The Ultimate Guide to Recycled Clothing Materials - Good On You
19 Mar

The Ultimate Guide to Recycled Clothing Materials

Every year, humankind dumps a massive 2.12 billion tonnes of waste. Whether it’s regular household waste, the rubbish accumulated out and about, or even unwanted clothing as people go through their wardrobes. Thankfully, as the world becomes more aware of the environmental impact of waste, recycling is on the rise. And turning trash to treasure is a fantastic way to give everything from plastic bottles to old pillows a new life. Introducing recycled clothing materials.

So once the waste is out of our hands, what does it become? Well, these days it could be your next pair of shoes or running tights! In the fashion industry, recycled clothing materials are an emerging and welcome shift needed to address the industry’s high volume of waste, fractured processes, and linear garment lifecycles. Let’s look at the most common recycled clothing materials and break down their sustainability.

A brief history of recycled materials

We can’t introduce recycled materials without acknowledging the murky history of fabric production in the fashion industry. In the late 1940s, society saw the first signs of cheaper, virgin fabrics, and a strong presence of synthetic chemical-based materials like nylon. Enter mass production and fast supply chains, aka the infant signs of what is now known as fast fashion. Decades later, an estimated 100 billion garments are produced annually worldwide.

Technology and innovation are starting to enable a new wave of recycled clothing materials through a more sustainable and circular model.

But times are changing, and the world of fashion is at an exciting turning point. Technology and innovation are starting to enable a new wave of recycled clothing materials through a more sustainable and circular model. More brands are offering programs that give consumers a simple recycling solution for materials. And from plant- and animal-based to synthetic, various recycled fabrics are popping up which address issues such as waste, climate change, deforestation, pollution, and much more. As ever, be alert even when purchasing recycled material—it can be tricky to ensure sustainability if you don’t have all the correct information.

Not a perfect solution

We chatted to our Head of Ratings, Kristian Hardiman, aka the in-house materials expert, and he talked us through the issues with recycled clothing materials. While we are seeing positive steps in the right direction, “the reality is that the fashion industry as we know it is fraught with fractured systems. Regardless of the material and its impact, there is an underlying issue: too much virgin material is being used to make our clothing.” This overabundance has led to colossal textile waste issues from numerous areas of the production line, including pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. When it comes to our rating system, Good On You rewards brands that only use deadstock material (discarded offcuts in the manufacturing process). “In an ideal, more circular world, there would not be any deadstock material, and waste would be minimised, with more value placed on the material. A similar logic applies to recycled synthetics. It is mainly due to our broken and overwhelmingly linear system that recycled materials are a solution at this point in time.”

Regardless of the material and its impact, there is an underlying issue: too much virgin material is being used to make our clothing.

Kristian Hardiman – Head of Ratings

A mixture of eco-friendly materials is needed going forward, and the industry can’t be reliant on a single material to repair the system. Organic fabrics require land and can only be grown in some regions of the world. Recycled synthetics don’t have the land-use demands but are much higher in energy intensity. “At this stage, there is no one right way to go about it. It is diverse and dynamic. So while sustainability and ethical practices continue to make their mark on the fashion industry, we need to find solutions to support the shift to a more circular fashion industry, acknowledging that sometimes the solution is driven by the problem.”

Recycled clothing materials

Recycled cotton

Did you know that conventional cotton is extremely intensive to produce? The fluffy white plant requires vast amounts of water, a lot of space to grow, various harmful chemicals, and overall, is very labour intensive. Despite this, cotton is one of the easiest fabrics to make into a recycled garment. It’s worth checking whether a recycled cotton garment is derived from organic or conventional cotton and if it’s made from pre-consumer or post-consumer waste. Thankfully, cotton is entirely biodegradable—able to break down over time. So, if done correctly, it fits within a circular model, setting it apart from many other synthetic recycled materials.

Our verdict:

Go for recycled cotton as a first option, particularly if you can identify its origin as organic cotton. Extend the life of your cotton garments by using gentle, plant-based washing powders and cold water cycles.

