The high consumption and disposal of fast fashion are creating large numbers of post-consumer textile waste from end-consumers. Estimations by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) report [1
] refer to 1,130,000 tonnes of clothing and household textile purchases and a carbon footprint of 26.2 million tonnes CO2
e in 2016, with the UK having the highest consumption rate in the EU with 26.7 kg per capita in 2010 [2
]. Moreover, the fashion and textile industry generates industrial by-product textile materials in terms of fibres, fabrics, and overproduction, resulting in post-industrial or pre-consumer waste. Oil-based fibres estimate for 63 per cent of the total global fibre consumption of 108 million tonnes in 2019, and further market growth is expected [3
]. Polyester is the most crucial fibre worldwide, considering its market share of around 51.5% and its production volume of more than 55.1 million tonnes in 2018 [4
]. It has been claimed that polyester is an environmentally friendly synthetic fabric as it can be recycled if unblended or made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles [5
]. In fact, single-use PET bottles are widely available, and brands and retailers started using them to make clothing. In 1993, Patagonia [6
] launched their first ever recycled polyester fleece “PolarFleece” made of recycled polyester from plastic soda bottles. The most common recycled synthetic fibres are recycled polyester and polyamide [4
]. Polyester is also one of the most studied recycling materials, besides cotton [7
]. The current plastic production and disposal behaviour is significantly impacting the environment through resource depletion of fossil fuels and large amounts of carbon emissions [8
], as well as the disruption of marine ecosystems predicting more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 [9
]. The fast consumption of fashion made from synthetic fibres accelerates this trend. The globalised industry has led to the low-cost production of disposable fashion. Moreover, as recently released by the Civil Society Shadow European Strategy, the current health and economic crisis shows that “the textile supply-chain is particularly hard hit” [10
]. The COVID-19 pandemic has again increased plastic demand and reliance [11
], pointing up barriers of the current system in terms of resource-dependency. Lockdowns have created more supply than demand for second-hand clothes among consumers and industry. New visions and models beyond this current situation are under development but need more political support.
Hence, companies and brands have realised the need to reduce waste and have been reintroducing the recycling of textile scraps [12
]. More sustainable manufacturing and higher rates of recycling, along with consumer awareness, are key elements to support sustainable development and lower the impact of the fashion and textile industry [13
]. Consumers are widely seen to play a vital role to drive sustainability, such as the EU Textile Strategy, whereby consumers are one of the “12 key points for circular textiles” [14
]. “Globalization, consumerism, and recycling” and their influence on the clothing life cycle present different scenarios [15
]. Recycling aims to reduce landfill or incineration, as well as the sourcing of virgin materials. Textile waste can add value to the industry, as some companies perceive cost benefits through saving landfill charges or donating textile waste [16
]. Nevertheless, even though textiles and clothing are claimed to be nearly fully recyclable [16
], less than 1% of clothing textile material is recycled into new clothes [18
]. This percentage means that around GBP 140 million worth of clothing is lost through landfills per year [19
]. However, the analysis of the recycled textile material ratio is complex, with some experts assessing an even lower share of the 1%, e.g., <0.1% [18
]. Still, recycling barriers such as mixed waste streams are challenging the industry [20
Further challenges remain such as the discharge of microplastics and their potential toxicity. Synthetic textiles such as acrylic, polyamide, and polyester are primary contributors to the microplastic release in the environment and ocean. Synthetic clothing can shed during washing and cause plastic microfiber pollution, whereby fleece fabric, compared to other knitted fabrics, sheds considerably more fibres—around 110,000 fibres per garment and wash for a PET fleece [21
]. Besides synthetic plastic in terms of polyester, acrylic, polyamide, polyethylene, and polypropylene, natural and regenerated cellulose fibres have been found to shed microfibres in southern European deep seas [22
]. Furthermore, it is assumed that textile waste can contain potentially unsafe chemicals [23
], making it necessary to develop appropriate recycling methodologies and technologies to remove restricted chemical residues.
