In Britain, McDonald's Taking Lead in Breathing New Life into Old Uniforms

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Eurostar staff members and their shoulder bags using material from old Eurostar uniforms and seat headrests

When the 2012 Olympic Games open in London this summer, McDonald's 85,000 employees in Britain will be wearing sleek and colorful new uniforms designed by Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway, the husband-and-wife team that created the London fashion label Red or Dead. But here's what's really cool about them: they'll be partly made through a process known as "closed-loop" manufacturing, which means some of the polyester will later be reprocessed into a polymer, respun into yarn and reused to make new McDonald's uniforms.

McDonald's is the first company to commit to producing the environmentally friendly, closed-loop uniforms for its employees in the country, and they could soon be joined by British power-supplier National Grid and retail chain Marks & Spencer (M&S), which are also considering them for their employees. The common thread linking the three corporations is a small London start-up called Worn Again, which is trying to encourage businesses to use closed-loop manufacturing to stanch the endless stream of disused corporate uniforms flowing into U.K. landfills every year.

Worn Again chief executive Cyndi Rhoades, an American former music-video director, says the company started out in 2005 as an "upcycling" business, taking old materials and refashioning them into new products. The company's designers, for instance, created fashionable shoulder bags for Eurostar train managers using material from old Eurostar uniforms and seat headrests. For Britain's Royal Mail service, it created shoulder bags made from mail carriers' storm jackets. But upcycling is essentially a one-off opportunity, and Rhoades realized that getting companies involved in closed-loop production could offer a bigger and better solution for cutting waste. "Then textiles can be recycled again and again and again — so long as they're collected," she says.

Rhoades targeted corporate uniforms because, well, there are a lot of them. In Britain alone, 33.4 million uniforms are purchased each year and less than 5% of them are recycled. Corporate uniforms are also typically made entirely from polyester, which makes the repolymerization process easier. Plus, it's easier to set up a uniform-collection system when it's done within the confines of a single company.

Around a year ago, Worn Again partnered with Dimensions, Britain's largest corporate-uniform supplier, to develop ways to reduce the number of uniforms that end up in dumps. A short while later, the two companies were asked by McDonald's to help it develop a strategy for recycling its uniforms — the fast-food chain had been throwing them away, but set a goal of having zero waste by 2020. Together, the three launched a pilot program for McDonald's to collect its old uniforms and "downcycle" them, which in the case of textiles usually means shredding them for furniture stuffing. When Rhoades learned that McDonald's wanted to make a new uniform for the Olympics, she had another idea — she convinced the company to try closed-loop production and brought in the Hemingways to do the design. Although it will take years to set up all the supply chains, Rhoades is optimistic the uniform will one day be made entirely through closed-loop production. Meanwhile, Worn Again has also begun working with both National Grid and M&S to set up their own uniform collection and downcycling programs.

Experts say that a growing number of manufacturers around the world — particularly makers of heavy machinery, automotive parts and electronic devices — are embracing the idea of reusing materials this way. But closed-loop production has thus far not been widely embraced by textile manufacturers, with the exception of the carpet industry (a leader in this area) and outdoor-wear retailer Patagonia, which has begun using it for some of its polyester garments. "Closed-loop production is a big deal, and a very, very important area for the future," says Nabil Nasr, director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology. What's driving the growth is the realization among manufacturers that there won't be enough raw materials to meet the increasing demand for consumer goods in developing economies in the future. The rising price of oil — one of the main components of polyester — is also sparking interest in the new production method. "That's our business case," Rhoades says.

Worn Again has only just begun to bring together a network of companies committed to using closed-loop uniforms, but Rhoades is already looking ahead. "The high street is the next big step," she says. "Ultimately, we need to move into the consumer market." Of course, that would require setting up collection systems involving myriad retailers and a huge consumer-education effort. There are also other obstacles, such as the fact that the recycling of natural fibers, as well as blends of natural and synthetic materials, isn't technologically possible at the moment. "That's our holy grail," Rhoades says, "finding ways to close-loop natural fibers." If this comes to pass, it would be good news for fashionistas, who can rid their closets of last season's H&M sweaters — and feel good about saving the planet at the same time.