Cradle to Cradle
Fashion for Good is making an industry-wide call for collaboration to transform the apparel industry at a gathering of innovators, fashion and sustainability thought leaders in Amsterdam.
As a holistic and inclusive open-source initiative, Fashion for Good invites the global fashion industry to reimagine how fashion is designed, made, worn and reused.
Fashion for Good aims to promote the five “Goods” of a new, transformed fashion industry: Good Materials, Good Economy, Good Energy, Good Water, and Good Lives. In pursuit of this goal, Fashion for Good enables the fashion industry to embrace innovation, change its business models and adopt a totally new mindset.
“The Five Goods represent an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not take, make, dispose, but rather take, make, remake,” said William McDonough of McDonough Innovation. “Fashion for Good is about transforming the industry from serving one generation to serving many generations.”
Leslie Johnston of C&A Foundation said: “Open and inclusive, Fashion for Good will share all knowledge and lessons learned from its activities. In doing so, we want to inspire all stakeholders in the fashion industry to work toward a future in which everyone – farmers, workers, customers, and communities – can flourish.”
Fashion for Good is changing the apparel industry through innovation and new business models. Its innovation platform scouts for, nurtures and funds early-stage ideas and it scales proven technologies and business models for wider adoption by the industry. Its Apparel Acceleration Fund aims to catalyse access to finance and its open-source Good Fashion Guide shares knowledge to help the apparel industry transform. As a convenor for change, Fashion for Good enables conversation and collaboration, bringing together co-locators at its first hub in Amsterdam, as well as visitors to the Fashion for Good Experience to learn more about Good Fashion.
With an initial grant from founding partner C&A Foundation, Fashion for Good inspires brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders all working towards a Good Fashion industry and invites industry to join and collaborate.
Fashion for Good has six complementary programmes:
- Early-stage Innovation Accelerator: Fashion for Good works with Plug and Play, a leading Silicon Valley accelerator, to give promising start-up innovators the funding and expertise they need to grow.
- Late-stage Innovation Programme: Fashion for Good finds innovations that have proof of concept and helps them scale by offering bespoke support and access to expertise, customers and capital.
- Apparel Acceleration Fund: IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, is scoping a fund that aims to catalyse access to finance where this is required to shift at scale to more sustainable production methods.
- Good Fashion Guide: This open-source guide proves that Good Fashion is feasible today and shows brands how to embrace it. The online guide provides practical tips, a self-diagnostic tool and a step-by-step guide to production, based on lessons learned while creating the world’s first Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM GOLD cotton t-shirt produced in Asia, at scale, at a value retailer price point.
- launchpad exhibition of the Fashion for Good Experience:Fashion for Good has opened three floors to the public in its historic building in a first step to build a community around the ambition to make all fashion Good. With vibrant displays, thought-provoking messaging, and a call to action, the launchpad will inform and inspire its visitors to be part of this larger movement of Only Good Fashion. In 2018, the launchpad exhibition will evolve into a permanent Experience Centre.
- Circular Apparel Community: Fashion for Good has rented an historic building in the heart of Amsterdam (our first hub) in order to bring likeminded organisations and partners together, including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) and Made-By. This community will embrace collaboration to create change and build a vibrant eco-system of entrepreneurs and innovators in the name of circular fashion.
About Fashion for Good
Fashion for Good is the global initiative that is here to make all fashion good.
Fashion for Good sparks and scales innovation by offering practical action in the form of support and funding, shares best practice and lessons learned in open-source roadmaps, and fosters sector-wide collaboration for the entire apparel industry to change.
Fashion for Good invites brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders to jointly transform the industry.
Guests are invited to learn more about the industry at a newly opened Launchpad exhibition in Amsterdam. Fashion for Good was created with an initial grant from founding partner C&A Foundation, and other partners have joined to help build the foundation of Fashion for Good: C&A, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, IDH the Sustainable Trade Initiative, Impact Hub Amsterdam, Kering, McDonough Innovation, Plug and Play, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
*For more information, visit Fashion for Good
Fast fashion is now the global norm. Producers make more and cheaper clothes and people buy more clothes more often.
It’s a pattern we’ve all become familiar with — department stores with endless variety, clothes that seem to wear out more quickly — but the sheer scale of the situation has reached unsustainable levels. The only way many brands are able to turn a profit is through enormous, ever-increasing volume.
To get a sense of the industry’s size, here are a few startling facts:
- Eighty billion pieces of new clothing are consumed each year around the world, a 400% increase from two decades ago.
- In the US, 14 million tons of textile waste, mostly clothes, are thrown out annually. That’s approximately 80 pounds per person.
- Eighty-four percent of this clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators, where it breaks down, emits greenhouse gases, and releases chemicals into the ground and atmosphere.