Thus, one solution to cope with the issue of textile waste is to establish recycling of synthetics and to develop large-scale textile-to-textile recycling [4
]. There are different methods of textile recycling from several suppliers with varieties of outcomes regarding price and quality [4
]. Recycling is defined in the EU legal acts such as “The European Waste Framework Directive” (Directive 2008/98/EC) [24
]. The definition of recycling refers to material recovery and includes recovery other than energy recovery, in terms of reuse, recycling and backfilling, and other forms of material recovery [25
]. Waste management is based on the “waste hierarchy” with the following priorities (from most to least preferred option): prevention, (preparing for) reuse, recycling, recovery, and disposal (landfilling and incineration) [26
]. The definition and distinction of the different terms are essential to apply this legislation. However, there is no common definition, and many descriptions are used for “textile recycling” such as “the reprocessing of pre- or post-consumer textile waste for use in new textile or non-textile products (…) also including the recycling of non-textile materials and products (…)” [7
] (p. 2). The global Non-profit Organization Textile Exchange describes “preferred fibres” [4
], such as “preferred recycled synthetic fibres” defined as “synthetic fibres that have been manufactured from materials recovered from the waste stream” [27
]. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation [18
] describes a long-term vision for a new circular textiles economy by aiming for closed-loop clothing recycling, described as “clothing fibres that are recycled back into fibres in clothing production” (p. 122). Moreover, the Mistra Future Fashion research program focused on a circular fashion economy and presented several reports and papers on the topic of textile recycling, including a comprehensive “topology of textile reuse and recycling”, which summaries related terminology of textile recycling from fabric and fibre recycling to polymerisation [7
], and “general terminology used in the textile area” in the two reports “The Fiber Bible Part 1 and 2” [28
]. Recycling of textiles reduces “environmental contacts” in terms of impacts, but different scenarios provide more or less environmental benefits [7
]. In comparison to virgin textile fibres, the authors summarised that textile reuse and recycling have environmental benefits in terms of avoided production—environmental-friendly textiles are supposed to be manufactured with clean processes, and high replacement rates are essential for recycling, as well as short transports and long use phases for reuse, with recycling including non-textile materials and products [7
]. The use phase estimates one-third of the environmental impacts throughout a product’s life, according to the European Clothing Action Plan (ECAP) [29
]. Besides environmental and business benefits, there are also advantages for consumers. Filho et al. [30
] reviewed the socio-economic advantages of textile reuse and recycling models. Economic and social benefits were “empowering consumers, suppliers and involved workers as well as adding value to businesses and communities” (p. 4). Furthermore, it can include design as a “complimentary strategy”, such as “Design for Cyclability”. This strategy designs virgin materials for future recycling and closed-loop systems in terms of “recyclable fashion” with a “short life duration”. It includes design for recycling, up-cycling, design for mono materiality, and design for disassembly [31
]. This design strategy could be applied for fast fashion consumers of “disposable fashion”, as pre-consumer waste can increase volumes of particular styles [30
Further substantial work is necessary to develop synthetic textile recycling. Historically, synthetic textiles were recognised due to their “utilitarian virtues” [32
] (p. 208). Recycled synthetics such as polyester are still positively perceived for their functional or utilitarian attributes in terms of “durable” and “economical” characteristics [33
]. Synthetic fibres have good physical and chemical properties such as high strength, durability, water, stain, or heat resistance. Besides their excellent performance, polyester fibres are easy to process and are cost-effective [34
]. It is claimed that there is no significant difference between virgin polyesters and recycled polyesters in terms of high strength, durability, versatility, and performance [35
]. PET fibres from bottle-grade recycled co-polymer PET material have similar properties as fibres produced from fibre-grade virgin homo-polymer PET [36
]. Polyester’s wear and tear resiliency make it a long-lasting fabric, which is a critical property to enable a more extended use phase and lower environmental impacts by cutting waste and new resources. However, when disposed of quickly, its non-biodegradability and slow degradation process becomes a drawback. Some fast fashion consumers intend to wear their garments only “one time” [37
] (p. 149), “a season”, or “will never wear it” (p. 153), and expect their clothing to last only “a few wears” (p. 156) before disposal. The active use time for clothing in the UK is an average of 3.3 years [38
]. Thus, textile reuse and recycling are considered essential solutions for fast fashion. There are two leading standards for the validation of textile recycling content—the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) sets requirements of the recycled content, and the Global Recycled Standard (GRS) refers to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14021 definition of recycled content and includes social, environmental, and chemical requirements. Safety and quality are essential consumer attributes. Mechanically recycled post-consumer waste fibres for new garments can be perceived as unhygienic or unsafe by some brands and consumers [39
]. It seems that a vast range of social variables and factors impact the consumer relationship with virgin and recycled polyester, creating positive and negative attitudes and behaviour, including an increasing or decreasing demand towards recycled synthetics. The efforts of marketing and advertising, as well as trends and media coverage, should be considered to understand consumer perception and purchasing behaviour. The choice between virgin and recycled textile products depends on the perceived benefits or disadvantages of product attributes.
