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
Editor’s note: This article was updated from the original by the author for re-release in our Fall 2021 issue.
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 is 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 Renewcell, was taking this pulping tradition in a very promising new direction.
After a short taxi ride down a forested road, I arrived at a small, nondescript, modern building, where I was greeted by Mattias Jonsson, Renewcell’s CEO. Jonsson handed me a hard hat, then ushered me inside a plant designed to redefine the concept of textile recycling. Inside a 2,000-square-meter, metal-and-concrete room, two metal cubes of dense piping and machinery about 10 feet high stood across from each other, puddles of pulp sitting below them on the concrete floor. The air smelled tangy and rotten.
Jonsson is tall and trim. His glasses, thinning hair, and v-neck cardigan give him the air of a science professor. Like most Scandinavians (and in contrast to the world-disrupting bluster of Silicon Valley bros), Jonsson is prone to understatements. “What we make is dissolving pulp,” he said.
The product called “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, otherwise known as rayon (that silky material that lines your jackets and dresses); the satiny-soft lyocell and its cousin Tencel (which are both 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—bringing interest and investment from dozens of fashion companies, like Levi’s and the Swedish fashion giant H&M—is an entirely different idea. The Renewcell team has invented a way to make dissolving pulp from old cotton clothes and factory remnants.
To demonstrate, Jonsson walked me over to a machine that’s fed with shredded denim, collected from German charities and Turkish factories. After the cotton is ground up, Renewcell’s team adds water and a proprietary mix of chemicals (which Jonsson assured 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 sheet of thick, nubby paper rolls out onto a conveyor belt, which is cut and stacked into desk-size sheets. The sheets are then shipped to a textile factory, where they are re-soaked to become another slurry, then alchemized into threads—the next step in their journey toward your closet.
At full capacity, this little plant can process the equivalent of 30 million t-shirts to produce roughly 7,000 tons of this kind of pulp every year. That’s less than 0.1 percent of the world’s production of dissolving pulp, but a commercial-scale plant capable of producing more than eight times as much is currently being planned for Sundsvall, a port up north on Sweden’s eastern seaboard. 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 environmental problems: waste, pollution, and deforestation.
“We’re approaching the ceiling of our capacity for responsibly managed forests,” said 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 1 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 purposes (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, Renewcell 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,” said Harald Cavalli-Björkman, Renewcell’s head of communications. From all indications, this is not just a marketing claim. When fashion leader Stella McCartney commissioned a lifecycle assessment comparing nine different fibers manufactured from cellulose, Renewcell 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 said. “We’re talking about peak cotton? There’s going to be peak wood cellulose as well.”
“Are brands talking about peak cotton?” I asked.
“I hear it a lot.”
And that’s why I was there.
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 that claimed 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,” (Penguin/Random House, 2015), Harvard historian Sven Beckert asserts that more than even sugar, cotton almost single-handedly 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 Renewcell with a more efficient way to recycle cotton clothing.
But circulose is not cotton—it’s viscose. 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.
I emerged from the subway straight into the leafy campus of AALTO University, outside of Helsinki, in May of 2018, right after summer vacation in Finland had started. Everything was deserted and quiet. Dr. Marja Rissanen, a textile engineer, met me in the lobby of a research building and walked 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 sat humming in the corner.
At first, I couldn’t see anything. When I leaned closer, I saw a hair-thin filament being pushed out of what looked like a fairy-sized pasta maker. In this process, 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, rose petals—that’s the kind of process I was watching. Rissanen said this particular 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 was 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 by Professor Ali Harlin out of the same campus as Ioncell.
An imposing Viking of a man with a large white beard, Harlin met me, with Rissanen, in a conference room in the same building, seating himself at the table with a ponderous sigh. He pulled a crafter’s plastic organizational box out of his bag; each cube of the box held a different kind of fiber.
With a flourish, Harlin set a large roll of thread in front of me. “That is cellulose carbamate,” he said. Then he handed me a small, white square of woven cloth with an expectant look. I held the cloth up to my eye, examining it like a cut diamond. I was flabbergasted. To me, it looked and felt exactly like cotton. Apparently, that was the reaction he was hoping for. “A genuine fake,” Harlin said with a laugh. “It’s closer to viscose in terms of performance. It wicks away sweat, but isn’t as stiff as cotton.”