Recycling has often been pitched as a solution to the industry’s problems, specifically the problem of ever-increasing demand for natural resources such as cotton, rubber, oil, and leather.
But it turns out that recycling has a long way to go before it can make a meaningful difference in retail, which has been called the second dirtiest industry in the world after big oil for its agricultural impact, the pollution it causes, and the energy it consumes.
The goal, ultimately, is for the fashion industry to become “circular” through improved recycling methods, minimizing its environmental impact in the process.
“Circular for apparel means that when clothing reaches the end of its useful life we will return it and make new clothing out of our used garments,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told Global Citizen in an interview.
“Getting to circular will require many steps including technological innovation and retraining consumers to take back their clothing instead of sending it to the landfill,” he said.
True circularity is still a far ways off. As Alden Wicker of Newsweek recently wrote, “Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager.”
H&M is one of the pioneers of fast fashion and has invested heavily in a recycling program as a way to boost sustainability.
“We have set the vision of becoming 100% circular. In close dialogue with experts and stakeholders we will set time-bound milestones that take us closer to our goal,” said Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M in a press release. “To lead the change towards fully circular and sustainable fashion.”
Kibbey thinks that, while the model is currently insufficient, the investments are paving the way toward a good model.
“H&M’s current practices around recycling are a step toward retraining the consumers which, when combined with emerging recycling technologies, could create this circular model everyone strives for,” he said.
Why Isn’t Recycling Effective?
Currently, the vast majority of recycled clothes cannot be repurposed into quality fabric; a recycled shirt is more likely to become a windshield rag or floor mat then another shirt.
This happens for a few reasons. Modern clothing generally consists of hybrid fibers — polyester and cotton blends, for example — that are hard to separate and process. Fast fashion brands, in particular, use cheaper and often synthetic blends of materials that are hard to disentangle.
Recycling is further complicated by the chemical processes that were used to shape clothing and the chemical dyes that remain in garments. These chemicals can be difficult to remove and can degrade the quality of materials. Then there’s the erosion that occurs when wearing a piece of clothing over time.
So most clothes that are recycled don’t exist in a “closed loop.” Instead, they follow a downward trajectory, eventually ending up in landfills.
“When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” said Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
How Can This Be Changed?
As Kibbey noted, a lot of technological advances have to be made before existing clothing materials can be effectively recycled.
Machines have to be developed that can reliably sort through and separate different fabrics and then restore integrity to the fibers so that they can be reused for new clothes — something that Wicker notes is at least five to 10 years out.
There are stories of successful recycling systems being implemented and scaled by large corporations that suggest circular systems are attainable.
For example, Levi is working on jeans made from 100 percent post-consumer cotton.
And then there are big companies like Patagonia that break the pattern by controlling more aspects of production and ensuring that materials can be readily reused, while also promoting the long-term value of the products they sell.
There also seems to be a gradual awakening throughout the industry that future profits hinge on the ability to effectively recycle and for resources to remain viable.
The ideal solution would be for manufacturers to standardize materials production methods. If this happened, then recycling would become exponentially easier.
“Fashion and clothing are indeed a very high impact industry, but the industry is making considerable progress,” Kibbey said. “Nearly 40% of the industry is supporting the Higg Index to measure and improve the impacts of apparel and footwear products.
“Some companies have just released ambitious goals such as Nike’s goal to double its growth and halve its impact,” he said. In Kibbey’s view, Inditex (Zara) and H&M have made bold statements toward circularity.
“There is still a long way to go but I’m optimistic the industry that brought us into the industrial revolution will lead us into the sustainability revolution.”
What can you do in the meantime?
The best thing you can do is buy less and higher quality clothes. This approach has a few benefits. First, it allows you to hold onto clothes for longer, generating less waste and reducing your environmental impact. Second, it signals to companies that they should be developing more sustainable models. If all consumers adopted this approach, then fast fashion would rapidly change.
If you’re interested in taking a more active role, here’s some advice from Kibbey:
“Ask questions of all of the companies you buy from about their efforts to improve the social and environmental impacts of their products,” he said.
“If you aren’t satisfied with the answer you get from a sales associate or a person answering questions on their website, they probably aren’t part of the solution.
“Tell them you won’t shop with them any longer until they do better. Buy products with certifications such as Fair Trade, Blue Sign, or GOTS. They are a great start towards finding and supporting sustainable products. “
When it comes to deciding whether or not to recycle your clothing?
“At the end of the useful life of a garment people should recycle because it will mean the clothing will have the best chance of an afterlife and will likely avoid the landfill even if it doesn’t end up on another person,” Kibbey said.
“They should not recycle solely to free up their closet to buy more items–today that is totally unsustainable,” he said. “When we get to a circular future, that will be normal and sustainable.”
