Worn Again's Journey to Closed-Loop

August 01, 2011

“People say we can’t do UK manufacturing to scale, but we are going make it work” – Jamie Burdett of upcycling firm Worn Again explains the difference between conventional recycling and a closed-loop process.


These Eurostar bags, pictured above, are the latest project by British company Worn Again. The company has turned old staff uniforms into 250 bags for train managers, using 39 different pattern pieces taken from old Eurostar jackets, raincoats, and train head cushions. But this process shouldn’t be confused with traditional recycling: the upcycling process enables manufacturers to avoid sending valuable materials to landfill, but crucially without the loss of quality found with traditional ‘downcycling’, as Jamie explains. “We are making the most of materials in the highest value way, and this is a stepping stone to closed-loop.”

Compared with the manufacture of a virgin material product, the Worn Again process results in savings in resources, energy and water. However, Jamie is aware that this remanufacturing process is currently limited, addressing the issue of materials but not the system that supports upcycling: “These Eurostar Bags will be recollected and processed through Eurostar’s current downcycling routes at the end of their life”. In the redesigned, closed-loop economy, the bags would be disassembled and the constituent parts would be cycled again. This would also involve improvements at the design stage. Currently, Jamie says that the Eurostar bags “won’t be closed loop because the materials have not been designed from the outset to be reused continuously. The closed-loop process takes into account: materials, processing into recyclate, new manufacturing techniques, proper system-based collection, maximum resources recaptured, multiple reuse through the ‘loop’, close to zero waste as possible.”

Jamie explains how the work of Worn Again goes beyond turning uniforms into bags, and has a much larger vision of moving from “our current linear system to a cyclical manufacturing process”, which means “taking inspiration from nature’s ecosystems, using the biomimicry design process”.

This systems-level innovation can work beyond the fashion and textile industry – the principles remain the same when dealing with all sorts of technical nutrients. With rare earth metals in increasingly short supply, mobile electronics manufacturers (for instance) could develop a similar system to easily and effectively recover valuable indium and copper to be used in different products.

So what’s next for the company? As Jamie knows, projects like this are an important ‘stepping stone’ to closed loop. He says that one of the challenges Worn Again have faced is in convincing buyers that through upcycling, they can have a product that is of equal quality to a product made with virgin materials. And momentum appears to be building, with fast food chain McDonald’s being the latest company to announce a long-term partnership with Worn Again. The two companies will work together, along with British designers Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway, to outfit McDonald’s 85,000 UK employees in closed-loop uniforms – the first company to make such a commitment.

This represents a big step forward in Worn Again’s long term plan to scale up their current model, turning 10,000 tonnes of corporate wear into closed-loop resource efficiency products at a high-tech remanufacturing plant, as Jamie explains: “We are planning to build a collaborative team of brands, what real transformative sustainability is all about now, and moving on from compliance and nice fringe projects to system change at scale to have real impact. This is the purpose of the factory – a place where the UK takes the leadership in high-tech, high-value closed-loop resource use remanufacturing.”

It will be a long process, but Worn Again have clear principles, aims, and understand that this sort of transformation of the manufacturing process “is a series of steps, in which you learn and fail as fast as possible in order to reach the big goal of zero waste.”

The belief that it is possible and indeed necessary to cycle textiles on a large scale is gaining followers elsewhere, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a world of finite resources, it makes business sense for manufacturers to get the most out of the materials that they use.

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