I asked him how he came up with this fabric. “It’s a long story,” he said, with another sigh. But it soon became clear that he relished telling it. He made full use of his expressive eyebrows and leaned back in his chair to gauge my reaction after each pronouncement.
Harlin began 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 said. (This is one reason why most viscose is now made in Asian countries with more lax safety and environmental standards.)
Cellulose carbamate, he said, 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 said. “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 to 40 percent more efficient dye uptake than any other fiber; uses only 50 liters of water to manufacture a kilogram versus 1,200 liters (on average) per kilogram of cotton; and is close to carbon-neutral.
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.
Since my 2018 visit, European customers can now buy Wrangler jeans made with 30 percent Infinna fiber and 70 percent cotton “endorsed by the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), the world’s largest cotton sustainability program.”
That tortuous and confused wording is not just a bad copywriting job. It’s the result of a cotton scandal years in the making. 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, many of them on the losing end of a deeply exploitative relationship. While everyone has been focused on saving the planet, barely anybody has bothered to ask: What will happen to the world’s cotton farmers?
Six months after my visit to Finland, on a hot, dusty November morning on its way to 90 degrees, I headed to the Ahmedabad airport in Gujarat, India. A scrim of gray from diesel-powered rickshaws and trucks, construction, two coal power plants, burning trash, and lingering smoke from Diwali fireworks hung in the air.
I was two weeks into the India leg of my around-the-world trip, and the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) had 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, that trains farmers with small landholdings 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 of that year, BCI had asked me to speak at their Brussels conference and paid for my travel from Berlin. At the time, the BCI staff were 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 in the Gujarati desert.
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 met with Rajeev Baruah, who at the time was India’s country coordinator for BCI. Of medium build with silver hair, wearing cotton jeans and a short-sleeve, cotton, button-down shirt, Baruah greeted me and my husband warmly, and helped us load our bags into a waiting car. After a harrowing hour weaving through traffic, we pulled off the road at a small building and walked through a simple office, into a concrete room with peeling, pale-pink-and-white walls covered with instructional posters in Gujarati. One displayed the colors and X’s that come on pesticide bottles to denote danger or poison.
Seated crossed-legged on the floor in a semicircle were two dozen regional employees of Action for Food Production (AFPRO), a local NGO. Baruah sat at the front, littering his Hindi with English words like “percent,” “attitude,” “seed,” “best practice,” and “intercropping” while his audience took notes. The mood was light, the women smiled at me; at various points the group broke into laughter. All of these men and women were the children of cotton farmers, and it was their full-time job to help 1,600 local, smallholder cotton farmers adopt better practices. We discussed a recent win: The aquifer was 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, activists allege, Bt hybrid’s myriad costs have put farmers in such a deep financial hole after crop failures that some have committed suicide.
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. In early 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—the length of the raw fiber before it’s woven—for modern cotton mills, grows earlier in the season and produces more cotton per hectare—as 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 told 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 seemed to have figured out a few ways that farmers can practice sustainable farming, without threatening Monsanto’s roadblock.
Our next stop was the 14-acre farm of Vinodbhai Patel, one of BCI’s stars. Cotton season was over, but Patel led us to his field, where a few BCI demonstration rows of cotton bushes were still laden with cotton bolls. Patel said that, despite the drought, his production doubled that year thanks to BCI’s suggestions.
Although Patel was using Bt hybrid cotton, he was growing it organically. To see what this involved, we climbed up the steps of a large concrete tank and looked 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 contained fermenting plant matter that Patel used as a biological pesticide. The third and final ingredient was a waste decomposer, which he would 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. Recently, the U.S.-based organization Textile Exchange quietly took down its claims that organic cotton saves water. The two studies comparing organic to conventional cotton compared irrigated land to rainfed land—which has nothing to do with the cotton variety and everything to do with where the cotton farms are located.
