Decoding Sustainability in the Denim Industry: Interview with Michael Kobori, Vice President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co
The denim industry is regarded as having one of the worst environmental and ethical footprints within fashion . According to a Greenpeace report, it takes 1.7 million tons of chemicals to produce two billion pairs of jeans every year and the water consumption needed for production can go as high as 7,000 litres per one pair. Consequently, it is essential that denim brands hold themselves accountable and invest in innovation for the sake of sustainability and curbing environmental and labour abuse further down the supply chain. Michael Kobori, Vice President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co, talks to Euromonitor International about Levi’s role as a recognised sustainability leader and the journey towards a sustainable, innovation-driven future.
AMONG LARGE DENIM COMPANIES, LS&CO HAS DEMONSTRATED LEADERSHIP WHEN IT COMES TO SUSTAINABILITY AND PROMOTING CIRCULAR ECONOMY. HOW DOES THE SUSTAINABILITY AGENDA FIT INTO THE OVERALL CORPORATE STRATEGY?
At LS&Co, we believe how we make our products is as important as what we make. This belief is core to our business and means that sustainability is not just an add-on to our corporate strategy, but integrated into everything we do. Running a sustainable company is the right thing to do. It is also good for business.
IS THERE ANY WAY YOU CAN MEASURE THE IMPACT OF THE INVESTMENTS INSUSTAINABILITY ON YOUR SALES REVENUE? WHAT ROLE DOES IT PLAY IN SUPPORTING TOP-LINE GROWTH AND WINNING MARKET SHARE ACROSS KEY MARKETS?
At this point in our sustainability journey, we are not measuring the impact of our investments on sales revenue. That said, we are measuring impacts across our business operations. We look at sustainability from an environmental, social and economic perspective. From our Water Less™ finishing techniques to our Worker Well-being initiative, we have seen reduced costs or improved business throughout our supply chain . We also know that younger consumers increasingly seek out companies that demonstrate social purpose and are more likely to buy from companies that support social and environmental causes.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN SUSTAINABILITY CHALLENGES FOR LS&CO AND THE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE?
When it comes to reducing our environmental footprint, we know what areas to focus on because we’ve studied our impact and have data to drive our decisions. In 2007 and again in 2015, we conducted an environmental lifecycle assessment on a pair of Levi’s® 501’s. One of our biggest areas of impact – and one of the most critical resources on the planet – is water. From this assessment, we realised that the most water use during the lifecycle is during the cotton growing and consumer care phases.
To help reduce our impacts, we joined with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which helps educate farmers on reducing water and pesticide use while increasing yields. Currently, 19% of the cotton we use is from BCI and we aim to increase that number to 95% by 2020.
For consumers, we expanded our “Care Tag for the Planet” to all LS&Co products. It encourages consumers to wash less, wash cold, line dry and donate when done.
And, even though the impact was smaller, we also set out to innovate in our own production. In 2011, our designers launched our Water Less™ finishing techniques, which can reduce water usage up to 96%.
When it comes to our ethical footprint, LS&Co has long been a leader in protecting and ensuring the rights of workers. In 1991, we were the first company to launch a comprehensive code of conduct for our vendors worldwide – called our Terms of Engagement. In 2011, we saw an opportunity to go even further and create a sustainable model to improve the well-being of workers. Called the Worker Well-being initiative, we work with vendors to identify the unmet needs of workers in factories , then work with local partners and NGOs to implement programmes to meet those needs. Since the pilot, we’ve expanded to 12 countries reaching nearly 100,000 workers. Our aim is to reach 300,000 by 2025.
WHAT ADVANCEMENTS HAVE YOU MADE IN THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY SPACE? IS BECOMING 100% CIRCULAR A VIABLE OBJECTIVE TO ACHIEVE FOR A DENIM BRAND?
Creating a truly circular economy is very challenging for any clothing brand. The biggest challenge we face is taking recycled clothing and converting it into new garments without losing product durability or integrity. Traditionally, when cotton is recycled, it is shredded, which reduces cotton fibre staple length. That degrades the stability and strength of the fibre, leaving consumers with a lower quality garment that won’t last.
Another challenge is in the different materials in jeans today. Many jeans are made with cotton-polyester blends. It is difficult to separate out the cotton fibres to recycle.
So what are we doing? R&D is a big area. We are working both internally and with external companies to find solutions. One example is our work with Evrnu, a company we partnered with that is able to melt or dissolve recycled cotton to the cellulosic level, then re-extrude that as a new fibre with improved strength.
