OVERDRESSED THE BOOK
IMAGE: KERI WIGINTON
Elizabeth Cline - Author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion
"Landfilled clothing is a waste of resources, resources that we don’t have to spare. We know that fashion production is responsible for about 8% of carbon emissions per year, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined."
Hi Elizabeth, you’re a sustainable fashion advocate and author of Overdressed - The shockingly high cost of cheap fashion. Where did your interest in the issue of sustainability in the fashion industry come from?
The turning point for me—and when I realized the severity of the global environmental crisis—was when I traveled to China in 2011. I was working on Overdressed, and I went to the southern factory cities, around Shenzhen. The air and water pollution due to factory production was horrific. The environmental price that China was paying to be the factory of the world was clear. But obviously we all share in the burden for global warming. And after that, I started thinking more about fashion’s role in environmental degradation but also as a tool for change.
I want to go back to basics for people that have no real understanding of the problems associated with rising consumption habits and in particular, the waste this generates. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation states that approximately 75% of textiles produced globally are sent to landfill each year – that’s 3 out of every 4 garments. With over 100b garments produced annually, that’s a lot of clothes! Why is clothing / textile waste going to landfill such a problem?
I’ll name three negative consequences of waste in the fashion industry (although there are plenty more). The first is that landfilled clothing is a waste of resources, resources that we don’t have to spare. We know that fashion production is responsible for about 8% of carbon emissions per year, more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It’s also responsible for consuming 93 billion cubic meters of water annually. All of this is unsustainable, so to then have these freshly made clothes just tossed out is an outrage. It can’t continue. The second issue with fashion waste is that brands are building waste into their business model and aren’t paying for it.
It’s estimated that anywhere from a third to 75% of clothes made are never sold and are often destroyed or landfilled. H&M is currently in the news for having $4.8 billion worth of unsold inventory on their hands this season.
Brands are allowed to toss out, burn and landfill unsold product. They pay affordable fees to landfills and incinerators to do this. The third major problem with fashion waste is that it’s warping the economies of other countries, which I’ll talk more about later in our chat.
H&M STORE 2013
IMAGE: MARK LENNIHAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS
What are we doing with the other 25% that don't end up in landfill? Can you break down what happens to that for us?
You’re asking what happens to the clothes that aren’t landfilled? They’re sold and worn. But I believe what you’re asking is what happens to unwanted clothes that are donated instead of thrown away. Of the 3.8 billion pounds of unwanted clothes that finds its way to charities and donation bins, a little less than half is reusable as clothes. Some of those clothes are sold in thrift stores in the U.S. (or country of collection) but the majority is exported to other countries. The remaining half that is unwearable is sold off to “downcylers” who churn it up and turn it into wiping rags, insulation, carpet padding, and a variety of other products. As you can see, what’s missing in this system is actual recycling technology, where old clothes are used as the raw materials for new clothes. There are many companies working toward true disruption and innovation in this process and hopefully we are on the cusp of change.
"We need closed loop recycling technology that can be applied to fashion waste."
With consumers there is a general belief that donating unwanted clothes to charity/clothing bins is a good solution, as they will be going to someone who needs them. In reality, only a very small % actually end up being sold in 2nd hand shops in our own communities. What can you tell me about this ?
It’s the responsibility of any person who donates anything—clothes, food, money—to understand where their donations are going and who and what they serve. Charities are not dumps or waste bins. When you donate clothes to charity, in almost all cases the charity will sell your used clothes to fund their programming. They do not in most cases give clothes directly to the poor. Charities receive far too much clothing to sell it all locally or even to give it away. There are around 43,000 pounds of unwanted clothes collected on average each hour in the U.S., enough to fill three Olympic sized pools. As you can see, the problem here is consumers, not charities. We over consume and buy too much clothes and then want our wasted clothing to be considered a virtue and insist that it must help someone in need. It’s craziness.
IMAGE: KERI WIGINTON
The global second hand clothing market is not a black and white issue. While some say that developed first world nations are effectively dumping their clothing waste in developing nations, hindering local economies and industry, others believe it provides access to affordable fashion and this industry provides much needed jobs. From your experience investigating and working in this area can you share any insights on this dichotomy?
The U.S. exports clothes to at least 100 different countries. In the U.S., 60% of unwanted clothes that are donated are exported. We can’t generalize and say the export of secondhand clothes to other places is all good or all bad. In many parts of Eastern Europe and South America, there isn’t much controversy. The import of secondhand clothes supports jobs and provides a supply of cheap and high quality clothing to the cash strapped and poor. The problem comes in when secondhand clothes are exported to countries in earlier stages of development. East African countries are trying to ban used clothes to help foster economic development. I traveled to Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya in 2016 to research this issue for a documentary I’m working on. And even there the issue is not black and white. Secondhand clothes are worn by over 80% of the Kenyan population, from those who live in slums up to the wealthy to those who work in government. Used fashion provide tens of thousands of jobs in Kenya, but it also shapes the culture and the appearance in Kenya. Street style is really strong in Nairobi as a result of the access to stylish secondhand clothes. The second hand markets are a thrift lovers paradise. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s up to me or Americans to decide what’s best for the Kenyan economy. It’s up to their citizens and their government. And we have to respect what they decide.
IMAGE: ELIZABETH CLINE | OVERDRESSED
As consumers, what are our options, what’s the best thing we can do to lower our environmental footprint when it comes to our clothing consumption?
It’s not enough to tell people to buy less. They need to know less of what?
I estimate that at least half of our clothing purchases are items that we either will never or rarely wear, many of which are purchased because they’re heavily discounted. We can focus on those bad buys and price-motivated purchases and eliminate them. Basically cut out those items you’re not in love with. The second strategy would be to buy more of your wardrobe second hand, swap and borrow clothes from friends and people in your community, and consider giving clothing rental and subscription schemes a try. Renting and buying second hand is a great option for special occasions, travel, festivals or any other event where you’re unlikely to wear a garment more than once or twice. The last strategy that consumers can use to tackle fashion waste is to maintain and repair their clothes, so that clothes last as long as possible and can be passed on to others. It sounds intimidating, but clothing maintenance can be easy and very fulfilling. Most stains can be removed with common stain removers available at any drug store or grocery store if you treat them immediately. Deodorant stains can also be removed if treated immediately. Cheap sewing repair kits are also available at most grocer and drug store. You really don’t need to know how to sew to sew a button back on; there are an abundance of two-minute youTube videos for those who want some instruction.
I just named three most common reasons people throw out their clothes. None of which takes an expert to tackle.
Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing your insight into the issues of textile waste, second hand clothing markets, recycling and keeping our clothes in use for longer! #lovedclotheslast
Readers, I encourage you to read Elizabeths book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion, read regular features on her website and follow her on her mission to use fashion as a tool for change @elizabethcline