End of life

Consider every ending as a new beginning


Did you know?

20% of the global production waste comes from the textile and apparel sectors

So here we are, at the end of the cycle. Or aren’t we? There are so many alternatives to throwing clothes in the trash, so many things you can do to extend the lives of those resources that have cost blood, sweat and tears to obtain.



Have you heard of fabrics that disintegrate completely? They are called biodegradable. This is quite spectacular, but the method is not applied on a large scale yet.

You don’t have to go this far, though. Something that’s already done quite regularly is to upcycle clothing. Reusing fabrics for new designs is actually pretty easy.

Going one step beyond reusing the fabric itself, you can reuse its fibers. Recycling is still an option here, but it needs to be taken into account in the design phase already.

Do you cringe at the idea of clothes ending up in landfill? Facilitate the return of items that are no longer wanted.

And why not reuse clothes? This is the most sustainable option of all. Perhaps someone else is just dying to wear those clothes that you’ve grown tired of.

strategies for End of life

Biodegrade organic textile

One of nature’s basic principles is that everything has its place: something springs to life, consisting of natural resources, and at the end it slowly disappears back into the earth. This is the most advanced closed-loop system ever. One way for us to close the loop, then, is to make sure our clothes are biodegradable. This strategy is not yet widely used because it still requires a lot of research, and because (contrary to for instance coffee cups) clothes aren’t usually left on the side of the road after use. Factors  like the exact circumstances in which clothes will decompose, the time this takes, and the availability of collection and take-back systems are crucial.



These are natural textiles that easily break down, like cotton, silk, wool, cashmere and hemp.


Synthetic fabrics like polyester, spandex, nylon, … Though they will eventually decompose, this process might take twenty to two hundred years.

Textile Fibres



Cotton is one of the easiest fabrics to decompose, especially if it’s 100% cotton. In the right compost, the material should be gone in a week to five months.


This very delicate material can decompose in as little as two weeks when it’s completely pure. You can speed up the process by cutting the fabric into small pieces.


Depending on the blend, wool takes between one and five years to decompose.


The popularity of bamboo is on the rise. Like wool, it takes a year and sometimes longer to biodegrade.


Because hemp is derived from plants and does not require excessive processing, it is highly biodegradable.


Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms and is also very biodegradable.

Other fabrics like jute, abaca fibers, cork or products made of seeds, shells, nuts, and wood are all compostable.


In reality it’s obviously not that simple, because clothes are often made from a blend of fabrics (often polyesters) or heavily coated. This obviously reduces their biodegradability. Other extras, like threads, buttons, zippers and labels could also spoil the fun.


  • Centexbel - The Belgian Textile Research Centre
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Create new life through redesign and upcycling

Reusing discarded pieces of fabric to create new products has been popular for quite some time, but nowadays this process is more professionalized than ever. Reusing, redesigning or upcycling is regarded as an eco-efficient strategy, even though this approach does not tackle the real problem, namely the increase in both production and consumption.

This being said, we have an enormous amount of textile and clothing waste at our disposal, which (rightly) boosts the popularity of this strategy. There are several brands that use fabric surplus from the regular fashion industry to produce their own fashionable clothing.


The most obvious way in which to go about this, is to work with used clothing (also called ‘post-consumer spills’). You can use discarded textile to create a new, upcycled product, making new clothes from old pieces or fabrics. This closed-loop system often requires intermediaries such as thrift shops or other organizations that collect clothes.

TOP-atelier, a 2019-2021 research project that was funded by Vlaanderen Circulair, provides tips and tricks to designers who want to upcycle textile, mentioning the challenges and lessons learned, as well as giving examples and listing interesting contacts.


Rather than focusing on the end of a product’s life, you can also intervene much earlier. As a designer, you can work with pre-consumer spills or pieces of fabric that were already labeled as waste during the design or production process (before entering the consumer’s closet, that is). Pattern cutting or fabric production often generate these kinds of surpluses, yet a lot of brands are also sitting on a pile of leftover fabrics. There are organizations that resell them in Belgium.

Read more about this strategy in the 'Resources' section.


  • (Re)design surplus textiles and upcycle old clothing
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Recycle textile

The family of recycled textiles is continually welcoming new members. Turning to existing yarn and textile means reducing the need to make fabrics from virgin (raw) materials like cotton, wool or synthetic yarn. This saves energy and avoids the pollution that takes place during traditional dyeing, washing and harvesting processes.

It’s always a good idea to learn more about the recyclability of fabrics and to take into account guidelines which guarantee that clothes stay in the loop at the end of their lives. You can read all about the relevant criteria by clicking your way to ‘Design for rebirth’. Check out the recycling possibilities for each fabric under ‘Resources’, especially the strategy ‘Choose recycled or recyclable fabrics’.

