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The fashion industry tries to take responsibility for its pollution

The apparel industry — particularly the inexpensive, runway-to-retail segment known as fast fashion — is known to wreak havoc on the environment. "The clothing industry is the second-largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry," high-end retailer Eileen Fisher has famously said (and repeated, and written, and tweeted).

Water is a big part of the problem: Cotton is a thirsty plant. Textile manufacturers use a lot of water, and the vast amounts of waste water they discharge are contaminated with bleaches, solvents, acids, alkalis, dyes, inks, resins, softeners and fluorocarbons.

In its June 27 issue, Chemical & Engineering News considers the fashion-pollution problem in the context of the "circular economy" — "the process of turning waste into a resource by reusing and recycling products at the end of their useful life."

Senior business editor Melody M. Bomgardner examines the benefits and limitations of such programs as H&M’s take-back, where customers bring old clothes into the store in exchange for discounts on purchases. The company has collected more than 30,000 metric tons of old clothes since 2013, sending most of them to secondhand stores or turning them into rags or fiber material for insulation. That’ s a limited market. The future goal, H&M says, is to transform the fiber so it can be rewoven and remade into new clothes — but a cost-effective way to do that hasn’t been found yet.

Adidas has created a concept shoe using nylon reclaimed from soda bottles and from gill nets confiscated from illegal fishing operations. (The nylon “had to be cleaned of its fishy smell, then powdered and re-extruded,” Bomgardner writes). In China, where more than half the world’s garments are made, a company called Jinggong formed a joint venture with a Japanese chemical manufacturer to recycle polyester and sell it back to apparel makers — but just last month it reported a $50 million loss.

As Bomgardner notes, it’s fine to try to recycle materials, but the first challenge the industry needs to address is to make textile manufacturing less polluting to begin with. Pollution controls are hard to maintain in an industry where the supply chains are long and diffuse: Levi’s has more than 500 suppliers in Mexico, China, Pakistan, Haiti, Egypt, Poland, Turkey and Bangladesh. “It’s not always easy to understand what goes into the formulation of chemicals you are using,” one official admits.

One program that has earned praise is Levis’s Water