*This story first appeared on Global Citizen
Glossy 101: Circular fashion, explained
As fashion brands continue to identify ways to use recycled materials and curb emissions, the term “circular fashion” has been popping up more and more. So, what in the world is it?
In a nutshell, circular fashion is a product of the circular process, which involves integrating recycled resources into supply chains. It’s a nice idea, but for a lot of brands, going there is easier said than done. Levi’s has been successful at converting plastic bottles to denim, but most fashion brands have experienced great difficulty navigating the circular fashion model. Many have offered standalone recycled fashion lines—think Eileen Fisher’s Remade line, which is produced using discarded designs, and TopShop’s Reclaim effort—but very few have actually started integrating recycled materials into production.
The reason? It’s complicated. That’s why we decided to break it down: Here’s what you should know about the circular fashion movement—specifically, how brands are working to join it in order to change the system.
What is a circular material, exactly?
A circular material is a recycled material, part of the larger circular economy founded upon the traditional concept of “reduce, reuse, recycling.” These materials are designed to prevent the introduction of new resources into the supply chain by reimagining those already in the mix as new garments—high-quality garments, that is—using volume collaboration.
Volume collaboration? Give me the short version.
Volume collaboration is the result of multiple brands sharing materials—such as dyes, chemicals, trims, yarns and base fabrics—that they use to create fully designed garments. H&M, Stella McCartney and Tommy Hilfiger are among brands that are working together by sharing materials. In doing so, they are ensuring that those they use are as environmentally friendly and recyclable as possible.
Last week in a webinar hosted by Fashion Positive, H&M sustainability expert Cecilia Brannsten said that working together is vital to instigating change, since it can often be difficult for one brand to move the needle on issues like dye pollution. “The change will happen a lot quicker if there are more of us trying to do it, working on this in parallel, because we can do a lot of good together,” Brannsten said.
Who writes the rules on circular fashion?
Fashion Positive Plus—it’s an extension of an initiative led by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which was founded in 2014 to increase the use of circular materials by identifying, certifying and scaling them for the fashion industry. It’s focused on sharing insights and best practices around circular materials as well as integrating them into supply chains.
What does it take to get the “circular” label?
Fashion Positive has a Critical Materials list featuring the “high-priority, critical materials needed for circular fashion,” according to the site. These materials are assessed with five categories in mind: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness.
“We have set a vision at H&M—a really bold vision—to be 100 percent circular”
– Cecilia Brannsten, H&M sustainability expert
Does Fashion Positive work with any big-name designers?
Stella McCartney, a designer who has been a vocal proponent of sustainable fashion, is working to create a Cradle to Cradle Certified material to use in her knitwear collections. Likewise, participating brands like H&M, are working with the group to introduce such materials into production in order to reach lofty goals, like becoming a fully sustainable company. “We have set a vision at H&M—a really bold vision—to be 100 percent circular,” Brannsten said in the webinar last week. “What that means is we want to have a circular approach to how products are produced and will only use circular or sustainably sourced materials.”
What’s next for circular fashion?
Recycled fashion can be difficult to scale, since most garments aren’t designed with circular materials in mind. In the future, organizations like Fashion Positive, in tandem with brands dedicated to the mission, may be able to help promote the use of materials that are most conducive to recycling.
*This story first appeared on Glossy
Lewis Perkins, President of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, is optimistic about the future of fashion. A leading sustainability strategist for the past decade, Perkins is committed to helping grow and scale the fashion industry’s commitment to safe materials that can be perpetually cycled — a commitment he brings as a mentor to the 10 designers in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative.
CFDA caught up with Perkins and asked him for his thoughts, advice, and aspirations for creating a positive impact in fashion.
Is sustainability a one-size-fits-all set of strategies within fashion design and business?
There may not be a one-size-fits-all for the industry, or the various audiences from C-suite, to designer to supplier, however, there is one answer for the impact on our planet. Each of us has a stake in not simply reducing our negative impact, but creating and building solutions to increase our positive impact.
We should all look at each of our sustainability initiatives and ask ourselves, how does this create cleaner water, more renewable energy, decrease landfills and increase the use of regenerative materials — all which having positive impact on the lives of the workers who are creating our goods. Slowing down the negative is not good enough. It’s about speeding up the positive.
What challenges do you see for designers in the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative, and equally, what about areas of opportunity?
Designers are busy and we have to make this simple, but at the same time hold us all to true innovation and positive impact, not merely sticking our toe in the eco-fashion waters. It’s time for big change. While some of our designers are small in volume, we are all big in influence. This means our collective voice also moves industry suppliers into new innovations.
What is your wish for the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative journey?
I wish that each designer finds his or her purpose as a champion towards true value, impact, and measurable changes.
What words come to mind to describe the process of change?