We’re also working to change consumer behaviour. To create new products from old jeans, we need the jeans! We’ve partnered with a company called I:CO to put recycling bins in our stores in the US, Canada, the UK, and Japan to collect any brand of old clothing or shoes. I:CO then recycles and upcycles the items. In the US, we also partner with Goodwill, an American non-profit organisation, through a programme called the “Give Back Box .” When consumers buy clothes online from Levi’s® or Dockers®, we give them a free shipping label to send old clothes from any brand to donate to Goodwill.
These steps help start the journey towards creating a circular economy.
IN SWEDEN, THE GOVERNMENT IS PROPOSING A NEW LAW TO REDUCE TAX FOR CLOTHING AND FOOTWEAR REPAIRS WITH AN AIM OF TACKLING THE THROWAWAY CULTURE. DO YOU ANTICIPATE A REVIVAL IN FASHION REPAIR SERVICES ON A LARGER SCALE?
We’re already seeing a revival in fashion repair, especially when it comes to some of our classic icons and silhouettes such as the 501® and Trucker Jacket. We’re also known for continuously reinventing those classics ourselves with modern touches and customisations.
To follow that mindset, we launched the Levi’s® Tailor Shop at select retail locations around the world, which offers alterations, hemming, repairs and custom embroidery by in-house denim experts. At most ofour retail locations in Europe, Levi’s® tailors are able to provide customers one-of-a-kind pieces, custom styles, and properly repaired denim.
HOW DO CONSUMERS RESPOND TO YOUR SUSTAINABILITY EFFORTS? ARE YOU SEEING ANY SIGNIFICANT SHIFTS IN ATTITUDES TOWARDS BUYING FASHION AND WHAT CHANGES ARE YOU EXPECTING IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
Our CEO, Chip Bergh, often says that millennial customers care about value and values. I think we are starting to see that more and more customers are conscious about how their clothes are made and where they are coming from, and that number will continue to grow in the next five years. Especially as we as a planet continue to face the challenges of climate change and a more connected global economy.
FOSTERING SUSTAINABILITY AND RESPONSIBLE CONSUMERISM IS ON TOP OF THE AGENDA FOR MANY PLAYERS IN THE DENIM INDUSTRY. WHAT OTHER BRANDS DO YOU MOST RESPECT FOR DRIVING SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVES?
We collaborate and partner with many brands to drive sustainability in the apparel industry. Some brands I really admire in other sectors are Unilever and Interface Carpets.
*This story first appeared on Euromonitor
If they told us more, would we listen?
Consider the clothing label. Not fashion label, as in Chanel or Gucci, but the itchy, annoying little tag hiding inside every single piece of clothing you’ve ever worn.
That tag is the closest thing we’ve got to a legend, a guide to whatever it is we’re wearing. In many cases, it tells us what the item is made from and how to wash it. Unfortunately, labels leave out some pretty important information about our clothes and how they’re produced. In their understated way, clothing tags keep some of the garment industry’s most troubling secrets.
You may not have a burning desire to know your turtleneck’s or your favorite jeans’ life story ― fair enough. But a number of label-obsessed clothing industry players want labels to be more informative and even empowering, to tell us more about how our clothes are made and help us discard them responsibly when we’re done with them.
“The label is a place where we already to go access information, but we don’t get what we want,” Marianne Caroline Hughes, a United Kingdom-based sustainable fashion advocate and entrepreneur, told The Huffington Post. “It’s hugely underutilized as a place to access information and act upon information as well.”
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission enforces labeling requirements. That’s why the tag on your shirt tells you its country of origin, fiber content and the name of the manufacturer or dealer.
Still, in many places, it’s optional to include the country of origin. For example, Hong Kong, home to one of the world’s largest textile industries, doesn’t require it. Same for the U.K., Sweden, Germany and several other European nations.
Wherever they’re based, clothing companies certainly aren’t in the business of oversharing (if they even know all the details of their own supply chains, which they often don’t).
Christina Dean, founder of the fashion waste reduction organization Redress, says that, ideally, every label would include information about an item’s environmental impact. And since garments aren’t necessarily made in just one place, labels should say where the garment was manufactured and where the fabric comes from.
She’s not optimistic that brands would voluntarily offer this. Her more modest wish is for some kind of global standard, requiring every garment to state its country of origin. “It’s like a 101 of transparency,” she told HuffPost.
