The fashion industry needs to put much more funding into tackling clothing waste.
In a warehouse on the outskirts of Barcelona, women stand at conveyor belts, manually sorting T-shirts, jeans and dresses from large bales of used clothing - a small step towards tackling Europe's towering problem of discarded fashion.
Within a year, the sorting centre run by garment re-use and recycling charity Moda Re plans to double the volume it handles to 40,000 metric tonnes annually.
"This is just the beginning," said Albert Alberich, director of Moda Re, which is a part of Spanish charity Caritas and runs Spain's biggest second-hand clothing chain.
"Increasingly we are going to turn used clothes into raw material from Europe for fashion companies."
Partly funded by Zara-owner Inditex, Moda Re will expand sites in Barcelona, Bilbao, and Valencia.
The sorting centres are some of the first signs of a ramp-up in clothing sorting, processing, and recycling.
Why have the charity opened them and why have Inditex helped to pay for them?
It's all in response to a barrage of new European Union proposals to curb the fashion industry.
Also in Spain, rivals including H&M and Mango have created a non-profit association to manage clothing waste. This is in response to an EU law requiring member states to separate textiles from other waste from January 2025.
Fast fashion is 'highly unsustainable'
Fast fashion, or making and selling cheap clothes with a short lifespan, is "highly unsustainable", the Commission said in July.
The textile industry is a major contributor to climate change and environmental damage, it noted.
Less than a quarter of Europe's 5.2 million tonnes of clothing waste is recycled and millions of tonnes ends up as landfill every year, the European Commission said in July.
Precise data on the growth of clothing waste is scarce but collection for recycling and reuse increased gradually in several European countries from around 2010, a 2021 EU report said.
How is Inditex doing on sustainability?
Zara-owner Inditex, which in March said it placed 10 per cent more items of clothing on the market globally last year than in 2021, aims to use 40 per cent recycled fibres in garments by 2030 as part of sustainability goals announced in July.
"The main problem that we are facing is overconsumption," says Dijana Lind, ESG analyst at Union Investment, the Frankfurt-based asset manager that holds shares in Adidas, Hugo Boss, Inditex, and H&M.
Lind said she has been engaging with Adidas, Hugo Boss, and Inditex about the need for those companies to increase their use of recycled textiles, and for the apparel industry as a whole to increase textile recycling.
Hugo Boss said in a statement to Reuters that "overproduction and overconsumption are, in general, an industry-wide problem," adding that it was using data analysis to better adjust production to demand.
Money is key to improve clothing recycling
Between 6 and 7 billion euros of investment will be needed by 2030 to create the scale of textile waste processing and recycling that the EU is aiming for, consultancy McKinsey estimated in a report last year. Reuters could not establish what level of investments were currently being made in the industry.
Lind said companies had introduced some first steps but "more needs to be done."
Inditex said it would invest 3.5 million euros in Moda Re over three years and had recycling containers in all its Spanish stores. It did not respond to a request for comment on the suggestion it needed to do more.
In a statement to Reuters, H&M said it recognized it was "part of the problem."
"The way fashion is produced and consumed needs to change – this is an undeniable truth," H&M said.
Why is more material not recycled?
The obstacles to significantly reducing clothing waste are formidable, despite the EU crackdown, industry sustainability commitments and initiatives like the Moda Re expansion.
Hundreds of similar plants, along with investment in technology and market interventions will be needed to meet industry goals to recycle 2.5 million tonnes of textile waste by 2030, McKinsey said in the report.
Fourteen textile recycling companies in Europe have plans to increase their production capacity, according to Fashion For Good, a recycled fibre start-up investment company that surveyed 57 recyclers in a September 2022 report.
The EU has not set specific targets for recycled content in garments, but by 2030 aims for all textile products sold in the bloc "to a great extent" be made of recycled fibres, as well as being durable, repairable and recyclable.
To create the capacity to meet the goals, ReHubs Europe, an association set up by garment lobby group EURATEX, promotes investments in "fibre-to-fibre" recycling: processes that turn used garments into yarn to make new textiles.
EURATEX did not immediately respond to a Reuters question about the level of investments made in the technology.
Less than 1% of clothes are currently recycled in this manner and the processes are still being developed. Challenges include separating different types of fibre into feedstock suitable for recycling.
With such techniques still in their infancy, the higher cost of recycled fabric compared to new fabric remains a barrier to widespread adoption.
Half of donated clothes still end up in Africa
At the Barcelona plant, garments arrive from more than 7,000 donation bins in supermarkets and Zara and Mango stores. Infrared machines donated by Inditex identify the fibre make-up of garments to speed up the largely-manual sorting.
Currently around 40% of the clothes Moda Re receives are sent to other facilities for recycling. Of that, just a fifth is then recycled fibre-to-fibre, a share that Moda Re expects will grow to 70% over the next three to four years.
For now, most of the recycling is instead for lower grade products like dishcloths.
Almost half the clothes donated to Moda Re are shipped for resale in African countries including Cameroon, Ghana, and Senegal. Moda Re says the clothes it exports can be reused.
According to United Nations trade data, the EU exported 1.4 million tonnes of used textiles in 2022, more than twice as much as in 2000. Not all those clothes get reused, and exports of used clothes from Europe to Africa can lead to pollution when clothes that can't be resold end up in dumps, the EU has said.
Proposed European Commission rules seek to clamp down on unscrupulous operators that export damaged items destined for dumps, and would require countries to demonstrate their ability to manage the material sustainably.
Moda Re said it aims to reduce the volume of clothes it sends to Africa.
Only 8% of the donations are currently resold at Moda Re's second-hand shops, the method widely seen as the more efficient way of reusing old clothes. A similar amount ends up as European landfill.
The company aims to double the amount it resells by expanding to 300 second-hand shops in Spain over the next three years from just over 100 presently, it told Reuters.
Despite the challenges, employees at Moda Re said they felt their work was positive.
"We take the clothes that have been thrown away to make new clothes," said Aissatou Boukoum, a young Senegalese worker, feeding garments through a machine that slices them into ribbons to be sent for recycling. "For me, it is good."
How are Adidas, Puma and Bestseller doing on recycling?
As well as the efforts by Inditex, Puma has partnerships with garment collecting and sorting companies I:CO in Germany, Texaid in Switzerland and Vestisolidale in Italy.
Adidas, Bestseller, and H&M have invested in Finnish start-up Infinited Fiber Company, which manufactures fibre out of textile waste, cardboard and paper.
The Commission's legislative push includes rules to make retailers contribute to the cost of collecting used clothes for reuse and recycling.
Under the proposed rules, retailers would pay a fee of roughly 12 euro cents per item for each garment sold in the bloc, with higher rates for garments that are harder to recycle, the Commission estimated in July.
As in Spain, textile waste associations would be set up in each country. In France this system has already been in place since 2008 under an organisation called Refashion.
Reuters asked ten leading fashion companies including Adidas, H&M, and Primark how the fees would hit their profitability. None provided an estimate. All said they hoped the fees would be the same across the EU.
"It's a tsunami of legislation," said Mauro Scalia, director of sustainable businesses at EURATEX.