The Human Cost of Recycled Cotton
Everyone in the fashion world wants to find a more sustainable, environmentally friendly way to make cotton clothes — or a benign (and comfy) alternative. Some are on the brink of succeeding. But almost no one understands these innovations’ social costs.
Story and photography by ALDEN WICKER
In the spring of 2018, as part of my effort to find promising pioneers in sustainable clothing, I traveled to Kristinehamn, a small town on the southern corner of the Värmland region of Sweden. Värmland was nicknamed the Paper Province because approximately 200 companies within its borders are dedicated to pulping Sweden’s trees, primarily for paper products. And I’d heard that the smallest of these operations, a startup called re:newcell, is taking this pulping tradition in a very promising, new direction.
After a short taxi ride down a forested road, I arrive at a small, nondescript modern building, where I’m greeted by Mattias Jonsson, re:newcell’s CEO. Jonsson immediately hands me a hard hat, then ushers me inside a plant designed to redefine the concept of textile recycling. Inside a metal and concrete room that’s about 2,000 square meters, two metal cubes of dense piping and machinery about 10 feet high stand across from each other, puddles of pulp sitting below them on the concrete floor. The air smells tangy and rotten.
Tall and trim, Jonsson’s glasses, thinning hair, and v-neck cardigan give him the air of a science professor. Like most Scandinavians (and in contrast to the world-changing bluster of Silicon Valley bros), Jonsson is prone to understatements. “What we make is dissolving pulp,” he says.
The concept of “dissolving” pulp is not, in itself, anything new. Since the turn of the last century, the white slurry has been the base ingredient for fabrics such as viscose, or rayon (that silky material that lines your jackets and dresses); the satiny-soft lyocell and its cousin Tencel (which are eco-friendlier than rayon); and Modal, the ultra-soft fabric used for t-shirts and sweats. The raw material behind all these fabrics is called “dissolving” pulp because, after it’s made and shipped, the pulp must be dissolved in order to be put to use.
In this case, what makes the factory special — and has brought interest from 50 different fashion companies and an investment from the Swedish fashion giant H&M, which has a nine percent stake — is an entirely different idea. The re:newcell team has invented a way to make dissolving pulp from old cotton clothes and factory remnants.
To demonstrate, Jonsson walks me over to a machine that’s fed with shredded denim collected from German charities and Turkish factories. After the cotton is ground up, re:newcell’s team adds water and a proprietary mix of chemicals (which Jonsson assures me complies with Europe’s guidelines for safe chemical use) to break down the cotton into wet pulp. Any dye falls out to be flushed away; what’s left is a white, wet-toilet-paper-like mush that gets piped to the other side, where it is formed into sheets and dried under a red infrared light. Two hours after the jeans go in, a wide flat of thick, nubby paper rolls out onto a conveyor belt, which is cut and stacked into desk-size sheets. Soon, these sheets will be shipped to a textile factory, where they will be re-soaked to become another slurry, then alchemized into threads, the next step in their journey toward your closet.
When it’s up to full capacity, this little plant will produce roughly 7,000 tons of this kind of pulp very year. That’s less than 0.1 percent of the world’s production of “dissolving” pulp, but if re:newcell proves this technology, it could be quickly scaled up and licensed out. These sheets may look like a preschool art project, but they’re white gold to fashion brands and governments, because they neatly solve fashion’s triplet of environmental problems: waste, pollution, and deforestation.
“We’re approaching the ceiling of our capacity for responsibly-managed forests,” says an executive for a Swedish pulping mill. “We’re talking about peak cotton? There’s going to be peak wood cellulose as well.”.
Right now, less than one percent of our clothing gets recycled into new fashion. An estimated 73 percent of what we cast off is landfilled or burned — the rest is shipped off to developing countries, or downcycled into other products like rags and insulation. The clothing in those two categories will also be eventually trashed. And what happens to the tiny percentage of cotton that is currently recycled? Virtually all of it is manually chopped up to be woven into new clothes. However, this process creates short fibers, so the material can be reused only once, and for limited uses (it mostly goes into t-shirts and sweats).