Collaborative, perseverance, design, vision, barriers, breaking barriers, tears, laughter, wisdom, pride, intelligence, peace.
Who or what is most valuable in leading us to change?
*This story first appeared on CFDA
As part of Circulate’s collaboration with the Disruptive Innovation Festival, we’re featuring insight from some of this year’s Open Mic contributors in advance of their performance at the DIF. Find out more at thinkdif.co, and don’t forget to tune into this session live at 18:00 GMT on November 11th.
The problem in the fashion industry isn’t fashion itself: it’s the harmful impact of creating that fashion and the waste generated when that fashion is landfilled instead of circulated indefinitely.
So for those of you who love clothes there is hope. We don’t have to fear fashion as an ugly bad habit, but something that can be reinvented through innovation and dedication.
What if the clothes we wore improved the lives of the people who made them and the environment in which they were produced? What if when we were done with our clothes they continued to live long and full lives with others until one day they were turned into new resources?
Fashion is going through a transformative change right now. More than ever before, brands, customers and the media are highlighting the problems and solutions the industry is grappling with. Ever since the 1990’s the stories of human rights abuses have been brought to light, and each year apparel companies are attacked for those abuses. Now environmental and animal welfare issues are included in those stories. The more transparent the supply chain gets, the more customers are demanding to know “who made my clothes”. Campaigns like Fashion Revolution drive continued attention to the subject. This is a good thing.The more each of us learn about the issue and what we can do to update our buying behaviors to promote better supply chain practices, the more the industry will shift.
As the options for buying more ethical clothing increases, the attention is also moving towards the amount of clothing we buy and what do we do with our clothes when we are done with them. Currently Americans now buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980. That’s a lot of clothes.
Trying to fix the apparel industry is more than a daunting task. It is a systemic change that needs to happen. But it isn’t quite as scary when you look at it through a circular economy lens. In fact, looking at it through this lens creates a beautiful, simplistic path for design, production and use of a product. Now we have to integrate that beautiful simplicity into an archaic industry. Luckily there are many working on this, slowly creating solutions that patched together will produce an incredible web of change. Designing differently is already happening as companies start to create products that can actually get recycled. The Cradle to Cradle’s Fashion Positive program is creating a library of Cradle to Cradle materials. Apparel brands are creating systems for collection and processing, and recycling technologies are evolving from ideas to implementable solutions.
The Renewal Workshop fits into this new model well, providing brands and retailers the infrastructure and manufacturing ability to create a new model of business. One where clothing is assessed at its highest utility and kept there. All the resources that went into making a dress in the first place should be conserved and maintained. The renewal process does this assessment and identifies clothing that through cleaning and repair are resold again to a certified standard. While higher priced items like cars and electronics have a history of strong used sales channels, we are now in a time where other products can begin exploring this.
Fashion is a statement of who we are. We make conscious choices every day about what to wear. Some of that based on function, and some of it is a statement of our personalities. The need and interest to wear clothing is not going away, so new innovations need to happen to ensure that there is an industry to provide us these clothes.
The way we make clothes is one part, the next part is the care and thought about how we use the clothes made, then we must innovate what we do with those clothes when we are done. While we might get bored of a piece of clothing, the clothing itself might not be done and so with an investment in circular systems we will ensure the value of those products are able to live on.
*This story first appeared on Circulate News
Retailers tackle the eco footprint of fashion, from the source of the fabric to the day you throw it away
At H&M’s flagship Canadian store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a rack of spiffy navy-blue jackets is rolled from the back room to the display floor.
“This one is made of wool with recycled fibres, and this one has recycled cotton,” H&M spokesperson Emily Scarlett says with a smile, showing off items from the chain’s eco-friendly line, dubbed the Conscious collection.
Scarlett points out proudly that H&M is also the world’s second-largest user of organic cotton.
The Swedish chain is eager to spruce up its environmental image. So is Zara, the massive fast fashion retailer from Spain, which just launched its first sustainable fashion line called Join Life, which uses organic and recycled materials.
Both retailers, which have dozens of locations in Canada, have come under attack in recent years — along with other fast fashion chains such as Forever 21, Joe Fresh and Topshop — for encouraging consumers to buy more clothing than ever, creating waste that eventually goes to landfill.
Fast fashion gets its name from its ability to take the latest style trends from the runway to the store floor in record time. But the industry can’t move fast enough when it comes to its impact on the environment.
Critics aren’t buying the stylish environmentalism.
Misinformation in the marketing
“I am very skeptical of both the Conscious Collection and the new initiative that Zara is launching,” said Nikolay Anguelov, author of The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry, a book about fast fashion’s negative impact on the environment.
“There’s misinformation in the marketing message. The eco label is not deserved. The eco is a minor improvement, but unfortunately, it’s communicated to the consumer as if it’s problem solved.”
A professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Anguelov says his research shows that fabric accounts for only about 13 per cent of the cost of any piece of clothing, so a switch to natural textiles doesn’t make much of a difference. The fashion industry’s carbon footprint is huge, including energy used for transportation and toxic chemicals, such as bleach and dyes, used in manufacturing.
Then there’s the problem of massive waste. Anguelov says Millennials are consuming five times the number of apparel products as the generation before them and then discarding much of it.
That trend is driven by low prices, he says.
Mountains of textiles tossed in the trash
“We sometimes buy things we don’t need at places like Zara and H&M,” shopper Rafaella Silva admitted to CBC News, showing off the three sweaters she had just purchased at Zara for a total of $70.
“It’s mainly because of the price. If I had a choice to go somewhere that I could purchase something that would last longer and the price wasn’t that much, of course I would, for sure.”
Municipalities in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia are looking at ways to limit the amount of textiles being dumped in local landfills. A study done by the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) showed that North Americans throw away almost 37 kilograms of textiles every year.
“You want a jacket, you want a sweater, you want a hoodie,” says Colin White, a student at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax who had just bought a winter coat at Zara. “It’s just cheaper here.”
The fashion industry has responded, forming its own group to address the waste problem. Based in San Francisco, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a collaboration between two very odd bedfellows: super-retailer Walmart and Patagonia, the high-end maker of outdoor clothing that describes itself as an “activist company” when it comes to the environment.
It’s an industry-wide problem
Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey says the group’s 185 members include most fast fashion retailers, including H&M and Inditex, Zara’s parent company.
“This is not just a fast fashion problem,” he points out. “This is a problem across all segments. It’s a systemic challenge across all supply chains.”
Kibbey says a huge amount of industry investment is going into new, “closed loop” technology, where items of clothing can be broken down and recycled to make new items. It’s also known as a circular system, or a “cradle to cradle” approach.
“There’s a lot of investment and activity in that area right now,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go. But given the amount of activity I see, this will be our future. It’s just a question of how long will it take us to get there.”
Trying to spur recycling innovation
H&M is in its second year of a “Global Change” innovation challenge in which five winners split a grant worth €1 million ($1.5 million Cdn). The award is meant to be a catalyst to accelerate the shift from “a linear to a circular fashion industry,” says the company. “The aim is to protect the planet and our living conditions.”
Even some anti-consumer advocates praise the chains that are taking action.
‘They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.– Madeleine Somerville, author of All You Need Is Less
“I’m impressed,” said Madeleine Somerville, the Calgary-based author of All You Need Is Less, a book about how to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
“I think any time a retailer takes steps to develop manufacturing processes to actually address the waste and the pollution that comes from creating these clothes, that needs to be recognized and celebrated.”
But she notes that for all retailers, the overarching goal is to sell more clothing.
“They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.”
Consumers are challenged to make a choice between the health of the planet and their desire to wear the very latest, most inexpensive, fashion trends.
A previous version of this story said fabric accounts for six per cent of the cost of a piece of clothing. In fact, it accounts for about 13 per cent.Oct 04, 2016 1:21 PM ET
*This story first appeared on CBC
Visitors who stepped into fashion retailer H&M’s showroom in New York City on April 4, 2016, were confronted by a pile of cast-off clothing reaching to the ceiling. A T.S. Eliot quote stenciled on the wall (“In my end is my beginning”) gave the showroom the air of an art gallery or museum. In the next room, reporters and fashion bloggers sipped wine while studying the half-dozen mannequins wearing bespoke creations pieced together from old jeans, patches of jackets and cut-up blouses.
This cocktail party was to celebrate the launch of H&M’s most recent Conscious Collection. The actress Olivia Wilde, spokeswoman and model for H&M’s forays into sustainable fashion, was there wearing a new dress from the line. But the fast-fashion giant, which has almost 4,000 stores worldwide and earned over $25 billion in sales in 2015, wanted participants to also take notice of its latest initiative: getting customers to recycle their clothes. Or, rather, convincing them to bring in their old clothes (from any brand) and put them in bins in H&M’s stores worldwide. “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fibre, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” H&M said on its blog.
It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s a gross oversimplification. Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager, Henrik Lampa, who was at the cocktail party answering questions from the press. And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.
Picture yourself with a trash bag of old clothes you’ve just cleaned out of your closet. You think you could get some money out of them, so you take them to a consignment or thrift store, or sell them via one of the new online equivalents, like ThredUp. But they’ll probably reject most of your old clothes, even the ones you paid dearly for, because of small flaws or no longer being in season. With fast fashion speeding up trends and shortening seasons, your clothing is quite likely dated if it’s more than a year old. Many secondhand stores will reject items from fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.
