IKEA and H&M Group are both transforming into circular businesses, committing to only use recycled, renewable or other sustainably sourced materials by 2030. But closing the recycling loop in a circular business model for materials like textiles presents many challenges.
To address the challenge around lack of knowledge about the chemical content in collected recyclable textiles, H&M Group and IKEA decided to collaborate in a large test study.
“The challenge of finding fact-based information about recyclable textiles on a large scale requires industry wide collaboration. We wanted to join forces with others to find innovative solutions, enabling meaningful and scalable changes”, says Mirjam Luc, Project Leader for Recycled Textiles at IKEA.
She is spearheading the study together with Linn Farhadi, Project Leader for Recycled Textiles at H&M Group.
Linn nods at Mirjam’s reasons for collaborating and continues:
“Our two companies have worked together in different projects before and have a history of sharing experiences within chemical management. It felt like a natural step to start working together in this area too.”
The chemicals of cotton
The first – and concluded – part of the study concerned cotton. All textile materials can be divided into three categories: virgin, pre-consumer and post-consumer. The IKEA/H&M Group study included pre- and post-consumer cotton samples collected from recyclers.
Pre-consumer textiles are usually waste from production and therefore easier to control in terms of chemical content, while post-consumer textiles have been worn or used by consumers or industry.
“As a brand, you can be in much better control if you only use waste from your own production streams. Challenges might increase when adding industrial production waste with unknown origin”, Mirjam explains.
Chemical differences between virgin, pre-, and post-consumer cotton
The team tested the cotton samples for 8 groups of chemical substances, such as APEO, azo dyes, formaldehyde, organotins, and PAH. They used the AFIRM RSL (Apparel and Footwear International Restricted Substances List) test matrix to make conclusions and define the probability of detection rate for the tested substances in the recycled cotton.
Some substances were not detected at all, whereas others were detected at very low levels. The results indicated that there is a difference between pre- and post-consumer textiles.
“For the post-consumer cotton, the test results indicated that APEO is the substance group with highest probability to be detected, while azo dyes and other allergenic and carcinogenic dyes have an almost negligible probability of being detected”, says Linn.
The tests also revealed some interesting findings concerning the probability to find hazardous chemicals in recycled cotton compared to virgin.
“For example, we could see that the probability of detecting organotins is slightly higher in recycled pre-consumer cotton compared to virgin cotton, while the probability of detecting PAH and formaldehyde is potentially lower in recycled pre-consumer cotton compared to virgin”, says Mirjam.
New sins can be avoided – old ones need to be remedied
The duo say that chemical management of virgin materials can be controlled in supply chains, either by audits, CoC (Code of Conduct), restricted substance lists, or “positive lists” of recommended chemicals to use and other controlling tools. However, for recycled materials – especially post-consumer waste – old sins need to be managed.
“But for azo dyes, for example, the results look very promising. We didn’t detect azo dyes in any of the 166 recycled cotton samples. One reason for this might be that azo dyes have been regulated for many years, and that the samples were collected in Europe”, says Linn.
Next step: Wool and polyester
Since the cotton study was such a success, the team decided to expand the scope of the study to wool and polyester, and invite more brands to participate in sharing test data.
“The feedback and interest have been incredibly positive. The work is progressing according to plan and the results and conclusions will be shared once we come further in the study”, says Mirjam.
Much to gain from the results
The study has already yielded returns, providing in-depth knowledge about possible risks of finding hazardous substances in various recycled textiles.
“Based on that knowledge, we can develop smarter test strategies that enable the use of recycled textiles in a safe way”, says Linn.
When asked about the dream scenario when it comes to the impact of the study results in a wider perspective, the vision is clear:
“It would be fantastic if the results could be used to raise awareness around problematic substances that can be found in textile materials, but also to encourage innovation, so that we can secure that these textile materials can be recycled in safe ways”, says Mirjam.
Linn agrees and continues:
“It would also be great if the results can be used by authorities in their work to align legislation, ensuring that materials are recycled in a safe way and encouraging innovation where needed, so that companies can secure safe use of recycled materials.”
The fabric is only as strong as its weakest thread
This kind of collaboration is still quite unique, something that Linn and Mirjam would like to see change in the future.
“A circular economy will not be reached by individual actors. We believe that transparency is essential to reduce the use and impact of harmful substances within the supply chain. And the best way to accelerate a circular approach on how products are made is by industry wide collaboration and sharing of knowledge. Together we can make a big and lasting impact”, the duo concludes.
The 8 chemical groups of the cotton study
IKEA and H&M tested the cotton samples for 8 groups of chemical substances:
- APEO – washing or cleaning agents
- Allergenic and carcinogenic dyes
- Azo dyes – a group of synthetic dyes
- Formaldehyde – used to prevent shrinking and wrinkling
- Heavy metals – common ingredients in dyes
- Organotins – used as stabilizers, catalysts and biocides
- PAH – used as softeners or extenders, or as impurities from dyeing
- Phthalates – used to increase softness and flexibility
This article is featured in the report “What goes around”, dealing with the roadblock of hazardous chemicals on the path towards circular economy.