You’ve read stories about upcycling, recycling and reconstructing unused clothes to avoid them reaching the dump. But have you thought of what happens to the textile waste that is left on factory floors during the making of our clothes? Many hundreds of thousands of tons of valuable textile end up in our local landfills. Most of the existing solutions convert textile waste into low-grade products like insulation and carpeting. But now we have the first South African company recycling textile waste into a quality fabric good enough for the manufacturing of clothes. A dynamic trio of young entrepreneurs, Esethu Cenga, Lonwabo Mgoduso and Tshepo Bhengu launched The Rewoven Co to create 100% recycled, quality fabric using pre-consumer textile waste. Twyg contributors’ Stella Hertantyo and Masego Shiho Morgan chatted to Esethu and Tshepo about their new project:
What inspired The Rewoven Co?
Esethu: While I was doing my masters thesis in development studies, I met a man in India who recycles textiles to make new clothing. We developed a method for recycling, processing and creating strong yarns for new fabric. We’re inspired by the fact that the textile industry can play a positive role in creating economic growth, employment and eradicating poverty. Globally it employs millions of low-skilled people, especially women. But, people are generally underpaid. So, we thought that if you paid workers the right wage and had a positive impact on environment, we’d be tackling unemployment and developing a green manufacturing sector simultaneously.
Has your work changed your consumption habits?
Esethu: 100%. You don’t write a thesis on these things without having your mind changed! Now, when I see cheap clothing, I know it is because the person that made it lost out, and the environmental impact was harmful. I don’t want to support business-as-usual. The problem really is our reckless, disposable consumption.
Tshepo: We have so much power in how we spend our money. I haven’t bought anything new in a while, and I even find myself judging the clothes I already have!
What does sustainability mean to you?
Esethu: Unsustainable business practices affect poor people, and people in developing countries, the most. Sustainability for us is about dignity and quality of life, and we want to make a sustainable lifestyle accessible for all. We want our fabric, in the long run, to be accessible to everyone, and not just a niche, high-end market.
How do you recycle the textile waste that you collect?
Esethu: There are two ways of recycling textile waste: a chemical and mechanical process. We use a mechanical process, which means we shred the waste to create a new fibre, blend it with recycled PET fibre, and re-spin and re-weave the blend into 60% recycled cotton and 40% recycled polyester fabric. Pure Waste uses the same process. Then you have chemical recycling, which is what Evrnu and Worn Again do.
Tshepo: The recycled polyester is used to reinforce the fibres so it can can be used to create new clothing.
At the moment you only recycle cotton. Would you consider recycling other fibres, such as hemp?
Esethu: Definitely. We will have to, because as the sustainable fashion industry grows, cotton usage is going to slow down. Everyone is moving into bamboo, hemp, more natural fibres, and recycled textiles. So, in terms of the offcuts we will collect, it will be less cotton and more hemp and bamboo.
Do you colour separate the garments before they are shredded?
Esethu: Yes. We don’t dye our fabric, we just colour separate the textile waste before putting it through the mechanical process. That’s why our fabrics are different shades of the same colour. If we start dyeing, the dyes would have to be non-toxic, natural and leave no dye waste.
What sets you apart from the other textile recyclers in South Africa?
Esethu: There are a few other textile recyclers, but they convert textile waste into low value-added goods such as carpet underlining, low-end blankets, and insulation. South African companies have not yet realised the potential for using recycled textiles for high value-added goods, like clothing. We are the first South African company recycling textile waste for clothing.
Will you be recycling post-consumer garments?
Esethu: Definitely! That is the aim. Our vision is to create a circular economy in the clothing industry that is embedded in ecological and social sustainability. So, for us to create a completely circular loop, we have to think of ways to eliminate post-consumer waste.
What is your vision for the future?
Tshepo: We want to build a company that positively impacts people every single day: us, the people who work for us and the people who buy from us. We want to make sure that we contribute to moving this country forward. We also want to inspire young people to understand that they do not have to live according to social norms. You can do anything! Look at us, we woke up with an idea one day, and here we are now! You can take a risk and create your own path.
Esethu: Our long-term goal is to have an entire in-house circular process from recycling to garment production in-house. The goal is to be based 100% in Africa, to be completely green, and to be people-centred. We are thinking differently, and we want to engage in a new way of making clothes.
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- Image credits: Main image supplied, others by Masego Shiho Morgan