We caught up with Cyndi Rhoades, founder of Worn Again Technologies, to talk all things from the future of the fashion industry to the importance of a circular economy when it comes to clothes.
Tell us about Worn Again
Worn Again Technologies was born from a vision to eradicate textile waste. We have developed a process which is able to separate, decontaminate and extract polyester and cellulose (derived from cotton) from unwanted clothing and textiles to produce virgin-equivalent polyester and cellulose for making new fibre, textiles and garments all over again.
Our focus is on solving the challenge of textiles made from pure polyester and polyester/cotton blends which make up a significant proportion of all end of use textiles.
The vision is ambitious: to drive the industry towards a circular flow of resources, thereby replacing the use of virgin raw materials in the textiles industry.
Whilst our ambition is big, so too is the problem. Over 75 million tonnes of polyester and cotton are used to make new textiles every year. While the demand for these materials continues to increase, we find ourselves in a ludicrous situation where globally, we’re throwing away almost as much as we’re making new – with 85% of textiles going to landfills and incineration every year. Big solutions are needed to deal with this situation. And fast.
How did you come up with the idea for the company?
The inspiration for Worn Again Technologies began out of my desire to use business as a platform for change and to solve a global problem: that of textile waste. Back in 2005, when I set up the company, I didn’t know what a solution would look like, but I knew I wanted to be part of it.
In the early years, we started out by using disused textiles – old prison blankets, Virgin Atlantic airline seat covers and decommissioned hot air balloons – to make desirable new shoes and accessories. As a concept, ‘upcycling’ made a great story, but it wasn’t long until we realised two things: As a business model, upcycling is extremely difficult to make work. It’s a lot easier and cost-effective to make good quality products from fresh new rolls of fabric, rather than coffee stained and scrappy old staff uniforms. Secondly, it was also clear that we weren’t solving the problem of textile waste. These second life products would eventually end up in landfill too – we were only extending the life of the textiles that little bit longer.
It wasn’t until 2011 that my partner in crime Nick Ryan and I were introduced to a physical chemist in Cambridge, Dr. Adam Walker, and we realised there was a more intelligent approach might provide the answer. And that’s when we decided to develop an approach that could recycle textiles at the molecular level and provide a truly game-changing and scalable solution.
Why do you think recycling clothes is inefficient?
There’s a reason why less than 1% of existing textiles are recycled back into new textiles. Today’s recycling methods, commonly referred to as ‘mechanical recycling’, have both technical and economic challenges. They’re unable to separate out dyes and other contaminants that went into textiles to begin with, which means the quality of outputs can be compromised, limited from a colour and dyeing perspective, and often more expensive than new materials. Secondly, once fibres like polyester and cotton have been brought together into blends, today’s methods are unable to separate them.
These are the challenges we set out to overcome with our process over 8 years ago. From the beginning, our goals have been to design an environmentally beneficial and cost-effective process that delivers virgin equivalent outputs.
Achieving this at scale will provide the holy grail the industry has been waiting for from a technology perspective. But further efforts, beyond new technologies, will also be needed to drive us to a circular future, including the implementation of policies and programmes to support increased textiles collection rates, consumer behaviour change, investment in new manufacturing processes (like ours) and fully engaged brands and retailers taking a systemic approach to resources. Evidence over the last few years has shown that we are moving in the right direction on all of these fronts, which is encouraging to see.
What do you think the future of the fashion industry looks like?
This is a very big question! What I hope to see in the coming years is a people-centred and circular industry, where the livelihoods of the 75 million people working in the fashion industry are lifted up and vastly improved and we move towards (and achieve) a more intelligent, circular use of resources. By circular, I mean a world where products remain products for as long as possible before being broken down into raw materials to go back into supply chains as new, and we’re no longer reliant on the depletion of natural resources to make our clothes.
How can consumers or businesses support companies like Worn Again?
From a consumer perspective, the call to action is to make sure you return your clothes into the ‘the system’, whether it’s to a charity shop, online resale, textiles bank or in-store returns programme. In the not-so-distant future, there will be a solution for all ‘end of use’ clothing and textiles, regardless of what condition they are in. It’s exciting to think that we will move from being passive consumers to active participants and future suppliers of resources to the industry.
For tech companies, there are going to be huge opportunities for new innovations around improving collection systems, reverse logistics of post-consumer textiles, transparency, traceability and managing flows of materials as we move towards a joined-up and effective circular resource future.