Typically, when factories make dissolving pulp out of trees, up to 60 percent is wasted. That’s because the base cellulose that fabric makers are after makes up only 40 percent of a typical tree. But fabric made of cotton is already 98 percent cellulose. So, by devising better methods to recycle cotton clothing, re:newcell estimates it saves the equivalent of two kilograms of CO2 emissions for each kilo of recycled fabric it produces. “We’re actually a carbon sink,” says Harald Cavalli-Björkman, re:newcell’s head of communications. From all indications, this is not just a marketing claim. When fashion leader Stella McCartney commissioned a lifecycle analyses comparing nine different fibers manufactured from cellulose, re:newcell came out on top.
Beyond the ecological, Nordic countries and their brands have more self-interested reasons to fund recycling operations like this. In 2017, 105 different fashion brands pledged to stop sourcing any rayon viscose made from endangered rainforests in Canada, Indonesia, and the Amazon. The only problem is that European forests can only provide so much pulp. Already, an estimated 70 to 100 million trees are logged each year to produce pulp just for textiles, and demand for dissolving pulp is projected to increase by 122 percent in the next 40 years. “We’re approaching the ceiling of our capacity for responsibly managed forests,” Cavalli-Björkman says. “We’re talking about peak cotton? There’s going to be peak wood cellulose as well.”
“Are brands talking about peak cotton?” I ask.
“I hear it a lot.”
And that’s why I’m here.
Because it’s cheap and easy to manufacture, polyester has become today’s dominant textile. But polyester, which is essentially made of oil, causes a host of problems. While the material does provide a use for all those recycled plastic water bottles, washing any synthetic fabric — whether it’s made of raw petroleum or recycled plastics — sloughs off microscopic fibers. Those microfibers end up in water supplies and never biodegrade.
Viscose and other wood-pulp fabrics do biodegrade, but making them has traditionally required a host of toxic chemicals. (This is why, in 2013, the FTC came down on brands claiming their bamboo rayon was eco-friendly. It’s not.) Meanwhile, despite its higher costs, cotton has always remained everyone’s favorite. For thousands of years, some form of the cotton bush has been cultivated in every tropical region, from Africa to the Far East and Central America. In his treatise, Empire of Cotton, Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that more than even sugar, cotton almost singlehandedly supported and financed Britain’s colonialism and America’s slavery, and ushered in the world’s most brutal era of industrialization.
Today, the agro-industrial complex that has grown up around cotton has been dogged with everything from human rights abuses to its own environmental harms. Just the farming of cotton depletes increasingly scarce water supplies and spreads pesticide residue. The half-dried-up Aral Sea has been a public relations nightmare for the industry. So have child labor and farmer suicides in India. Forced Uighur labor in China is just the latest cotton indignity.
Not surprisingly, fashion brands would rather not deal with cotton’s PR problems, or its fluctuating costs; thus, the rise of polyester and rayon. Now comes a company like re:newcell with a more efficient way to recycle cotton clothing. But its process is still dependent on cotton. So everyone’s still searching for the innovation that all the fashion brands desperately need: a soft, high-performing, non-polluting material that can truly replace cotton.
Summer vacation in Finland has just started, and the leafy campus of AALTO University, outside of Helsinki, is deserted and quiet. Dr. Marja Rissanen, a textile engineer who looks like the Saturday Night Live comedian Rachel Dratch (but more serious), meets me in the lobby of a research building and walks me into a large white lab, past a glass case with spools of thread and the H&M Global Change Award, then into a smaller lab where a small machine sits humming in the corner.
At first, I can’t see anything. When I lean closer, I see a hair-thin filament being pushed out of what looks like a fairy-sized pasta maker. The filament drops down into a small vat of water, runs through a clear plastic tube, emerges out of a burbling fountain, then wraps onto a metal cylinder. Whenever you hear about some unexpected plant being made into a silky fabric — bamboo, eucalyptus, wheat chaff, orange peels — that’s the kind of process I’m watching. Rissanen says this technology, called Ioncell, uses a safe solvent called ionic liquid to chemically melt down paper and textile waste, and extrude it into new, silk-like fiber.
I’m looking at the beginning of a shift toward what industry insiders call “circular fashion,” an economy where we collect all kinds of old cotton, paper, and other plant waste; add in some (hopefully) benign chemicals; and transform the mix into a new fiber that is made into new clothes.
With northern European governments plowing research money into this utopia, Ioncell is just one of three fiber-recycling technologies Finland has produced. There’s also Spinnova’s fiber, which is made out of straw; and Infinited Fiber, a project run out of the same campus as Ioncell by Professor Ali Harlin.
