Rags to Riches: The Tuscan town at the forefront of recycled fashion
Marco Colombo in Tuscany

Jackets, skirts, coats, and shirts - millions of tonnes of clothes that have been thrown away arrive in Prato in northern Italy every year from all across Europe. This town has always been famous for its production of high quality fabrics, but now it is renowned world-wide for transforming old clothes into new.

In Prato in Tuscany, where clothes that have been thrown away throughout Europe are transformed into garments, it's a real story of rags to riches.


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A worker in Prato, Italy separates textiles. /Marco Colombo

A worker in Prato, Italy separates textiles. /Marco Colombo

Eight tons of clothing arrive at Gemar warehouse every day. The items are sorted according to quality. Reusable garments are sent to Eastern Europe and Africa to be sold in markets. 

The clothing that can be recycled is sorted before being sent on to the next stage in the process. Only a very small percentage ends up in landfill, creating carbon emissions which harm the environment.

"Here we are loading what people throws away as second hand clothing at least 40% of the load is recycled with only 3 percent ending up in landfill," explained Fabio Marseo, CEO of Gemar and Figli.

"In one sack you can find children clothing, trousers, accessories, shoes, bags. The district of Prato gives us the opportunity to save on cost of transport. This is also good for the pollution." 

Fashion is one of the world's most polluting industries. /Marco Colombo

Fashion is one of the world's most polluting industries. /Marco Colombo

The discarded clothing arrives at Comistra, a factory down the road. Here it goes through drying to take away the humidity and eventually to a unique machine, the last one left in Prato, the last one in the world, a piece of really old metal that does carbonizing. 

Through chloride acid it removes cellulose, making the material ready for the next process. At Comistra they have been producing fashion for 100 years.

"Every year that goes by the planet can offer less resources. It is vital to be able to develop this circular economy that can give resources back, hence limiting the exploiting of the existing ones, also by saving water, electricity and carbon emissions," said Fabrizio Tesi, the CEO of Comistra. 

"We are talking about saving 80 percent compared to brand new original wool fabric. The textile industry is the second most polluting in the world. It consumes 20 percent of all water and is responsible for 10 percent of emissions in the atmosphere - as much as air and naval transportation combined."

A worker in Prato, Italy sorts textiles. /Marco Colombo

A worker in Prato, Italy sorts textiles. /Marco Colombo

The recycled wool is then delivered to another Prato factory, Nova Fides, where looms produce thousands of different coloured fabrics. In Prato alone there are 7,000 textile and fashion companies, which use these materials, with an export market of 3 billion euros. It's the biggest textile district in Europe.

Claudio Calabresi said: "We transform the fibre first into yarn, small short fibres which come from the process of recycling. We mix them to get the colours that our customers like. What we do with machine today but manually in the past is to give it a torsion and then a tension the combination it yarn. We have approximately 11,000 samples here 60/70% of them made with recycled material. This is a 100% recycling fabric."

Prato is a model for clothing recycling, but world-wide less than one percent of textiles are produced in this way. In February this year, as part of a new drive to combat climate change, the European Commission announced a comprehensive EU Strategy for Textiles to encourage the industry to recycle fabric as they do here in Tuscany.

If Europe is to achieve its target of net-zero emissions by 2050, transforming more rags into high fashion will be vital.

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