There is a cultural shift towards textiles, including cultural expression and renewed interest in material processes [12
]. Awareness is needed for adaption to stimulate new experimentation [41
]. Besides visual response, touch and haptic perception have become central elements in art and craft. The textile artist and weaver Anni Albers (1899–1994) was best known for her design work in the context of the Bauhaus in Germany and the Black Mountain College in the USA [42
]. Perception is a process that can include sensory experiences [41
], whereby information is selected, organised, and interpreted by the receiver to form a reaction [44
]. Often, branded sustainable products are designed to create perceived quality and added emotional value that impact buying behaviour: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the psychological concept of flow, researched happiness such as the phenomenological meaning of situational happiness in different cultures [45
]. For example, Nicolao et al. [46
] studied whether experiential purchases could make consumers happier than material purchases. There have been several studies on the consumption of sustainable fashion and textiles and the relation of product attributes, consumer attitudes, and behaviour [47
]. For example, the fibre content of clothing is one of the most important factors influencing consumers’ purchase intention [53
]. In the case of full consumer satisfaction of personal needs and other factors, communication in terms of additional information on environmental benefits can add value [54
]. Similarly, the communication of the benefits of fibre-to-fibre recycling can avoid potential negative assumptions [39
]. Therefore, consumers’ awareness, attribute importance, and perceived value become crucial for the success of recycled synthetic textile products. Rucker’s [56
] review on “consumer perceptions of recycled textile fibres” considered consumers’ positive and negative attitudes and their relation to consumer characteristics as well as external factors such as media attention, influencing “the green market”. Social media and its effect on sustainable fashion consumption were studied by Strähle and Gräff [57
]. Furthermore, Rucker [56
] compared perceptions of “traditional” and “recycled” textile fibres and materials, looking at the fibre content; material blend and label prices [53
]; fibre performance [58
]; premium prices, choices, or availability; aesthetics [55
]; and fashion-image and credibility [59
]. Researchers studied the perception of different economic models including waste disposal and recycling in terms of circular business models, such as the Circular Economy (CE) [60
], and its definition, trends, and relationship to other research streams such as cradle-to-cradle by McDonough and Braungart [62
]. Circularity is considered crucial, and researchers claim that “recycling is linear” if no circular strategy is adopted, including reuse, recycling service models, and transferring skilled remanufacturing processes (people to create awareness) [63
]. According to the production and consumption cycle, sustainability varies within fashion business models [64
Consumers have become more reactive, showing awareness and concerns, as well as willingness to change behaviour and use alternatives. Correspondingly, the textile industry, including brands and retailers, has developed sustainable alternatives such as recyclable or renewable materials and promoted sustainable strategies. The case of synthetic fibres throughout history demonstrates contrary perceptions—plastic as both a “wonder” and a “threat”. Likewise, consumer response is often controversial, and it is complex to identify the individual rationales behind this phenomenon. Consequently, some academics have tried to collect a range of perceptions regarding textile materials and designs. This research aims to understand the perceptions of recycled textiles (RT) and circular fashion (CF) within the context of the CE and from a historical and cultural perspective.
This review paper has the following objectives:
To assess the awareness and value-meaning of sustainable concepts and fashion models.
To evaluate the positive and negative attitudes towards environmental and socio-economic issues within the production processes and consumption activities related to consumer use, appreciation, textile waste, disposal, and recycling.
To determine the state of the art on the response to textile waste and recycling including cultural and historical perspectives.
This review paper has the following research questions:
What is the consumer and the industry awareness of environmental and social issues related to textile waste, and how is this measured?
What are the positive and negative consumer and industry attitudes towards RT and CF concepts?
What are the contexts of responses to textile waste including cultural and historical perceptions, and what kind of strategies should be adopted in the future to facilitate textile recycling in terms of consumers and textile manufacturers, brands, and retailers’ attitudes? What are some of the critical issues in the conducted studies?
