VETEMENTS DISPLAY IN SAKS FIFTH AVENUE STORE WINDOW 2017
THE FASHION INDUSTRY'S PROBLEM WITH WASTE
“There's no such thing as away. When we throw things away they must go somewhere."
Annie Leonard, Creator of 'Story of Stuff'
In 2018, Zara, the worlds largest fashion brand, produced more than 450 million items. That's 1.23 million items per day. Fashion is moving faster than ever, giving us new offerings on an almost daily basis, and prices, especially at the bottom end of the market, are decreasing. As prices decrease so too does quality; of materials, production methods and fit. Shoppers have responded to lower prices and greater variety by buying more items of clothing, nearly 14 items annually for every person on earth. We are buying, wearing for a season or less, and then discarding, most of the time to landfill. A 2015 Barnardo's study found that the average women wears each garment in her wardrobe 7x before she considers it old.
Our desire for new clothes sees more than 100 billion garments produced worldwide each year, more than double what was made in the year 2000. What's more, of the textiles made each year, 85% ends up in landfill or incinerated. So we are buying 60% more clothing, but keeping garments half as long. It’s been predicted by Global Fashion Agenda that apparel consumption will rise 63% to 102m tonnes by 2030 if current trends continue. With most of our clothes heading straight to landfill, a 63% rise is a pretty big deal.
So what do we do with all our clothes? At the moment, figures show that of all the textiles manufactured each year, 12% are lost during manufacturing in the form of cutting and production waste, 75% are sent to landfill by consumers, 12% are put back in the system through donating or recycling, and <1% are regenerated into new fibre for new clothes.
THE UKAY UKAY MOUNTAINS IN THE PHILLIPINES ARE A TEXTILE DUMPING GROUND AND SOURCE OF USED CLOTHING FOR LOCALS AND VISITORS
IMAGE: CEBU DAILY NEWS
Why is landfill such an issue?
Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. 1 truck per second. To landfill. Our landfills are overflowing with textile waste, a conservative estimate is that clothing and textiles make up 7% of landfills globally although many believe this figure is closer to 12%. The average U.S. citizen reportedly throws away 70 pounds (31.75kg) of clothing and other textiles each year.
Clothes do not biodegrade well in landfill. Even if they are made of 100% cotton they have a much better chance of breaking down buried in your backyard, than if you throw them in the trash surrounded by plastic and other household waste.
Landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA, contributing 18% to the country’s total. Methane is generated in landfills as waste decomposes and is known to be 25 times more efficient than CO2 at trapping radiation, making it a huge global warming problem. So keeping clothes out of landfill is always the best option.
In 2013, Americans recycled some 2.3 million tons of textile waste. That brought a reduction in greenhouse gases equivalent to taking 1.2 million cars off the road for an entire year.
6 TONNES: THE VOLUME OF TEXTILE WASTE SENT TO LANDFILL IN AUSTRALIA EVERY 10 MINUTES // ABC WAR ON WASTE
What’s the deal with donating your clothes to charity?
Heres what really happens when you give your clothes to charity shops. Over the last 10-15 years a secondary industry has sprung up around our used clothing. When you give your old clothes to charity shops, or place them in clotting bins, they are collected and sorted by various textile recyclers into items that are saleable at different levels. The highest quality are selected to be sold in 2nd hand stores; the next grade down are sold on to 2nd hand merchants in bundles. They’re packaged up into one pound bales and shipped to places like Africa, Haiti and Papua New Guinea, where the second hand market for western clothes has been thriving. The balance is sent to textile recycling companies who mechanically chop them up & downgrade the fibre into products such as insulation material, wiping cloths, or mattress stuffing.
While this system has worked for consumers thus far, that could all be about to change. Some African nations have recently announced a proposed ban on the import of used clothing in order to protect their own industries, meaning they no longer want our second hand clothing waste either.
Second hand shops report that they are inundated with far more clothes than they can sell. A store I spoke to in Wellington, New Zealand said they had spent $21,000 on disposing of clothes in the last year, paying to send them to landfill, as they could not sell them. They just had too much stuff. This causes a major concern that as consumers we think our unwanted clothes will find their way to a good new home when we donate, while justifying the purchase of more new clothes.
So what should we do?
Re-use is ALWAYS the best first use of your clothes.
First things first. Buy good quality, durable clothes that don’t fall apart or lose their shape after a few wears. The next best thing you can do is to keep your clothes in use for longer. UK non profit WRAP states that extending the life of your clothes by an extra nine months of active use would reduce carbon, water and waste footprints by around 4-10% each. So thats a simple step to take. Check out these tips for caring and repairing your clothes.
Fast Fashion and the internet have given us accessibility to a constantly changing array of fashion, creating a sense of urgency and a desire to get our hands on new clothes. Being a lover of clothes myself, this is something I really grapple with. The desire for newness, a new trend, a different colour. There are innovative brands that offer leasing of their new clothes such as MUD Denim, and Ann Taylor Infinity Style. Others take back used garments from their customers, repair them and resell, opening their business up to entirely new markets; Patagonia and Eileen Fisher both offer this service. Online consignment and resell are also gaining momentum at a rapid pace - in fact the resell market is predicted to overtake fast fashion in the next 10 years. Clothing swaps are another great way to share what you have with others and vice versa without money changing hands. Clothing rental sites and libraries are also emerging as great ways to update your wardrobe and try out new looks without buying anything new.
THE NEW DENIM PROJECT RECYCLES WASTE DENIM INTO NEW YARN. IMAGE: WOOL AND THE GANG
Can the industry recycle our old clothes into new material?
This is where things get interesting. Technology is currently being developed that will allow for our clothes to be regenerated into new fibre and made into new clothes. MUD Jeans, a dutch brand, who make jeans out of 40% recycled cotton and 60% virgin organic cotton do this. They take back your used jeans and recycle them into new fibre once you’re finished with them. The New Denim Project recycle pre-consumer textile waste in the form of off-cuts from the denim industry and make it into new fibre. Patagonia have been recycling some of their polyester jackets into new fibres for years with a Japanese supplier, and brands such as Ecoalf and Riz are making items out of recycled ocean plastic. Currently recycling is most effective with garments made from a 100% fibre composition, like 100% cotton or 100% polyester, however new chemical recycling processes are being developed that will enable blended fibre garments (like your poly/cotton T shirt) to be recycled into new fibre, to make new garments, with very little degradation of quality. Which means that we are moving ever closer to a circular system where once we are finished with our garments, they become the feedstock for new clothes to be made.
Throwing clothes away is a never a good option, we always recommend skipping the landfill. Sell or swap them yourself, or give them to a recycling centre or thrift store for repurposing.