Brands using recycled cotton:

MUD Jeans

Rated: Great
A man wears navy jeans and a blue top

Dutch denim brand MUD Jeans is all about sustainability. Not only does it offer a repair service, but it also provides a rental service where you can lease a pair of jeans for up to a year! MUD Jeans uses a combination of GOTS certified organic cotton and post-consumer recycled cotton. MUD Jeans are available in a range of sizes, usually from W25 L30-W33 L32 for women and W28 L34-W36 L34 for men.

See the rating.

Shop MUD Jeans.

Shop MUD Jeans @ Labell-D.

Outland Denim

Rated: Great

Outland Denim makes premium denim jeans and clothes, and offers ethical employment opportunities for women rescued from human trafficking in Cambodia. This Australian brand was founded as an avenue for the training and employment of women who have experienced sex trafficking. Find most of the brand's range in US sizes 22-34.

See the rating.

Shop Outland Denim.

The Common Good Company

Rated: Great

The Common Good Company produces clothing using recycled materials, proving that there is not only a better way to produce but a better way to consume. Find the clothes in AU sizes 6-14.

See the rating.

Shop The Common Good Company.

Recycled wool

Wool is a durable animal-based fibre that is known for its longevity, warmth, and comfort. In its original form, wool is a resource-intensive material to produce and has associated ethical concerns. Recycled wool, like that traditionally processed in Italy by Manteco, reduces the environmental and ethical impacts significantly and, with so much of the fibre already in circulation, is becoming a desired recyclable option. It’s also diverse and easy to mix with other materials such as fleece. The industry is beginning to see less demand for virgin wool with the higher value placed on discarded garments or offcuts in the manufacturing process.

Our verdict:

Support brands using recycled wool over virgin wool. To extend the life of a woollen garment, wash less often and by hand.

Brands using recycled wool:

ARIELLE

Rated: Good

ARIELLE is a US-based sustainable apparel label committed to organic, recycled and zero-waste fabrics, local manufacturing, fair-trade supply chain and plastic-free packaging and production. It makes covetable clothes with no compromise to people or planet and carries a size range of XS-L.

See the rating.

Shop ARIELLE.

Näz

Rated: Good
sustainable navy jumpsuit by Naz

Näz is a Portuguese fashion brand that aims to make fashion look good, not only on you, but on the planet too. It uses a high proportion of eco-friendly materials including GOTS certified organic cotton, and traces most of its supply chain. Most garments available in sizes S-L.

See the rating.

Shop Näz.

ASKET

Rated: Good
man wearing black asket t-shirt

ASKET has been creating timeless wardrobe essentials since 2015 with revolutionary sizing and fair pricing. The brand disregards seasonal collections, cuts out all the middlemen, and only sells directly to you—putting its entire focus on building a single permanent collection. Find the range in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop ASKET.

Recycled down

Down—usually goose and duck feathers—is the soft inside padding commonly used in furniture such as cushions and doona covers, and insulated clothing like ski jackets and coats. Recycled down is derived from the simple process of diverting household items from landfills, instead using the feathers for a new garment. This is an ideal sustainable option, as the recycled insulation does the same thing as the virgin down and feathers. The recycled option is also more ethical—even better if the brand can disclose the processes and origins of the down and feathers.

Our verdict:

Choose recycled down over virgin down every time to avoid animal cruelty. Look for brands who disclose where they source the down from in its original form to ensure it was sustainably sourced and certified.

Brands using recycled down:

Patagonia

Rated: Good

Patagonia is a brand which truly lives and breathes the great outdoors. It makes clothing for trail running, climbing, mountain biking, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding. Patagonia has strong labour rights and uses recycled, rather than virgin, polyester. It has also committed to reducing its energy use and emissions, and stocks sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Patagonia @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Patagonia @ Labell-D.

Shop Patagonia.

Shop Patagonia Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Shop Patagonia Kids Pre-Owned @ Retykle.