Others believe clothing tags should acknowledge the people who toil unseen to make our clothes. The garment industry employs at least 60 million people worldwide ― from Bangladesh and Cambodia, to Europe and Los Angeles ― most of them women. In countries where poverty is rampant, companies involved in various stages of garment production have been known to employ young children and subject them to dangerous and unfair working conditions.
After more than 1,100 garment workers died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, Sean McHugh and his colleagues at the Canadian Fair Trade Network set out to raise awareness about garment workers’ lives, using clothing tags to tell their stories.
The group’s 2015 ad campaign, “The Label Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story,” featured sweaters and jackets with oversized tags crammed with information, based on the group’s research abroad. Each tag aimed to capture the experiences of a person who might have made the garment pictured. Here’s one of those stories:
The label reads:
100% cotton. Made in Cambodia by Behnly, 9 years old. He gets up at 5:00 am every morning to make his way to the garment factory where he works. It will be dark when he arrives and dark when he leaves. He dresses lightly because the temperature in the room he works reaches 30 degrees [86 degrees Fahrenheit]. The dust in the room fills his nose and mouth. He will make less than a dollar, for a day spent slowly suffocating. A mask would cost the company ten cents.
The label doesn’t tell the whole story.
McHugh, the Canadian Fair Trade Network’s executive director, said the labels campaign was one of the group’s most successful ever. Facebook followers doubled, website traffic tripled and the campaign was covered in 15 countries and in eight languages.
But the Network struggled to move from awareness to action. “The part that was lacking, the challenging bit, was the tangible next step for consumers to take,” McHugh told HuffPost.
The nonprofit Fashion Revolution also sees clothing labels as a gateway to more accountability. Its signature campaign, “Who Made My Clothes,” asks people to photograph labels on their clothing and post them on social media, to pressure brands into sharing the human stories behind the items they make ― stories that would otherwise never be told.
During the group’s annual awareness event in April, more than 1,200 brands, including Zara, American Apparel and Levi’s, responded to the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes, according to a Fashion Revolution spokeswoman. Some replies even included photos and names of actual garment workers.
And if labels were to tell us the best way to get rid of our old clothes, what would that look like?
Levi’s has been doing this since 2009. Its “Care Tag for Our Planet” label, in partnership with Goodwill, is now sewn into every Levi’s product. This tag tells you not only how to properly wash and dry items, but also suggests you donate them at the end of their life cycle, instead of throwing them out.
“This is the first major step to begin to engage consumers in their environmental impact and what they can do reduce it,” Michael Kobori, a vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, said at the time of the Care Tag’s launch.
As HuffPost has reported, Goodwill takes in millions of pounds of used clothing a year and makes a monumental effort to keep them out of landfills, even though every donated item doesn’t necessarily make it to needy people.
By suggesting people donate their old items, Levi’s is taking a step toward encouraging customers to treat their clothes in an environmentally responsible way. It’s good advice, considering the clothes we as Americans throw out ― dozens of pounds a year, per person ― end up breaking down in landfills and polluting the atmosphere in dangerous and preventable ways.
Since ordinary people can’t just tell brands what to do, they understandably feel powerless, said Hughes, the U.K. entrepreneur. That’s why she and her label-loving counterparts see informative tags as a useful tool ― even a weapon ― in the quest for more transparency about the things we wear.
“I think the label, and making products a source of information, is the key to it all, really,” she said.
*This story first appeared on Huffington Post
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
9 APRIL 2016
BY BRE CRUICKSHANK
The Truth About Your Clothing Donations
Portland-based writer Bre Cruickshank makes a sober assessment of America’s consumption problem, and why your best efforts to resell and recycle can’t resolve the devastating environmental impact of fast fashion. What really happens to the clothes we donate to charitable organisations today and what kind of impact does it have on the third-world countries where our discarded garments end up if they make it past the landfill?
Sitting in the corner of my closet is a brown paper bag filled with castoff clothes. Despite my best efforts to avoid needless purchases, ill-fitting jackets, and outdated dresses continue to accumulate like dust in the dark corners of my apartment. These are the inexpensive, expendable clothes I plan on donating to my local Goodwill or Salvation Army. For most Americans, this process of purging is nothing new. Making charitable donations is practically routine for consumers like me, who recoil at the idea of throwing away usable, once loved clothing. After all, a decent portion of my own wardrobe is secondhand. I always figured my unwanted clothes would find a second life with a thrifty hipster who would cherish them more than I had. It wasn’t until I began researching for this article that I discovered I was wrong.