If you’re an American, your next step is likely to throw those old clothes in the trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the United States in 2012 went into either a landfill or an incinerator.
When natural fibers, like cotton, linen and silk, or semi-synthetic fibers created from plant-based cellulose, like rayon, Tencel and modal, are buried in a landfill, in one sense they act like food waste, producing the potent greenhouse gas methane as they degrade. But unlike banana peels, you can’t compost old clothes, even if they’re made of natural materials. “Natural fibers go through a lot of unnatural processes on their way to becoming clothing,” says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “They’ve been bleached, dyed, printed on, scoured in chemical baths.” Those chemicals can leach from the textiles and—in improperly sealed landfills—into groundwater. Burning the items in incinerators can release those toxins into the air.
Meanwhile, synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon and acrylic, have the same environmental drawbacks, and because they are essentially a type of plastic made from petroleum, they will take hundreds of years, if not a thousand, to biodegrade.
Despite these ugly statistics, Americans are blithely trashing more clothes than ever. In less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans toss each year has doubled from 7 million to 14 million tons, or an astounding 80 pounds per person. The EPA estimates that diverting all of those often-toxic trashed textiles into a recycling program would be the environmental equivalent of taking 7.3 million cars and their carbon dioxide emissions off the road.
Trashing the clothes is also a huge waste of money. Nationwide, a municipality pays $45 per ton of waste sent to a landfill. It costs New York City $20.6 million annually to ship textiles to landfills and incinerators—a major reason it has become especially interested in diverting unwanted clothing out of the waste stream. The Department of Sanitation’s Re-FashioNYC program, for example, provides large collection bins to buildings with 10 or more units. Housing Works (a New York–based nonprofit that operates used-clothing stores to fund AIDS and homelessness programs) receives the goods, paying Re-FashioNYC for each ton collected, which in turn puts the money toward more bins. Since it launched in 2011, the program has diverted 6.4 million pounds of textiles from landfills, and Housing Works has opened up several new secondhand clothing sales locations.
But that’s only 0.3 percent of the 200,000 tons of textiles going to the dump every year from the city. Just 690 out of the estimated 35,000 or so qualified buildings in the city participate.
Smaller municipalities have tried curbside collection programs, but most go underpublicized and unused. The best bet in most places is to take your old clothing to a charity. Haul your bag to the back door of Goodwill, the Salvation Army or a smaller local shop, get a tax receipt and congratulate yourself on your largess. The clothes are out of your life and off your mind. But their long, international journey may be just beginning.
Made to Not Last
According to the Council for Textile Recycling, charities overall sell only 20 percent of the clothing donated to them at their retail outlets. All the big charities I contacted asserted that they sell more than that—30 percent at Goodwill, 45 to 75 percent at the Salvation Army and 40 percent at Housing Works, to give a few examples. This disparity is probably because, unlike small charity shops, these larger organizations have well-developed systems for processing clothing. If items don’t sell in the main retail store, they can send them to their outlets, where customers can walk out with a bag full of clothing for just a few dollars. But even at that laughably cheap price, they can’t sell everything.
“When it doesn’t sell in the store, or online, or outlets, we have to do something with it,” says Michael Meyer, vice president of donated goods retail and marketing for Goodwill Industries International. So Goodwill—and others—“bale up” the remaining unwanted clothing into shrink-wrapped cubes taller than a person and sell them to textile recyclers.
“What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?”
“Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
This outrages people who believe the role of thrift shop charities is to transfer clothes to the needy. “What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?” read a Fashionista headline earlier this year. The story hinted, “Let’s just say they’re not all going towards a good cause.”
“People like to feel like they are doing something good, and the problem they run into in a country such as the U.S. is that we don’t have people who need [clothes] on the scale at which we are producing,“ says Pietra Rivoli, a professor of economics at Georgetown University. The nonprofit N Street Village in Washington, D.C., which provides services to homeless and low-income women,says in its wish list that “due to overwhelming support,” it can’t accept any clothing, with the exception of a few particularly useful and hard-to-come-by items like bras and rain ponchos.
Fast fashion is forcing charities to process larger amounts of garments in less time to get the same amount of revenue—like an even more down-market fast-fashion retailer. “We need to go through more and more donations to find those great pieces, which can make it more costly to find those pieces and get them to customers,” says David Raper, senior vice president of business enterprises at Housing Works. Goodwill’s strategy is much the same, says Meyer: “If I can get more fresh product more quickly on the floor, I can extract more value.”
This strategy—advertising new product on a weekly basis—is remarkably similar to that of Spanish fast-fashion retailer Zara, which upended the entire fashion game by restocking new designs twice a week instead of once or twice a season. And so clothing moves through the system faster and faster, seeking somebody, anybody, who will pay a few cents for it.