Recycled cashmere

Recycled cashmere is a welcome addition to the industry as the original form significantly impacts people, animals, and the planet. Cashmere is an ancient fabric that dates back to the 13th century. Originally a commodity made on a smaller scale from a specific breed of goat, the virgin material now has a much larger environmental footprint. The less intensive recycled cashmere option has fewer years under its belt but is already favoured as an eco-alternative by brands that traditionally used virgin cashmere. The soft, lightweight material is much more sustainable in its recycled form, placing a higher value on the material itself by upcycling the pre-consumer offcuts and leftover fabric waste.

Our verdict:

Only source recycled cashmere if you really need it, and avoid virgin cashmere all together. Take the same ethical and environmental factors into consideration for recycled materials as well.

Brands using recycled cashmere:

Organic Basics

Rated: Great
people wearing organic basics basics

Organic Basics offers high-quality sustainable fashion basics for men and women in organic materials. It also recently launched its first sustainable denim collection! The Denmark-based brand puts sustainable thinking at the centre of everything—it only chooses fabrics that care for our environment, and only ever partners with factories that care about their impact. Organic Basics clothes are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Organic Basics @ Rêve en Vert.

Shop Organic Basics @ thegreenlabels.

Shop Organic Basics.

Outerknown

Rated: Good

Founded by surf champion Kelly Slater, Outerknown is a sustainable brand that aims to blend style and function with the protection of natural resources. The brand is Bluesign certified and has partnered with the Fair Labour Association. Find the range in sizes XS-2XL.

See the rating.

Shop Outerknown.

Shop Outerknown @ Curate.

Econyl

An up and coming alternative to nylon, ECONYL is a recycled plastic material created by Italian firm Aquafil. The company uses synthetic waste such as industrial plastic, waste fabric, and fishing nets from oceans. They blend and transform this waste into a recycled nylon yarn that has the same appearance and quality as virgin nylon—a perfect replacement! ECONYL appears in stretch garments like swimwear and activewear. Remember synthetic recycled materials still create residual microplastics, though it’s important to note that Aquafil is in the process of creating a form of ECONYL that doesn’t shed. In the meantime, you can use washing machine filters or washing garment bags for these items to minimise the microplastics released in the wash.

Our verdict:

Avoid traditional nylon by looking for brands that use Econyl, but simultaneously choose recycled plant based fibres where possible and be diligent about microplastic protection in your laundry!

Brands using Econyl:

Girlfriend Collective

Rated: Great
Two women wearing sports leggings and crop tops in burgundy and green

Girlfriend Collective creates minimal, luxury clothes made with certified fair labour, certified by the Social Accountability Standard International SA8000. The brand uses eco-friendly materials like recycled polyester as well as low-impact non-toxic dyes and is fully Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified. Inclusively sized Girlfriend Collective offers products from 2XS-6XL.

See the rating.

Shop Girlfriend Collective @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Girlfriend Collective @ thegreenlabels.

Shop Girlfriend Collective @ OASEAS.

Shop Girlfriend Collective.

Stella McCartney

Rated: Good

A member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Stella McCartney has set some excellent environmental standards across the luxury fashion industry. Stella uses some eco-friendly materials, including recycled polyester and organic cotton, and has a strategy in place to reduce waste across its entire supply chain. It has also adopted the ETI Code of Conduct that includes a living wage definition!

See the rating.

Shop Stella McCartney @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Stella McCartney @ Labell-D.

Shop Stella McCartney Kids Pre-Owned @ Retykle.

Shop Stella McCartney Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Shop Stella McCartney.

Recycled PET plastic

You might be thinking—I know water bottles can be recycled into other plastic water bottles, but how can they be made into clothing? Recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) has been in development since the early 90s, and thanks to the evolution of technology and the search for more solutions to plastic pollution, buying recycled PET plastic garments is a good option when trying to avoid the production of new plastics.

Like all fabrics, recycled PET has its shortfalls. There is not yet a reliable recycling solution for recycled PET plastic items, so brands should ensure they can account for a garment’s longevity. Some brands manage this by offering repair services to extend a garment’s lifecycle, which is a good first step.