Supply has begun to far outweigh demand when it comes to used clothing. The Salvation Army was founded in the 1880s when most clothes were still handmade and donations were usually in great condition. A dramatic shift came when consumer culture set in during the postwar 1950s. Increased incomes led to diversified wardrobes, and charities began receiving enough donations to open retail outlets primarily for the sale of secondhand garments. But it wasn’t until the onset of fast fashion in the 1990s that things took a turn for the worse. Unsurprisingly, the sharp decline in clothing prices has had a dramatic effect on shopping habits. Americans now buy five times as much clothing as they did in 1980, and this trend has had far-reaching side effects. In the 1990s, donations to Goodwill increased by 10 percent every single year. Despite the rapid rise in donations, today’s mass produced clothing is of such poor quality that even if it’s donated, it’s often deemed unfit even for Goodwill.
“Particularly due to the advent of cheap, disposable clothing, charities have seen themselves transformed into dumps that accept clothes of varying condition in ever-increasing volumes,” says Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion. Nowadays, less than 20 percent of clothing donations made to charities are actually resold there. Increasingly, textile recyclers are being relied upon to manage an unstoppable influx of clothing. The recycling industry is as old as textiles themselves, but the staggering spike in consumption has given it new life. Today, the majority of clothing donations, about 45 percent, are exported by for-profit recyclers to developing countries around the world.
It turns out that this market, born entirely of our unwanted duds, is thriving. Robert Goode is the owner of Mac Recycling, a company that ships enormous bales of used clothing purchased from charities to buyers all across the globe every week. “Pretty much you can pick any country and there’s a market for these items,” he says. The international roster ranges from Central and South America to Asia, Africa, and Europe. Though textile recyclers have endured their share of misunderstanding, they provide an inarguably valuable service to charities. To put it in numbers, the U.S. currently exports a billion pounds of worn clothing per year. Without the intervention of textile recyclers, our enormous surplus of charitable donations would be rendered useless and sent to landfills.
Still, this model is far from perfect. Dr. Andrew Brooks, the author of Clothing Poverty, argues that the flow of Western clothing to developing countries negatively affects them by disrupting local economies and putting textile workers out of jobs. For example, the market for used clothing has expanded so dramatically in Uganda that it now accounts for 81 percent of all clothing purchases. Brooks also points to Ghana, where textile and clothing employment fell by 80 percent between 1975 and 2000. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the constant flood of used clothing is so pervasive that it’s even part of the language. In his book, Brooks translates the colloquial Ghanaian phrase “obroni wawu” to “clothes of the dead white man.”
In addition to reselling overseas, a significant amount of used clothing is recycled by textile processing facilities for commercial and industrial use. Around 40 percent is claimed by one of the U.S.’s 3,000-plus textile processing facilities and made into wiping cloths, insulation for homes and cars, or carpet padding. Recently, clothing companies have begun to incentive recycling themselves with programs geared towards decreasing waste and closing the production loop.
Fast fashion giant H&M has begun what it claims to be the first garment collection initiative in the fashion industry. “Today, you can hand in any clothes you no longer want. That way, we can reduce waste and give old products a new life,” says the company. Consumers are offered discounts or vouchers as a reward. It’s an ironic approach given that H&M’s success is dependent on the continued consumption of cheap, trend-driven fashion. Nonetheless, it’s a better alternative than throwing old clothes away.
Out of the clothing donated to Goodwill for resell in 2014, a whopping 11 percent was sent to landfills, the transportation of which cost the organization millions of dollars. “Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also estimates that 1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused” asserts Cline. America’s consumption problem is a big one that even our best efforts to resell and recycle can’t resolve.
It’s time to take responsibility for the life cycle of our clothing. While up-cycling, mending, or making charitable donations continue to be viable routes to take, arguably the easiest and most economical way we can have a positive impact is simply by reducing the amount we consume. Rather than constantly refreshing our wardrobe according to seasonal trends, we can invest in timeless styles of better quality. Most of us have at least a handful of special pieces we wear time and time again, regardless of what’s heading down the runways. For me, it’s a vintage coat made of rabbit fur and suede that will be a staple in my wardrobe for a least a few decades. The power to re-frame clothing as meaningful investments rather than expendable bargains is in our hands and our wallets. Fast fashion may be the rule, but we can be the exception.
*This story first appeared on Not Just a Label