An imposing Viking of a man with a large white beard, Harlin meets me, with Rissanen, in a conference room in the same building, seating himself at the table with a ponderous sigh. He pulls a crafter’s plastic organizational box out of his bag; each cube of the box holds a different kind of fiber.
With a flourish, Harlin sets a large roll of thread in front of me. “That is cellulose carbamate,” he says. Then he hands me a small, white square of woven cloth with an expectant look. I hold the cloth up to my eye, examining it like a cut diamond. I’m flabbergasted. To me, it looks and feels exactly like cotton. Apparently, that was the reaction he was hoping for. “A genuine fake,” Harlin says with a laugh. “It’s closer to viscose in terms of performance. It wicks away sweat, but isn’t as stiff as cotton.”
I ask him how he came up with this fabric. “It’s a long story,” he says, with another sigh. But it soon becomes clear that he relishes telling it, making full use of his expressive eyebrows and leaning back in his chair to wait for my reaction after each pronouncement.
Harlin begins by explaining that viscose, his material’s primary competitor, is created by mixing dissolved pulp with carbon disulfide, a chemical that has been linked to insanity, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke. “If you work in a factory where you are regularly exposed to [carbon disulfide], your brain will swell,” Harlin says. (This is why most viscose is now made in Asian countries with more lax safety and environmental standards.)
Cellulose carbamate, he says, was invented to provide a safer alternative. It requires only urea, a harmless chemical used in wet wipes. Apparently, one factory in the north of Finland produced cellulose carbamate from 1986 to 1993, and with some upgrades, it could have kept going, but a competitor bought it and shut it down. “Textile companies didn’t want to take the risk on a new textile,” Harlin says. “Polyester was growing, cotton was available.”
Around 2000, Harlin joined an academic research team and decided to take one last look at cellulose carbamate before it was shoved into the back of the scientific closet and forgotten. He brought in a pair of his old jeans, chemically broke down the cotton, and produced a light blue fiber. When he brought a sample to the ITMA textile technology conference in Italy, he came home with a list of 60 interested fashion companies.
So his team took some of the machinery from the old carbamate factory up north, installed it in a small pilot plant in Espoo, and started making samples. When compared with cotton, the resulting fiber has a 20 percent lower production cost; a 30-40 percent more efficient dye uptake than any other fiber; uses only 50 litres of water to manufacture a kilogram versus 1,200 liters (on average) per kilogram of cotton; and is close to carbon neutral. Not surprisingly, H&M is an investor here, too.
Harlin believes that many of the old viscose-rayon factories dotting Finland could easily and cheaply be retrofitted to produce Infinited Fiber. And here’s the best part: as its name implies, Infinited’s process can use any kind of cellulose an infinite number of times. That means all kinds of castoffs — old clothes, bedsheets, used cardboard and paper products, even agricultural waste — could now be used, reused, and continually reused to make more clothing. This seems like an enormous win-win-win for fashion companies, for Finland, and for the planet.
There is a not-so-small problem, however. After sustaining cultures in myriad corners of the world for thousands of years, the cotton trade is now woven into the very fiber of our global economy. Today, an estimated 300 million people work in the cotton industry on one level or another, which raises a question that nobody has asked: What will happen to the world’s cotton farmers?
Six months later, on a hot, dusty November morning on its way to 90 degrees, I head to the Ahmedabad airport in Gujarat, India. A scrim of grey from diesel-powered rickshaws and trucks, construction, two coal power plants, burning trash, and lingering smoke from Diwali fireworks hangs in the air.
I’m two weeks into the India leg of my around-the-world trip, and the Better Cotton Initiative (or BCI) has offered to take me out to meet some of its students: local cotton farmers. BCI is a Non-Governmental Organization (or NGO), funded by the fashion industry, which trains farmers with small land holdings to practice more sustainable cotton farming techniques.
In bad years, the costs required to use BT cotton, a GMO breed from Monsanto, have put farmers in such a deep financial hole after crop failures that some have committed suicide.
In June, BCI had asked me to speak at their Brussels conference and paid for my travel from Berlin. At the time, the BCI staff was still smarting from some pointed critiques of their model, which I’ll get into later. But when we landed in India, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to meet the famous (or infamous) Indian cotton farmer on his own turf and get a close-up view of BCI’s program. I paid my own way to Ahmedabad, then let BCI take care of my hotel room.