If you donate your clothing anywhere in the New York City area and the items aren’t sold at a secondhand store, they’re likely to end up at Trans-Americas Trading Co. Workers at this large warehouse in Clifton, New Jersey, receive and process about 80,000 pounds of clothing a day.
When Eric Stubin, owner of Trans-Americas, president of the Council for Textile Recycling and president of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, takes me on a tour of the warehouse, he pauses while a forklift scurries around the corner with a bale of garments and neatly stacks it in a tall, dense wall of clothing, before shooting back around the corner to grab another from a semi that’s backed up to the loading bay. Workers stand in front of conveyor belts making split-second assessments as they mine the castoffs for valuable pieces. Sometimes, they find a gem—a pair of vintage Levi’s, an ugly Christmas sweater, an army jacket—and toss it into a small bin full of other covetable items, which Trans-Americas can sell at a markup to vintage stores in Brooklyn. But that’s just about 2 percent of what they get. The rest is sorted into broad categories, like T-shirts, pants or cold-weather items, then divided again by quality and material.
Forty percent of the clothing will be baled and shipped all over the globe to be resold as is. Japan gets the second nicest vintage items after the U.S. stores, South American countries get the mid-grade stuff, Eastern European countries get the cold-weather clothes, and African countries get the low-grade stuff no one else will take. In the 1980s, secondhand clothing began flowing into African countries that had dropped their protectionist economic policies. And because it was cheaper and seen as higher quality than domestically produced clothing, it dominated the market. By 2004, 81 percent of clothing purchased in Uganda was secondhand. In 2005, according to an Oxfam report, secondhand clothing made up half of the volume of clothing imports in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, starting in the 1990s, textile industries in those African countries cratered.
Early last year, at a summit of East African heads of state, some of the regional leaders proposed a ban on the importation of secondhand clothing; English-speaking news sites such as Voices of Africa and CNN followed up by positing that old clothing from the U.K. and U.S. was creating a post-colonial economic mess. “Exporting low-quality clothing that has no value in our own society forges a relationship of dependency,” says Andrew Brooks at Kings College London. “You can call me idealistic, but I don’t really want to live in a world where people who are in the global south, the only clothes they can afford to buy are clothes you and I don’t want.”
Not everyone agrees. Georgetown University’s Rivoli, for example, says the secondhand clothing trade creates jobs in not only selling but also cleaning, repairing and tailoring. Karen Tranberg Hansen, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, has argued that secondhand clothing in countries like Kenya, Zambia, Lesotho and Uganda fills a different niche than the textile industry. “There are different segments of the population that have different desires,” she says. “It is not a direct competition.” Secondhand clothing, traditional clothing that is made locally, Asian imports—different people buy different things, she asserts.
But what everyone agrees on is that Africans buy cast-off clothing from the U.S. because they see it as high quality and good value. This might not be true much longer. The 2005 Oxfam report found that in Kenya up to a quarter of clothing in imported secondhand bales was unsalable due to poor quality. Since then, fast fashion’s market share has expanded, even as it has become synonymous with “falls apart after two wears” for Western consumers. It’s possible that Africans might eventually recognize that the secondhand fashion is just cheap, old imported clothing from Asia that made a quick pit stop in the U.K. and U.S. And like Americans, they might decide to just buy it new.
On the Brink of Collapse
Thirty percent of the clothing that comes into Trans-Americas is T-shirts and polos that will be cut into wiping rags for auto shops and other industrial uses. Another 20 percent of the clothing—the ripped and stained items—will be shipped out to processors that will chop it up into “shoddy,” to be used in building insulation or carpet padding or floor mats for the auto industry. These are the least profitable types of clothing recycling for Trans-Americas.
The surge of fast-fashion garments poses a problem for Trans-Americas too. “More garments are made with polyester [or] poly-cotton blend,” Stubin says. “If you have clothing that is lower quality, you’re going to end up with more wiping rags and more material for the fiber market. The market for fiber is pennies these days. Half of the clothing we sell for less than the acquisition value.”
Though it’s better to downcycle clothes—turn them into less valuable consumer goods like auto-shop rags—than to send them straight to the landfill, it’s not a complete solution. Those rags will still find their way to the landfill after a few uses; insulation will be thrown in the dumpster when it’s torn out of a wall or old car. Everything is broken down further and further until it eventually reaches the landfill.
The cost to the planet isn’t just what the stuff does when it’s put in the ground, though that’s bad enough. The wasted resources it took to create a textile are devastating for the planet. “When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” says Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
International companies like Adidas, Levi’s, Nike and H&M don’t want you to stop buying their products, but they also don’t want to give up on their fast-fashion business models. “The holy grail for sustainability in fashion is closed-loop sourcing,” Marie-Claire Daveu of the global luxury holding company Kering told Vogue. (Kering owns companies like Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, among many others.) “Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers.”
