Unraveling China’s fast fashion: Why cotton recycling and innovative design isn’t enough

At a factory in Zhejiang province on China’s eastern coast, two mounds of discarded cotton clothing and bed linens, loosely separated into dark and light colors, pile up on a workroom floor. Jacket sleeves, collars, and brand labels protrude from the stacks as workers feed the garments into shredding machines.

It’s the first stage of a new life for the textiles, part of a recycling effort at the Wenzhou Tiancheng Textile Company, one of the largest cotton recycling plants in China.

Textile waste is an urgent global problem, with only 12% recycled worldwide, according to fashion sustainability nonprofit Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Even less – only 1% – are castoff clothes recycled into new garments; the majority is used for low-value items like insulation or mattress stuffing.

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