Inspirational Woman Cyndi Rhoades founded Worn Again Technologies with the goal of eradicating textile waste. In the world we live in today 85% of the clothing we discard goes straight to landfill. Obviously, this must change and as part of doing that within the fashion industry, recycling is vital but not easy. The fabrics we use for clothing are mostly made from a mix of fibres like polyester and cotton together, how do we break them apart so they can be used again? This is where Cyndi steps in, read on to find out how.
D: Tell me about you yourself, where are you from?
C: I was born in Columbus Ohio in the USA and moved to the UK in 1993. In a very short amount of time I had moved from, Ohio to Minneapolis to start University and study psychology, before moving to San Francisco and then LA, where I had switched to film making. During college I started getting work in production in LA, as a runner, (PA as its known in US), on music videos and commercials. I then went on what I thought would be a three month trip to the UK, but ended up staying. It took me a year to break into the film industry here, again as a runner to get my foot in the door and eventually moving up the ladder from production manager, to producer and eventually directing. During my time in production the 90’s worked with acts like Oasis and Tina Turner, as a director for small indie bands that were up and coming, fairly unheard of, very tiny budgets, but it was fun. I realised in my mid 20’s that my personal interests had started to shift and I wanted to understand what made the world tick. It was actually Naomi Klein's initial book ‘No Logo’ and David Korten’s book ‘When Corporations Rule the World’ which fuelled the fire of change for me and I started to make the shift to documentary film making. In the 90’s it was very hard to make a breakthrough into mainstream documentary making but I enjoyed creating short films on interesting topics, like woodland burials and paganism at Stonehenge, for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in a video series promoting the UK abroad.
It was a series of events over years that led me create Worn Again, always focusing on social and environmental issues. The first thing that helped the shift in this direction, was a series of evening events I set up called Anti-Apathy. I had started going to lectures and talks on global issues hosted by the New Economics Foundation that really got me excited about a new way of doing economics, where society and environment were considered on an equal par with money. I would go to their events and film them, but at that time there weren’t the same platforms for sharing as there are now, so it was a case of what do I do with all this footage? That’s when I decided to create my own night’s, to bring these issue based debates into a nightclub, to interest my friends and that’s how Anti Apathy started in the early 2000’s. We held the first couple of events at The Spitz in East London (which doesn't exist anymore) in Spitalfields market. The Libertines played at the first event, this was before they were famous, then KT Tunstall happened to be a friend of a friend and she played at an early event too. It was really great because we had live music, really interesting speakers, poetry, films, all sorts, all in a nightclub which created an incredible energy and buzz. It was my way of merging issues with lifestyle.
Worn Again grew out of that. I think that merging two worlds is incredible, magical things come out of it, it created new ideas and fresh new ways of approaching things. They were fun, but hard to fund and to keep going. I knew it was leading somewhere when we held an event in Camden in 2004 with political economist, Ann Pettifor, who at the time had a premonition of the oncoming Debt Crisis that happened in 2008. It was an electric night - we were in a nightclub in Camden talking about debt, drinking beer, music was playing. A pivotal part of that evening was that Galahad Clark, one of the 7th generation Clark shoe family was there. He loved what we were doing and asked if he could do a line of footwear and give us the proceeds. I told him I had just created a brand called Worn Again; at that point we had only created a couple of jackets for an upcoming Anti-Apathy event on ethical fashion, but said ‘if we could do a line of trainers made out of fully recycled materials and call it Worn Again why don't we give it a go’. With Galahad and his team we made trainers out of any disused materials we could find like prison blankets, leather from old cars that had broken down, that sort of thing. For the first couple of years Galahad's company ran it and looked after all the design, manufacturing and distribution and I shaped the brand, identity and the vision of what we were trying to do. After a couple of years of upcycling, the business had grown and had worked with Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Balloon Flights and Eurostar. With Eurostar we repurposed their old uniforms and created a bag that their train managers then used again as part of their uniform. This was a good communication for companies to show their interest in sustainability and good storytelling but it wasn't cracking the problem of textile waste, which was my goal for Worn Again. Eradicating textile waste has been my mission since 2005.
