The other 40 percent, the clothes no one wants, are recycled as wipe cloths or shredded for insulation or mattress stuffing. Some are incinerated. The recycled fraction increasingly includes cheaply made, worn-out items. Boer loses money on almost all of it. Fast fashion, he said, could help put him out of business.
There's one form of recycling he makes a modest profit on. For decades Boer has shipped wool sweaters and other loose knits to companies in Prato, Italy, that mechanically tease the wool apart, recapturing long fibers that can become good-as-new garments. Woven cotton or polyester can't be recycled that way; the fibers end up too short. Half a dozen start-ups are working on technology to chemically recycle these fibers. To spur its development, Boer thinks the European Union should require new clothes to contain, say, 20 percent recycled fibers.
"In 10 years it will be there," Boer said. "It has to be there."
At Ellen MacArthur I heard enthusiasm for a different business model, one that might promote circularity in many economic sectors -- a model based on renting rather than owning. Rent the Runway and other online clothes-rental companies make up less than a 10th of a percent of the global fashion market so far, but they're growing fast.
In theory, renting is more sustainable: If many people share the same item, fewer clothes might be needed overall. In practice, that's not certain; customers might just add luxury rentals to existing wardrobes. Renting will certainly add to the packaging, shipping, and dry-cleaning of clothes. Writing in Elle recently, journalist Elizabeth Cline, author of two books on fast fashion, tried to sort out the pros and cons. "Wearing what's already in your closet is the most sustainable way to get dressed," she concluded.