Unfortunately, switching to organic and getting certified, a 3-year process, is expensive and risky for farmers with small plots. Patel’s farm, for example, could qualify as organic if he were to switch to non-GMO 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 showed me a picture of what happened to his pomegranates when he went organic—they were laced with cracks and unsellable. A 2017 report by Organic Cotton Accelerator said that even with cost savings from not buying seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides, organic cotton’s lower yield means farmers who have made the switch earn a lower net income.
Issues like these go a long way to explaining why organic cotton constitutes less than 1 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, told me. BCI was supposed to be the compromise between the Western ideal of organic cotton and the practical concerns of smallholder farmers.
But 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 the 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. They make up the largest portion of BCI cotton.
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 and 24 percent higher profits than control farmers, and they used 10 percent less water. While the report’s findings on farmer income have been fiercely questioned, and it did not measure soil health, the report did provide a promising environmental picture. In comparison to their non-BCI peers, the report states, BCI farmers used 15 percent less fertilizer, and applied a 19 percent lower level of pesticides.
A more recent, October 2021 report said that because BCI farmers use less fertilizer, the cotton they grow has a lower footprint by 28 percent. The data didn’t include Brazil, because, according to BCI, the program covers so many farmers that there aren’t enough non-BCI farmers with which to compare them.
As we drove back to Ahmedabad the next day, I told Baruah about what I had seen in Finland, and asked if he knew that the brands funding BCI’s cotton project were also invested in labs that are, in essence, trying to make BCI farmers’ cotton obsolete.
He looked at me for a long beat. “No, I didn’t know that,” he said.
Things in the cotton world have only gotten more complicated since then.
Starting in 2020, the public became painfully aware that there was a high likelihood that the cotton for their clothing and jeans was picked by Uighur slave labor in Xinjiang, China. Patagonia and H&M disavowed sourcing from the region. China’s government responded by backing a Chinese consumer boycott of H&M. BCI, which had partnered with many cotton producers in the province, announced it would suspend its operations there in early 2020, but the Chinese office of BCI then deleted a statement against forced labor from its website.
BCI’s political equivocation on the issue satisfied no one. The large European department store C&A complained, and the sustainability head for Levi’s quit BCI’s board. BCI member Uniqlo stayed mum, except to wrangle with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection over a large shipment of cotton t-shirts that was blocked over suspicions that it was connected to forced labor in China.
Meanwhile, in October 2020, the leading organic cotton certification body, Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), revealed it had found large-scale fraud affecting at least 20,000 metric tons of cotton fiber from India.
These scandals and struggles are in sharp contrast to the soaring cotton recycling sector. In the 3 years since my visit, Renewcell has swiftly moved into the big leagues, signing a deal to provide 175,000 metric tons of its dried pulp (brand name: Circulose) to a Chinese viscose manufacturer. Despite the first-ever product made with Circulose—a navy blue, ruffled day dress by H&M—going on sale right as the entire world and fashion industry were thrown into pandemic chaos, the company has only thrived. Levi’s launched Circulose jeans that summer, and the Danish company Bestseller premiered its own Circulose floral dress in the spring of 2021.
In November 2020, Renewcell debuted on the Nasdaq First North Premier Growth Market under the ticker “RENEW,” and received another $35 million from the European Investment Bank the following summer.
This past summer, Infinited signed a multiyear deal with Patagonia, and in September of 2021, H&M, Bestseller, and Adidas all became investors.
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 somewhere around 5 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 Magazine in “Eco-Fashion’s Animal Rights Delusion”). 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 animal 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. “Ultimately, the sheer amount of product H&M produces is causing irreversible harm to both planet and people, and completely outweighs their sustainability efforts,” an activist told British tabloid The Independent in 2020, when H&M announced it would use Circulose in its Conscious Collection. “Fashion this fast can never and will never be sustainable.”
The real legacy of these innovations might be the completion of what the Industrial Revolution started more than 200 years ago, by fully consolidating fashion’s supply chain into the world’s large cities, and cutting out the messy human element causing so much headache to these global brands. That could make rural life even more untenable for the 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.