This was the start of years and years of experimentation and learning the problems behind textile waste which led to a fateful meeting with our now Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Adam Walker who brought his brains and scientific know how to the vision. Adam’s experience is in polymer dissolution technology and the ability to recycle, polyethylene, polypropylene and other polys, which is what we were aiming to do with textiles, as they are primarily made up of polyester and cotton, both of which are polymers. So in 2012, along with my colleague Nick Ryan, we collaborated with Adam on a lab based proof of concept project to do just that, prove the initial concept. Since then, it's been a really long journey of discovery, finance raising, partnership raising and contributing to the vision for a circular ecosystem for textiles; we are still pre-commercial and are in year nine of technology development. In 2013, we were fortunate to partner with early pioneer investors, H&M, and R&D supporters Kering. This eventually led to new strategic partnerships and investors, including Sulzer Chemtech - also our chemical engineering partner - and two supply chain companies operating in Mexico, Himes and Directex. We’ve also brought in other circular partnerships, including Dibella, Sympatex, Asics and Dhana. In 2018, we became a Fashion For Good innovator on their Acceleration Programme. All of these partnerships are key in shaping the new circular marketplace in prep for our tech. The technology we are creating enables us to take pure polyester and blended polyester and cotton blends, break them down and then recapture and restore the polyester and the cellulose from the cotton to go back into supply chains as new. The ambition with this is that we will eventually have a world where we can replace the use of the majority of virgin resources to make new textiles. We will be able to use existing textiles as inputs to make new textiles, as part of a continual cycle.
D: How do we ramp up textile recycling? Less than 1% is recycled at the moment and you said that you're still in development. How far off do you think you are?
C: When we started creating the technology in 2012 no one was asking that question, no one. Now the entire industry is waking up to the need for it and they are keen to go from under 1% recycling to 100% as soon as possible. What’s important here is that the technology alone will not solve the less than 1% issue. Beyond the tech, it’s also about systems change. Today’s system is based primarily on fossil fuels, not only to make polyester but also to power production and agricultural systems. To shift from sourcing raw materials in the way we do today, growing cotton, using trees for cellulose and oil derived polyester to a system of making new textiles from old ones is going to take time, investment and mindset change. Of course some plastic bottles are being used today for recycled polyester but that still represents a small amount, and it's not textile to textile yet. It’s essentially downcycling bottles to textiles, which aren’t necessarily recyclable with today’s recycling methods. To shift from virgin production to processes like ours, one plant at a time, is still going to represent small volumes compared to the 60 million plus tonnes of virgin polyester, cotton and cellulose materials produced every year for textiles. Of course it's not only us, there will be other technologies, like Renewcell, Gr3n, Infinited Fiber, Evrnu and other technologies that are at various stages in development. But if we fast forward and imagine 2025 and imagine there are a handful of companies that have optimised and industrialised their processes, it's still going take a good decade or two, where these processes and plants are replicated to a point that the volumes and percentages start becoming significant. As an industry, we've still got a long way to go and a huge amount of systems development before we achieve full circularity. I don't like saying this though, as we should not be disheartened by it, instead there's a hell of a lot to be done to get us to that point and that's exciting, because it gives everyone something to focus on, to work towards and build together.
D: It's really difficult to separate fabrics out, what's your process for that?
C: On the website, on the homepage there is an illustration of a simplified textile supply chain loop. We play a small but important role of being able to take in textiles which have been collected, sorted and pre-processed to suit our specification - stripped of buttons, zips and metals – before entering the process which is able to separate the polyester and cotton, decontaminate them from dyes, finishes and other contaminants before extracting and restoring the polyester polymer and cellulose from cotton. The output is polyester pellets and cellulose as a pulp that will then go back into supply chains to fibre spinners to become new textiles and products all over again.
That's our part in the circular system, but in terms of what needs to happen and how we will source textiles, that will require further evolution of existing collection systems for textiles and more widespread across industry collaboration. The existing post-consumer textile supply chain already exists, the textile banks, the private collectors and the charity collectors. In the UK, for example, we are collecting high volumes of used textiles and that's great, but if you look at the US only 15% of textiles are being collected, the other 85% are still going to landfill and incineration. So the opportunity in the US is massive you could have hundreds of regenerative recycling plants out there and suddenly we've gone from building mountains of textile waste to actually producing circular raw materials – the basis for an entirely circular system. Meaning that once you collect textiles it won’t make sense to export them to lower cost labour regions for sorting, it will make sense to sort them close to home, put them through the Worn Again process to become fibre and textiles all over again.