Keep in mind that avoiding waste, for instance by going for long life and durability, is still the best solution and that recycling should be your last resort.

Natural materials

Recycling natural materials (like cotton and wool) mainly happens mechanically: it’s a process of stripping and shredding fabrics into smaller particles. The fibers that emerge from this process have been broken and torn, making them shorter. Using (only) these kinds of fibers would endanger the quality of the fabric; the product would not be strong enough and would disintegrate quickly. To achieve a better quality, the shorter fibers are mixed with long (new) fibers. Chemical recycling is also an option for natural materials. Cotton is dissolved into cellulose, for instance, which can be turned into viscose or lyocell. What’s interesting about chemical recycling is that it doesn’t cause deterioration and that it removes the dye from the fibers. Yet the products that are up for recycling cannot contain hard items like buttons or zippers.

The recycling of natural materials lags behind as compared to that of synthetic materials. New natural materials are cheap, which is why they continue to dominate the market and the necessary new developments in recycling are slow to emerge. Once a method has been developed for extracting longer fibers, chances are that the quality (and with it, the demand) will increase.

Synthetic fabrics

Synthetic fabrics can be recycled both (thermo)mechanically and chemically. Polyester, for instance, is pulverized, melted and then spun into new fibers.

The demand for recycled polyester is on the rise, especially in the niche markets of sports and outdoor wear, but also in the fashion industry in general.

Explore your options and give organizations like RESYNTEX and Retex a follow. Looking for a partner to process your textile waste? Make sure to check this list.


Sorting and recycling is of course easiest when clothes are made of one and the same material. Unfortunately, most pieces consist of a blend of different materials, which is bad news all the way around. This means the very first step is an (expensive) sorting process, pushing prices for recycled textile up way too high to compete with virgin material.

The Radio Frequency Identification Tag or RFID-tag might be a possible solution, according to Valvan. Such a tag could contain all the necessary information to facilitate the sorting process.

In addition, several organizations, like Worn Again, believe in the possibility of chemically recycling fabrics that contain at least 80% of the same material. They hope to accomplish this by 2018.


  • Fibersort - separating textiles based on fiber type
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Organize collection and take-back systems

Consumers have plenty of options to donate their worn-out clothing these days. There are clothing drop boxes, recycling plants, thrift stores and door-to-door clothing collections, as well as more recent initiatives like Packmee from the Netherlands, where you simply stuff your clothes in a box and put it on your doorstep. Tag it and you’re done: Post.nl picks it up for you. This is super easy, but still some 8 kilos of clothes per person end up on the waste heap each year. We can do better than that. You can do your part as a retailer by organizing clothing collections: 


H&M, PUMA, The North Face, … they know that collection systems work. These retailers proudly put take-back boxes in their stores so customers can drop off old clothes in exchange for a discount on their next purchase.

The boxes are collected, centralized and sorted, often with the help of professional sorting companies. The Swiss textile recycling company I:CO is perhaps the most well-known. The sorters separate clothes that are still wearable from those that aren’t. The first group is sold as second-hand clothing, with profits going to charity. Items that can no longer be worn are recycled (at the moment mainly into cleaning cloths and material for the automotive industry) or burned.

The sector is eagerly awaiting initiatives that would facilitate both the sorting and recycling process. To encourage research in this area, H&M went so far as to launch a Global Challenge to boost innovations. Fashion for Good, too, encourages innovation in the fashion industry by supporting and financing start-ups.


Next, it may be worth incorporating systems like leasing, deposit refunds or rental services into your business model. MUD Jeans is top of the class in this respect: they offer their clients the possibility to buy or lease their products. After paying a monthly fee, customers are free to rent the jeans they want, and to exchange them for another pair. MUD Jeans retains ownership of the raw materials, remaining in complete control of their own fibers. They reuse them (or even entire patches of recycled jeans) to make new pants. Nice extra: when customers rip their jeans, they can have them fixed for free. While this is taken care of, they can wear replacement pants. Sounds familiar?


  • Make sure your clients can return their old clothes
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Prolong life through reuse

The user is usually the one to decide whether or not to reuse clothing. So what about you? What do you do with clothes you no longer like? Do you give them away, sell them online, donate them to charity? Or do you try to find new owners for them at swapping events?

Be sure to check out our ‘Consumption’ section for tips and tricks.

Several retailers and designers are also launching initiatives for reuse. Filippa K is one of them, encouraging customers to hand in their clothes. Some of the collected clothes are subsequently sold in their own second-hand store, where the brand can supervise the process.

Last but not least: look into the possibilities for last season’s items or overstocks. Who knows, perhaps there are initiatives in your neighbourhood that will give your clothes a new life, such as clothing libraries.


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