Be especially careful with garments such as fleeces and other recycled PET wearables, as studies have shown that plastic microfibres are polluting waterways and that fleece made from recycled PET plastic may be even more polluting than its original form. Buying garments that don’t need to be washed as often, such as rain jackets or sneakers, is a good way to avoid contributing to microfibre pollution with your clothes.

Keep an eye out for brands taking on more sustainable recycled synthetic materials such as Netplus or Repreve, and do your research before diving straight into a recycled plastic product.

Our verdict: 

Recycled PET plastic is definitely better than virgin polyester, but still choose recycled PET plastic garments selectively, prioritising longevity over a quick spend. When purchasing a recycled PET plastic garment, check if the brand offers a repair program for after use. Also, wash in a garment bag or guppy bag to mitigate the inevitable microplastics release!

Brands using recycled PET plastic:

Loop Swim

Rated: Good
two girls playing in water wearing colourful sustainable swimwear by Loop Swim

Loop Swim is a Chinese brand that transforms post-consumer use plastic bottles into phenomenal REPREVE UP50+ sun protective swimwear for men, women, and kids. Find most items in sizes XS to XL.

See the rating.

Shop Loop Swim.

Elle Evans

Rated: Great

Founded in 2013, Elle Evans Swimwear creates beautiful, sustainable, swimwear and activewear for people who care about fashion and the future. The brand uses post-consumer waste fabrics and traces all of its supply chain. The range is stocked in sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Elle Evans.

Nube

Rated: Good

Nube turns recycled plastic into responsible and fashionable activewear, designed and made in the US. The brand partners with artists and designers around the world to create prints motivated by the environmental crisis that inspire connection and action. This fully woman-owned business uses a closed-loop manufacturing process by recycling all off-cuts created during the manufacturing process. Find Nube products in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Nube.

Shop Nube @ Curate.

Recycled rubber

While old tires may not sound like an appealing addition to your wardrobe, they should! Today, approximately 1 billion tires are produced annually, and figuring out what to do with them once they’re no longer fit for the roads is tricky. Due to the chemicals often involved in rubber production—which can be made from natural or synthetic components—burning or tossing it isn’t exactly sustainable or good for the planet. Luckily, tires and other rubber products are relatively easy to upcycle and recycle into things like bouncy flooring and plant pots. And, yes, even fashion. You can find everything from jewellery to bags to shoes using recycled rubber.

Our verdict:

Recycled rubber is a good sustainable option for fashion and beyond. Try out recycled rubber as a quirky and innovative option that saves harmful material from ending up in a landfill. Once the product has reached the end of its life, check with your local waste processing facilities to see if they will accept it for further recycling.

Brands using recycled rubber:

Elvis & Kresse

Rated: Good
orange elvis and kresse bag

Elvis & Kresse upcycles reclaimed materials into sustainable luxury lifestyle accessories, all ethically handmade with 50% of profits going back to charities.

See the rating.

Shop Elvis & Kresse.

Chic Made Consciously

Rated: Good
A woman wears a black lacy necklace.

Chic Made Consciously sells eco-friendly bags and accessories made from recycled tyres by artisans in Bali, Indonesia.

See the rating.

Shop Chic Made Consciously.

Recycled leather

The leather industry is fraught with issues, from poor animal welfare standards to mass deforestation to water pollution. But leather is a long-lasting and technically biodegradable material, and with so much of it circulating through fashion, creating recycled leather goods is one way to extend the life of a product that had such a high upfront cost on animals, people, and the planet.

Our verdict:

There are many eco-friendly leather alternatives out there, but if you must have it, recycled leather is a good option that means you aren’t directly contributing to the suffering associated with new leather.

Brands using recycled leather:

BEEN London

Rated: Great

BEEN London is a London-based brand turning waste into timeless accessories you’d want to use every day. All their products are made of materials that have been something else in a previous life, including recycled leather offcuts and plastic bottles.

See the rating.

Shop BEEN London.

Shop BEEN London @ Staiy.

Want to learn how sustainable other fabrics are? Check out our ultimate clothing material guide.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 3,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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