We have been working within the existing post consumer textile supply chain for many years. Collected textiles, today, aren’t sorted in the way that we will need them to be. Today they are primarily sorted by hand which means it is virtually impossible to know the fibre content at a garment by garment level, whether it’s made of polyester, poly-cotton, nylon or cotton. We need new technology that is able to sort high volumes of non-rewearable textiles in highly automated systems. There are new innovations happening in this space, including fibre detecting technologies like Fibresort in the Netherlands and a project called SypTex in Sweden, Soex, Texaid and the Boer Group in Europe are some of the other big collectors actively involved in innovation to prepare for circularity.
In the UK there is definitely a huge movement in this area with industry projects, like Textiles 2030 led by WRAP, and the British Fashion Council’s Circular Fashion Ecosystem initiative, which is helping to bring together the different stakeholders to map out what's needed today and where we're going to be in 2 years, 5 years time. I think it’s crucial to have that bird's eye view, especially when there are so many different components and stakeholders in the eco system. It’s vital that these wider stakeholder groups work together to identify what's needed to accelerate change while making sure that the technologies, the timelines and legislation are all aligned to support each other.
D: This is really interesting; I had been wondering how you would source the fabrics. With that in mind shouldn’t we be collecting and storing fabric now because that's going to be a hugely important resource going forward. We could have warehouses of fabrics sitting ready.
C: Exactly, because there's going be a fight for it. Storage is a topic that keeps coming up, but I am not sure the economics of that work for now, even though the logical side of it does. Also, by 2025, when EU legislation comes into play which will require the separation of textiles from general waste, it’s likely that volumes of non-rewerable textiles for processes like ours won’t be an issue. Europe is an ideal testing ground for bringing circularity into reality at a systems level. There’s a growing recognition that advanced textile sorting facilities are going to be needed, with Euratex’s ambitions for Re:Hubs. The brands and retailers are making commitments to circular sourcing. Technologies are reaching maturity. And policy is changing to support new flows of materials. The perfect storm for a shift to circularity.
D: Because of this it would be good to have plants out there.
C: Absolutely. That is the vision. And we see the likelihood of regional models for reprocessing textiles, once they’ve gone through multiple reuse cycles, and how this would naturally lead to an era of regional fibre spinning and textile and garment manufacturing. There is so much technology with 3D printing, stitchless manufacturing and made to order, you can really see this being at the core of enabling a very strong sustainable system where we're producing a lot less, yet engaging with clothing and textiles in a more intelligent, exciting and experiential way.
D: When you're creating your pulp and pellets how do you breakdown the fibres, what is the process? Do you use chemicals, do you recycle your water supply how do you do all of that?
C: We are currently scaling up from the pilot plant phase. The next stage will be a demonstration plant and that will be a miniature version of the industrial process. The industrial process is based on a closed loop solvent system, that's not only environmentally friendly, in comparison to virgin production, but is also economic. We have an ambition for the industrial plants to be run on renewable energy, helping the industry get to a zero carbon footprint by 2050.
D: As we know microplastics shred from our clothing, can you see a solution for that?
C: It's one of those questions we must embrace and understand, because it is complex. And it’s not just a polyester issue, as further research is revealing, most fibres are being found in our oceans and rivers. For sure, it’s not as simple as banning polyester because the reality is, millions of tonnes of polyester already exist in the form of clothing today. Rather than banning the use of polyester per se, wouldn’t it make more sense to ban the use of virgin polyester production, once circular recycling processes like ours are able to continue recirculating the resources we already have? Regardless, solutions to the microfibre issue are vitally needed and it’s an issue that we as a society and industry need to tackle at all angles, whether it’s via innovation in fibre spinning techniques, which won’t prevent microfibres altogether, or with advanced filtering at water treatment plants and domestic washing machine levels. One of my go to sources to understand more about this topic is The Microfibre Consortium, a group that marries research with the reality of commercial supply chains, and works with the industry for the greater good of ecosystems.
D: I read recently that textiles need that Blue Planet moment, the wake up call that worked for reducing the consumption of plastic bags.
C: It doesn't feel like there's been one moment yet. But what David Attenborough did with the oceans, Greta has done for climate change and there are loads of people working just as tirelessly to bring about change in the textiles industry. I am very heartened by the groundswell of industry commitments and collaborative initiatives taking place to overcome the negative social and environmental impacts caused by the fashion industry. There is a lot more data available today and a growing number of solutions, so a lot more to talk about. The more solutions that become available the more the industry will want to implement them and lead the change.
