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Can everything old be made new again?

Brands and regulators confront the complexities and technological challenges of the circular economy

by Melody M. Bomgardner
June 27, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 26

The average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. One in four women own more than 10 pairs, but only four get worn on a regular basis, according to a survey conducted by Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.


Can everything old be made new again?

Styles change, and that can be a good thing—remember super-low-rise jeans? Still, over a consumer’s lifetime, all those unworn and unwanted jeans can add up to a lot of waste. Meanwhile, the manufacture of those wardrobe staples uses a huge amount of water, not to mention chemicals that can pollute rivers and streams in places as far away as Bangladesh.

But what if jeans could be made in a nonpolluting way and their raw materials recycled over and over to make new pairs in the latest fashion? That is the promise of the circular economy, the process of turning waste into a resource by reusing and recycling products at the end of their useful life.

Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Recycling tag on a pair of jeans.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

Clothing brands and retailers such as Levi’s and H&M are already training consumers to think of their used clothes as a resource by promoting product take-back programs. But critics of the textile industry would like to see clothing brands first ensure that basic pollution prevention efforts are in place at their far-flung contract manufacturing sites before they move on to more lofty goals.

In addition, it’s not clear how well suited today’s or yesterday’s products are for continuous reuse. Clothing and other consumer goods that are likely to meet up in a closed-loop recycling system may contain chemicals that impact human health or the environment.

Some large companies are collaborating to ensure that tomorrow’s styles are created with the circular economy in mind. They are doing this by replacing hazardous ingredients and developing technologies that enable the use of more recycled material. At the same time, individual brands hope that their sustainability efforts will help them stand out in a crowded marketplace piled with inexpensive, mass-produced goods.

In the following pages, C&EN explores steps the apparel industry is taking to give old fashions new life (see page 30) and the vigorous debate occurring in Europe over how best to encourage virtuous materials cycles (see page 33). The stories make clear that the arrival of the circular economy—if indeed it arrives—is going to shake up industries far and wide.



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