There are a variety of food crops available to Gujarati farmers, like castor, mustard, and sesame, but for these and millions of other farmers in Asia, Africa, and South America, cotton is their most profitable cash crop. And, unlike perishable food crops, if its market price drops, cotton can be stored until a more favorable price is available.
I’m meeting Rajeev Baruah, who at the time was India’s country coordinator for BCI. Of medium build with silver hair, wearing jeans and a short-sleeve, cotton button-down, Baruah greets us warmly, and helps us load our bags into a waiting car. After a harrowing hour weaving through traffic, we pull off the road at a small building and walk through a simple office into a concrete room with peeling, pale-pink-and-white walls covered with instructional posters in Gujarati. One displays the colors and X’s that come on pesticide bottles to denote danger or poison.
Seated crossed-legged on the floor in a semicircle are two dozen regional employees for Action for Food Production (AFPRO), a local NGO. Baruah sits at the front, littering his Hindi with English words like “percent,” “attitude,” “seed,” “best practice,” and “intercropping” while his audience takes notes. The mood is light, the women smile at me; at various points the group breaks into laughter. All of these men and women are the children of cotton farmers, and it’s their full-time job to help 1,600 local, small-hold cotton farmers adopt better practices. We discuss a win today: the aquifer is slowly recharging, thanks in large part to their work.
The dominant cotton in this desert area — and across India — is a genetically modified breed from Monsanto. Indians call it Bt hybrid cotton, and it has been accused of a variety of human and environmental horrors, which include high water usage and the necessity to use pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that are both toxic and expensive. In bad years, Bt hybrid’s myriad costs have put farmers in such a deep financial hole after crop failures that some have committed suicide.
Here in Gujarat, farmers irrigate their cotton with water from the canals, using old, loud diesel pumps that belch smoke. But the farmers do have an ace up their sleeves. Earlier in 2018, when it was clear that the authorities would divert water from the canals because of the drought, many farmers switched some of their crop from Bt hybrid to what they call desi cotton. Native to Sudan but grown in arid Gujarati for at least 1,600 years, desi (formally gossypium herbaceum) can survive purely on rainwater, even in a desert during drought years. It also doesn’t need expensive crutches like fertilizer or pesticides.
Farmers put up with Bt hybrid’s costs because they get a higher price for it than for desi cotton. Bt hybrid has a long enough staple length for modern cotton mills, grows earlier in the season and produces more cotton per hectare— s long as fair weather obliges. If Monsanto’s Bt hybrid is like investing in tech stocks, herbaceum is like a savings account: reliable, steady, not very exciting—but a lifesaver, literally, when times are hard. A local cotton researcher tells us that in this region, farmer suicides are rare, largely because of the desi cotton safety net. Unfortunately, desi cotton’s staple length is too short for anything but surgical cotton. (Research is underway to lengthen its staple, but the results so far are mixed.)
Last year, Apparel Insider, an independent trade journal, took to task almost all of organic cotton’s claims to environmental superiority — regarding pollution, pesticide use, and water savings.
There is another type of Bt cotton grown in the U.S., called upland cotton, that would be better suited for Gujarat’s climate. However, Monsanto won’t sell it to Indian farmers, because the seeds can easily be saved for planting next year, and that would violate Monsanto’s patent. But BCI seems to have figured out a few ways that farmers can practice sustainable farming, without threatening Monsanto’s roadblock.
Our next stop is the 14-acre farm of Vinodbhai Patel, who is one of BCI’s stars. Cotton season is over, but Patel leads us to his field where a few BCI demonstration rows of cotton bushes are still laden with cotton bolls. Patel says that, despite the drought, his production doubled this year thanks to BCI’s suggestions.
Although Patel uses Bt hybrid cotton, he grows it organically. To see what this involves, we climb up the steps of a large concrete tank and look down into the clear liquid inside, a growing tonic of cow urine and dung, jaggery (Indian molasses) and chickpea flour. Applied like a kombucha tea for cotton, it encourages the growth of good microbes in the soil. Several large blue barrels next to the tank contain fermenting plant matter that Patel uses as a biological pesticide. The third and final ingredient is a waste decomposer, which he’ll pour onto the field to decompose the dead stalks and enrich the soil.