I'm really enthused about what's happened over the last couple of years in terms of transparency, innovation, and the growing demand for improving the negative impacts of the industry. But definitely during Covid, and maybe we're trapped in our bubbles, but it does feel like it's starting to infiltrate wider society, in that people are really requestioning how we use and relate to clothing. We really have to reappraise this and find more intelligent ways of doing it. I have a lot of hope and a lot of sadness about what it's taken to get us to this point, but at last the world is waking up.
D: It is great that you're working cradle to cradle, to keep what we already have. Do you have other projects happening too?
C: We recently initiated a project, in collaboration with Circle Economy in the Netherlands and Centre for Circular Design, part of University Arts London, called World Circular Textiles Day on October 8th 2020. The project takes a long term view of achieving circularity, provocating that realistically it’s going to take the industry a whole 30 years to achieve widespread circularity. One of our central aims with WCTD is to support, celebrate and chart annual progress as the industry drives forward to this end goal. Change is happening, it could happen quicker, but it's happening and it’s important to celebrate and recognise those who are driving it. We have over 100 industry signatories on board and are expanding this every year, with the aim of reaching new audiences. What we’d like to see is circularity becoming a cultural movement with widespread appeal and engagement.
D: Hope is always good when telling the story, so that you bring people along with you rather than switch them off.
C: Going back to your last question you asked about some of the other things I have worked on: recently I have been involved with the Textiles 2030 initiative, hosted by WRAP.
Textiles 2030 is a really grounded solid project in the UK, bringing together key stakeholders – brands, collectors/sorters and recyclers - to develop a regional circular system, to link into global supply chains as a first step.
There's another initiative which I’ve been advising on with the British Fashion Council and their Institute of Positive Fashion - a project that was recently launched called the Circular Fashion Ecosystem. The first output from this is a blueprint for creating a circular textiles ecosystem in the UK. I get a lot of energy out of imagining where we could be, then building a plan to get there.
D: It's been good to see them championing Bethany Williams, she works a lot with upcycling and doing it beautifully with a social conscience and profits going to women's groups that need help.
C: Circularity has many facets and all aspects of it need to be promoted to spread awareness and to move circularity from a concept to a reality. Organisations like the BFC can help, by making it front and centre and encouraging it to be central to every company’s strategy. The same with the fashion colleges it's got to be at the core of curriculum and embrace the whole spectrum in that fashion is no longer about cradle to grave for products, but instead a living and breathing system where everyone plays a role in keeping resources in circulation and improving the lives of those making and handling our clothes. That’s what circularity is all about.
D: With education making sure teaching is about the whole supply chain, about being transparent in the whole industry, especially the human element.
C: The human component of circularity another area that is set to skyrocket because at the moment it's all about supply chain transparency. As more and more textile to textile recycling processes become industrialised the industry is going to require strict standards around how the inputs were sourced. Wanting to know are they second hand, are they non re-wearables, where were they sorted, what were the Labour standards like in the sorting facilities. The idea of building in product material ID, traceability, transparency and certification means all of the data and information about resources and production will be visible. This can only be a good thing in cleaning up and improving the impacts of the industry.
D: The new technologies like Blockchain allow for that and Crypto currencies can tag that along the way too.
C: It's exciting to see the brands that are embracing this rather than being scared of it, it's an opportunity. You're still going to make money, you're still going to flourish, but in a slightly different way. It’s taken a while for many to catch up and maybe we're still at the centre of the curve but it doesn't have to be a scary undertaking.
D: Is there any anything you would like to add?
C: It's really interesting to see some of the other people you've been interviewing and engaging with, the multifaceted perspectives around circularity and sustainability I think it's really fascinating, because we're all attracted to and pulled by certain things, some people by social standards, others by environment, but there's always crossover and it's all about keeping an open mind and knowing that we're all in the same boat. There are going to be multiple paths to getting there. I think we all have an understanding in bringing those together, that is where the magic happens and it's happening in a way that we haven't seen before. A lot of us have been talking and moving in similar circles for over 15 years, feeling like the outcasts and now all the cool kids want to be a part of this, so it gives you hope.
D: They like us they are fighting for their future.
C: Once you know some of the realities and downsides of what goes into making textiles and fashion you can't go back to the old ways. It's education, its information, its awareness. It's definitely a generational thing, you meet people and feel they know far too much for their age, but it's also great to see, because people in their 20’s have knowledge that has taken us years, decades, to learn and that too is part of the technological revolution.
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