Forty spools of thread in use in a textiles factory.

Mirjam on knowing the chemicals in your favourite T-shirt

A white T-shirt and blue jeans have been the ultimate fashion uniform for decades now. But do you know that the whiteness, or any other colour, of apparel, comes from bleaches and dyes, which are often laced with chemicals, and they never entirely go away? This is a big concern for IKEA and H&M, who want to use recycled materials to become circular businesses. The two companies have conducted a large-scale study on chemicals in post-consumer textiles. We sat down with Mirjam Luc of IKEA and Linn Farhadi of H&M Group to know more. 

Mirjam has charted out a plan to lead a cleaner life. The first step for her choice often starts with staying away from chemicals as much as she can. For example, at her home, the first thing she does after buying new textiles, be it bedsheets or clothes for herself or her family, is to wash them to decrease the chemical content before using them. The detergents used are always labelled environmentally friendly ones.

"I don't want to expose myself or my family to hazardous chemicals. I'm quite cautious about it. For me, it includes what we eat, what I clean my house with or how I wash the clothes," says Mirjam.

Her caution and internal deliberation towards leading a cleaner, nontoxic/toxic free life is also a big part of her professional life. At IKEA, Mirjam is the project leader for recycled textiles, playing an important part in IKEA's aim of becoming a circular business, only using renewable and recycled materials by 2030.

Portrait of a woman sitting in a chair

Mirjam Luc, project leader for recycled textiles at IKEA.

A prerequisite for these goals is to find clean and reliable sources of recycled materials.

"When it comes to recycled materials, we need to understand if it complies with our chemical standards so that we can always ensure what we offer to our customers are safe and healthy products. The chemical requirements we apply today are based on virgin materials managed through our supply chain where we can have better control of the quality," says Mirjam.

A study on chemicals

Understanding the amount and nature of chemicals present in post-consumer textiles is important for companies looking to procure these materials for recycling as chemicals continue to be present despite repeated washes. Using textiles without knowing their chemical content makes recycling hard for companies with high chemical transparency on their agenda.

Hence, two years ago, IKEA and fashion retailer H&M joined hands to initiate a large-scale study to understand chemical content in collected post-consumer cotton, wool, and polyester and how current recycled textiles measure against existing chemical standards.

This is an important study for both IKEA and H&M as both companies have goals of transforming into circular businesses.

"When we know the chemical content in recycled textiles, we can take fact-based decisions whether this is an opportunity we can continue with, or if there is a chemical risk – then we need to take specific actions to understand how to take the next step," says Mirjam.

Last year, adidas, Bestseller, Kingfisher, GAP Inc. and PVH Corp. also joined the study as contributors. As a part of this study, over 70,000 tests have been conducted on different recycled textiles – cotton, wool and polyester. Of these tests, only 2.5 per cent came back with undesired detections, indicating that using recycled textiles has many advantages for the environment but will need more work.

"Today, discarded garments are regarded as waste, representing a large barrier from a circular resource perspective. We, therefore, call for collected textiles to be defined as a resource given the large potential of positive climate and environmental impact that extending product life and recovering materials from recycled textiles can have," says Linn Farhadi, Project Manager Recycled Textiles at H&M Group.

Linn Farhadi
Linn Farhadi, Project Manager Recycled Textiles at H&M Group.

According to industry estimates, globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textiles waste is generated each year. In simple words, this disposal equals one garbage truck full of clothes ending up in a landfill every second! So far, only about 1 per cent of this waste is recycled. By 2030, it is estimated that people world over will discard nearly 134 million tonnes of textiles per year.

According to the study, most of the detections were found in post-consumer polyester. The results also indicate that collected post-consumer cotton has the lowest chemical content compared with other tested materials.

"Now, we know which chemicals can potentially be found in the different materials. So, this study gives us a big databank of knowledge, which we then can use to continue to build our future ways of working. We have found what can be detected and also what is actually failing according to our restricted substance list," says Mirjam.

Chemical transparency

Chemicals have found their way into our everyday lives. Chemicals are used in a lot of processes - from bringing colour to textiles, adding texture to materials and joining parts together. They can even create a protective layer on products to help them last longer.

But some chemicals can also have negative effects on people and the environment, and constant, high exposure to some chemicals can cause a number of adverse health effects and is even linked to infertility and certain types of cancer. Therefore, good chemical management is vital, and there has been an increasing demand from various industries for transparency on the chemicals being used.

"Restriction of chemicals through RSLs (restricted substances list for finished products) and MRSLs (manufacturing restricted substances list) is not enough to avoid future legacy chemicals. To achieve future-proof circular products, we need to establish an acknowledged and harmonized hazard assessment methodology based on the transparency of the contents of chemicals used in a product’s manufacturing. Only then we can be proactive and truly achieve safe chemical input," says Linn.

Next Step

IKEA and H&M Group will now use the study's findings to encourage industry peers towards increased use of recycled textiles. The results can also be used as a case study to encourage the creation of a unanimous hazard assessment methodology for chemicals used in the production of textiles.

H&M Group believes the study will help increase the number of recycled materials in its assortment. IKEA also sees significant opportunities in recycled cotton.

"Based on this study, we saw that cotton has low contamination and therefore big opportunities. With recycled cotton, we now have created a roadmap for moving the agenda, which is our main focus when it comes to recycled textiles. Now, we are focusing on deploying the roadmap. I believe that by having this study in place, we can take fact-based and faster decisions," says Mirjam.

Green Shoots

Using recycled textiles is not new for IKEA. A few months ago, IKEA launched FORTSKRIDA, a limited-edition sustainable collection in Italy, which used PET bottles and old jeans to create new cushion covers, curtains and colourful tablecloths. Our customers showed a lot of appreciation for this range.

A pile of pillows next to a stool.
The FORTSKRIDA collection.

Recently, IKEA also introduced new covers made of recycled jeans for the much-loved KLIPPAN sofa in collaboration with MUD Jeans.

Do recycled textiles have a climate impact?

“Based on the data we have today, it’s indicated that climate impact will go down by at least 50 per cent by converting from virgin to recycled textile materials. In some cases, we estimate it to be even more. If we take recycled cotton as an example, we know that we can use less water and energy in the supply chain”, says Mirjam.


Are customers interested in products made of recycled material?

"Yes, we conduct global consumer surveys on a regular basis, and they tell us that a majority of people are interested in hearing about companies’ actions around making products from recycled materials, and about a third try to buy products made of recycled materials,” says Mirjam.