5. Conclusions, Limitations, and Implications
This manuscript presents the state of the art of human perceptions regarding RT and CF. The SLR shows that there has been variation in understanding of consumer and industry awareness towards sustainability. Some industry sections have been found to be more aware and realising the need for sustainability, while others such as designers need to improve. Consumer awareness of sustainability was found to be influenced by various factors such as socio-demographic characteristics. Although there were fundamental similarities, there were also differences in the perceptions, motives, and behaviours of consumers within customer groups. The consumer disposal of fashion was noticed as being a research gap compared to other successful material recycling options. The variation and complexity in perception and purchasing behaviour of RT and CF was observed in various studies on the basis of consumers’ attitude and response. This study found that a significant proportion of consumers from different countries have a basic understanding of sustainable products, but there have been differences in consumers’ attitudes towards sustainable purchase, use, consumption, and post-purchase behaviour. There have been diverse and even opposite results concerning the relationships between RT and CF and their perceived product attributes in terms of quality and functionality, as well as social-cultural factors. Manufacturers’ and brands’ perceived values of RT were observed to be influenced by different factors on the basis of the recycling system and cultural values, while designer attitudes towards sustainability were observed to be influenced by external factors. Our qualitative analysis of the literature review showed that most of the reviewed articles focused on case studies addressing specific contexts. This is the reason why any attempts to transfer the findings from one context to another might be difficult, and no general rules related to the implementation of sustainability paths can be applied in every context.
Therefore, main clusters of research topics and their development over time are identified, and the analysis of the results lead to a new research agenda and vision of RT and CF. On the basis of these findings, we can provide a number of implications according to the identified clusters which require further research and policy actions, as well as professional management: “need to discuss the environmental impact”, “studies regarding awareness”, and “actions and concrete proposals”, as well as “value”, and “sustainability of textile waste”. These clusters could serve as a starting point to develop future research and a vision for sustainable and circular practices, as well as to help policymakers and practitioners to further engage in solutions for a sustainable textile and clothing industry. Textile leaders could include these implications for sustainable and circular practices to facilitate decision-making processes.
Nevertheless, this SLR has limitations regarding the restricted use of two databases and its exclusion of grey literature. Furthermore, the focus of this manuscript was constrained to two main consumer behaviour topics, excluding other areas which could be reviewed in further research. Nevertheless, this study presents an important overview of the available literature in the field of human perceptions of RT materials and CF practices in the textile and clothing industry, including a descriptive analysis of the paper distribution in years, the most cited papers, as well as research trends and topics.
The following implications are suggested on the basis of the clusters:
Need to discuss the environmental impact:
Exact share and rates of mechanical and chemical RT materials and CF practices [18
Global and local impact of RT materials and CF practices on the environment [8
] and marine ecosystems [9
Concrete LCA studies to determine the environmental and social impacts of RT and CF [7
Estimations are complex and there is still uncertainty of exact numbers regarding the size and the impact of RT and CF [18
]; similarly, there are contrary opinions and results that require more studies.
Studies regarding awareness:
Analysis of the awareness towards production processes or the acceptance of advances in technical developments [92
Perception of mechanically and chemically recycled textiles, related to cleanliness and cultural acceptance [94
], and to create cultural meaning [108
Investigation of the awareness of the industry [101
There is a diverse range of sustainable RT materials and CF business models, and consumer perceptions vary accordingly. However, the focus of the reviewed studies was on consumer awareness of RT products and CF services. Awareness of production and technologies remains a gap. Furthermore, awareness is as a major consumer behaviour topic, and few studies have targeted industry awareness. The review identifies diverse levels of awareness and both positive and negative attitudes towards RT and CF.
Actions and concrete proposals:
To identify the past, present, and future “identity of recycled plastics” [131
The acknowledgement of a textile recycling global system [16
] must not undermine the local values and approaches to recycling.
Identification of perceived risks in terms of expected quality, functionality, and contamination, as well as greenwashing and lack of authenticity can help companies to make a better decision [94
To create new knowledge in terms of sensory perception, including the haptics of RT materials and CF products—experiential material characterisation [75
], and the definition of ethnographic “fashion journeys” of recycled textile materials such as polyester [132
In future research, the recycling of specific textile materials could be considered, including emerging trends in terms of bio-based waste such as bioplastics [133