Closed-loop technology, where a product is recycled back into almost the same product, is a tantalizing prospect for sustainability advocates, because it essentially mimics the natural process of life. A plant grows out of dirt, dies, is incorporated back into dirt, and then another plant grows from that dirt. Rain falls, moves through the forest and into a river, flows to the sea, evaporates into the sky and falls again. There’s no waste. If closed-loop technology could be achieved for fashion, nothing would ever go the landfill—it would just be endlessly looped through textile factories, garment factories, stores, your closet, secondhand retailers, textile recyclers and back to textile factories again. Polyester thread would be created, woven into a textile, made into a garment, broken down into pure polyester and woven into a textile again. Same for natural fibers.
But commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still five to 10 years away, at best. According to a 2014 report commissioned by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, there is closed-loop technology for pure cotton that could take a garment, break it down and reweave—but once cotton is dyed, treated or blended with other materials, the process no longer works. Treated cotton, linen, silk and wool can be mechanically chopped up for recycling, but they yield a low-quality, short fiber that must be mixed with virgin fiber for clothing. At 20 percent reused cotton, H&M’s recycled denim line released last summer pushed the limits of what’s possible today—a higher percentage of recycled cotton results in a lower-quality textile that tears too easily to be wearable.
A hopeful note appeared in May when Levi’s debuted a prototype of jeans in partnership with the textile technology startup Evrnu, made with 52 percent chemically recycled cotton from old T-shirts. Evrnu says its technology isn’t sensitive to certain dyes, and it hopes to eventually make jeans from 100 percent post-consumer cotton waste. But there’s no timeline available yet for when these jeans will become available.
Closed-loop recycling of synthetic textiles like elastane-nylon blends is even further away from commercial feasibility. The technology exists to chemically process polyester into its core components and spin it back into polyester thread, and Patagonia is already using it to recycle its clothing. But Patagonia is doing it out of principle, not for profit; the process is prohibitively expensive and finicky, requiring high-quality polyester textile (Patagonia’s own fleeces) as an input, instead of the cheap polyester textiles typically used by fast-fashion retailers.
Then there are popular blended fabrics with both polyester and natural fibers that, currently, can’t be closed-loop recycled at all. Because the manufacture of polyester textiles is soaring—from 5.8 million tons in 1980 to 34 million in 1997 and an estimated 100 million in 2015— we won’t be able to handle our output of old clothing until that problem is solved.
H&M knows this, which is why in February it handed out $1.1 millionthrough its charity, Conscious Foundation, to five “innovation teams” working on textile recycling technologies. One team will be working on a process to dissolve old cotton clothing into a cotton-like material that can be spun into new fibers. Another is developing a microbe that can digest polyester, even if it’s blended with a natural fiber, and break it down into its basic components for resale back to polyester manufacturers.
These processes need to be developed in tandem with a sorting technology that can easily tell apart pure cotton, synthetic fabric and blended fiber, or recognize that a jacket has cotton on the outside and polyester on the inside. “If we’re going to try to get 24 billion pounds out of the landfill, we can’t be hand sorting,” says Jennifer Gilbert of the international secondhand clothing collection company I:CO.
There’s a special sense of urgency to these brands’ efforts to close the loop, which would create a new and—hopefully—profitable market for old textiles. In the past year, the market for secondhand textiles has tanked, pushing this entire system to the brink of collapse.
At the moment your old clothing is baled for sale to a textile recycler, it ceases to be discrete items whose value is determined by the label, quality or trendiness. Instead, it becomes a commodity with a per-pound price governed by global supply and demand. In the past 18 months, that price has dropped to a few cents per pound, shoved down by the strength of the dollar, weak demand due to unrest in the Middle East (where much of the secondhand clothing is processed), upward economic mobility in Eastern European countries and a fire in the largest secondhand market in East Africa.
Some percentage of that price drop could be attributed to a steady increase in the supply of lower-quality secondhand clothing, as charities race to process more clothes faster. “The used-clothing industry is going through an extremely difficult period both here in the U.K. and globally,” Alan Wheeler, director of the Textile Recycling Association in the U.K., told Sourcing Journal in April. “Yet consumption of new clothing is continuing to rise, with clothing prices still generally much lower than they used to be. Continuing downward pressure on prices for used clothing is inevitable for some time to come.” With little financial incentive for recyclers, collection rates have dropped by 4 percent in the past year, after rising steadily during the years after the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
If clothing quality continues to fall, demand from the international market drops even further and the closed-loop recycling technology doesn’t come through, we might have a secondhand clothing crisis. And then there wouldn’t be any place at all to take your cheap, old clothes.
*This story first appeared on Newsweek