether recycling occurs on a fiber-to-fiber level.

The only exception is cotton, which reports a recycling rate of 1%. Although this rate is relatively low, considering the high production volume (25.5 million tons), the recycled cotton amounts to 260,000 tons. Since cotton is mainly used for textiles, fiber-to-fiber recycling can be assumed.

In summary, when considering recycled quantities (with PET set to zero), the total volume of fibers sourced from textile raw materials is negligible, well below 1%. This data strongly suggests that fiber-to-fiber recycling is virtually non-existent. Notably, substantial recycling occurs for PET, but it is important to acknowledge that the polymer from bottles is integrated into the textile industry. Consequently, achieving a true circular economy in the textile sector necessitates substantial advancements.

Is recycling the solution?

It is undisputed that recycling is an effective means of reducing the need for virgin raw materials. While recycling is expected to become more significant in the textile sector due to the new legal framework in the EU, the massive growth of textile fibers, driven not least by the fast fashion business model, must also be taken into account.

It has been previously highlighted that the volume of SMMF has grown at a CAGR of 5.6% since 1970 (refer to Figure 4) and is expected to continue growing in the coming years, as illustrated in Figure 5. In 2022, the production of SMMF was 83.3 million tons, with a mere 1% derived from recycled material through fiber-to-fiber recycling. This implies that approximately 83 million tons of polymers are sourced from virgin raw materials (or PET bottles).

Assuming a continued CAGR of 5.6%, the production volume is forecasted to reach approximately 166 million tons by 2035. Despite a highly ambitious target of achieving a fiber-to-fiber recycling rate of 50% by that time, the demand for primary raw materials is expected to remain nearly unchanged (refer to Figure 5). A parallel scenario unfolds in 2039, with sustained growth resulting in a production volume of around 207 million tons. Even with a hypothetical recycling rate of 60%, the demand for primary raw materials would not experience a significant reduction. This illustration emphasizes that any progress in fiber recycling may be counterbalanced by the robust expansion in production.

Figure 5. Production volume of synthetic man-made fibers (2022) and projection for 2034 and 2038 (CAGR of 5.6%). Assumed recycling rate (fiber-to-fiber): 2022: 1%; 2035: 50%; 2039: 60%.

- © Bartl


The textile industry is renowned for its substantial environmental impact, characterized by high resource and water consumption, as well as emissions. Ensuring the sustainable use of textiles is paramount in mitigating the environmental repercussions across the entire lifecycle of textile production, utilization, and disposal. While the European Union (EU) has been slow to acknowledge the necessity of addressing environmental concerns related to textiles, the current juncture demands immediate attention.

Given that textile recycling is a relatively recent development, there is a pressing need to enhance applicable processes. The situation is further complicated by the existence of various recycling routes. It is anticipated that an optimal recycling route may not exist; rather, a tailored set of recycling schemes must be implemented depending on the condition of end-of-use textiles.

Even if stringent current and future EU regulations could enhance the recycling rate of end-of-use textiles, the inherent limitations of this concept are evident. While recycling is undeniably a valuable concept, it necessitates the consumption of energy and resources. Moreover, achieving a 100% recycling rate is unattainable. Even with 50 to 60% of raw materials for fiber production sourced from secondary materials (derived from textiles) within a span of 11 to 15 years, the demand for native raw materials would persist due to the industry's robust growth. Ultimately, recycling can only address the symptoms and not, as would be fitting, the root causes. The only viable solution is to restrain the growth of the textile sector. Policymakers are urged to implement effective measures that significantly enhance the durability or reparability of textile products.