There’s a fierce debate raging in the fashion world about whether organic cotton is actually more sustainable than its conventional cousin. Some (Cotton Inc. for example) say that because organic cotton has lower yields, it actually uses more water per pound of cotton produced than conventional cotton. And last year, the independent trade journal Apparel Insider took to task almost all of organic cotton’s claims to environmental superiority — regarding pollution, pesticide use, and water savings. Here in Gujarat, even if the farmers switched to an organic cotton with a staple length suitable for fashion, it would still require irrigation.
Critics of BCI say that its program is little more than “greenwashing,” a sleight of hand that allows brands to claim success on sustainability by paying for a consumer-facing green certification, with scant proof that the result is any better than the status quo. In this case, buying a garment with a BCI tag doesn’t mean you’re wearing cotton from a farm that has gone through its training program; it just means you’re supporting a plan to train those farmers.
This fuzziness allows for some misperceptions. Brazilian farmers, for example, are notoriously pesticide-happy and have been aggressively expanding land dedicated to cotton, beef, and other commodity crops. And yet, as soon as Brazilian cotton farmers go through BCI training, their cotton can be classified as sustainable.
Bio-engineered alternatives to materials like leather are in the works, even though there’s clear evidence that disrupting the real leather industry will just lead to the burning and landfilling of pelts as global demand for red meat grows.
To counter complaints about these issues, BCI released a report in October, 2019, comparing BCI farmers with non-BCI farmers since 2016. While this is BCI’s own, non-peer reviewed data, it showed that Indian BCI farmers had 9 percent higher yields, 24 percent higher profits than control farmers, and used 10 percent less water. While the report’s findings on farmer income have been fiercely questioned, and it did not measure soil health (BCI says it will start including that data in 2021), the report did provide a promising environmental picture. In comparison to their peers, the report states, BCI farmers used 15 percent less fertilizer, and applied a 19 percent lower level of pesticides.
Unfortunately, switching to organic and getting certified, a three-year process, is expensive and risky for farmers with small plots. Patel’s farm, for example, could qualify as organic if he would switch to organic seeds, but he would have to wrangle all his neighbors into going organic with all their crops in order to afford the certification. One farmer shows me a picture of what happened to his pomegranates when he went organic — they were laced with cracks and unsellable.
Issues like these go a long way to explaining why organic cotton constitutes less than half a percent of the global cotton supply. “If we were to source only organic cotton, there would not be enough,” Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s Environmental Sustainability Manager, says.
As we drive back to Ahmedabad the next day, I tell Baruah about what I saw in Finland, and if he knows that the brands funding BCI’s cotton project are also invested in labs that are, in essence, trying to make BCI farmers’ cotton obsolete.
He looks at me for a long beat. “No, I didn’t know that,” he says.
This spring, H&M will start selling clothing made from re:newcell’s fiber, which it’s ingeniously calling Circulose. Infinited Fiber Company sent out a press release this September saying that production is ready to scale — all the company needs are people who want to license its technology or invest in a production plant. Worn Again Technologies, an English company that recycles polyester-cotton blends into raw material for new textiles, launched a pilot plant this month. The H&M Foundation also financed a pilot plant for separating polyester from cotton in preparation for recycling in Hong Kong.
Within the fashion world, all of these developments are incredibly exciting. Fashion is often said to be responsible for 4 percent of the world’s waste; and 8 percent of global carbon emissions — a small share compared with the energy and transportation sectors, but still well beyond other industries. As a result, fashion companies are looking toward a utopia of circular fashion, where their old clothes will be recycled back into the system in an endless loop.
This transformation is not just happening in the world of cotton. Bio-engineered silk is supposed to save the lives of silkworms (despite ample evidence to the contrary, as I reported for Craftsmanship Quarterly in 2018). If fake silk succeeds, it would replace the remaining traditional silk farms in Asia. Bio-engineered leather is also in the works, even though there’s clear evidence that disrupting the real leather industry will just lead to the burning and landfilling of pelts as global demand for red meat grows. Maybe we should just be clear as to what this is all about. It’s not sustainability that’s driving this innovation. It’s a yearning to bring industrial efficiency to every single facet of fashion.
If that level of efficiency is ever achieved, it might help save the planet — or it might not. The most likely outcome is that it would save the asses of fashion companies facing an environmentally and politically uncertain future. It also might complete what the industrial revolution started more than 200 years ago, by fully consolidating fashion’s supply chain into the world’s large cities. That could make rural life even more untenable for millions of farmers around the world who rely on cotton for their livelihood. But at that point — for better or, quite possibly, for worse — those farmers will no longer be the fashion brands’ responsibility.