Adidas’ liquefiable sweatshirt shows how hard it is to recycle clothes

An infinite problem.
An infinite problem.
Image: Adidas/Stella McCartney
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Sneaker giant Adidas and British designer Stella McCartney are teaming up to create a recyclable garment called “The Infinite hoodie.” The unisex sweatshirt, a collaboration with Seattle-based textile firm Evrnu, is one of the first 100% recyclable pieces of clothing made by a commercial brand.

“The Infinite hoodie” – adidas by Stella McCartney.
“The Infinite hoodie” – adidas by Stella McCartney.
Image: Adidas/Stella McCartney

Don’t get too excited, though: The Infinity is more of a limited-edition pilot project than a wholesale fashion revolution. Only 50 of the sleek cream sweatshirts are being made, and while the hoodie is a step in the right direction—typical garment creation requires mind-boggling amounts of water, pesticides, and chemicals—it’s also a reminder that fashion has a long way to go to create truly sustainable clothing.

The cotton problem

Many of you are probably wearing cotton right now—it’s the world’s most popular natural fiber, and much of it is used to create clothing. But the environmental impact of creating a cotton garment is staggering: Producing one cotton shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, which is how much one person drinks in two and a half years. What’s more, according to the UN, the fashion industry dumps an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste into landfills each year. That could increase by up to 60% in the next decade.

Ideally, we’d be able to recycle cotton clothing into new material for new garments, but cotton recycling is technically challenging. The most common method, mechanical cotton recycling, or the process by which old clothes are chopped up and turned back into raw material, weakens the fabric by shortening the staple length of the fibers. This means that brands can’t use large amounts of recycled cotton in their products without sacrificing quality.

The Infinite hoodie, however, is made using a chemical process to recycle cotton. According to a press release, Evrnu’s “NuCycl” technology allows for used cotton to be “disassembled at the molecular level and regenerated multiple times.” The waste is reduced to a pulp, melted, and made into a new sort of yarn using a tool, not unlike a 3D printer.

While the Infinite hoodie is 100% recyclable—all its materials can be broken down and reused—only 60% of the garment is made of NuCycl. The other 40% is organic cotton, so the garment itself requires some new material. In that sense, the hoodie is mainly a proof of concept that chemical recycling is a potentially viable solution to the cotton problem. According to Vogue Business, Evrnu plans to deploy the technology on a larger scale by next year.

Sustainability goes mainstream

In the world of high fashion, Stella McCartney already has sustainability street cred. And alongside Evrnu, a number of startups are focusing on recycled-clothing technology, including Spinnova and Renewcell, both of which create fiber from cellulose to use in new clothes.

It’s also the second big-name collaboration from Evrnu itself, which partnered with Levi Strauss in 2016 to create a pair of jeans using regenerated cotton. But that project also had limitations: Levi was only able to use 20% recycled cotton in the garment before it failed to meet quality standards.