Looking for the latest in eco-friendly fashion? One word: plastics.
H&M announced on Tuesday that it will debut its second Conscious Exclusive campaign — an upscale version of its Conscious Collection program founded in 2012 — which includes formal wear for men, women and children. The line uses recycled polyester made from plastic waste, an estimated eight million tons of which litters oceans each year, and is slated to be available in 160 stores around the globe in late April. The move comes shortly after Adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans, a nonprofit that reduces oceanic plastic waste, to make running shoes made almost entirely out of discarded plastic.
For the H&M line, the Swedish retailer teamed with Bionic Yarn, a New York-based company that turns plastic bottles into technical yarns and fabrics. The signature piece of H&M’s line is a blush pink pleated gown (which retails for $249) modeled by Natalia Vodianova, who was tapped to be the face of this year’s Conscious Exclusive campaign. Singer Pharrell Williams serves as as Bionic Yarn’s creative director, and has previously teamed up with brands like Timberland and G-Star on footwear and denim that use the bionic yarn technology.
“It’s an excellent PR stunt, for H&M to raise awareness about ocean pollution — along with Adidas’ partnership with Parley for the Ocean,” said Lauren Slowik, outreach coordinator and design evangelist at 3-D printing company Shapeways. “But I like to hope that ocean trash is a finite resource and not something we can build whole industries on. The only real positive I see is that it helps to bring supply chain and production of materials to the forefront on consumers’ minds.”
H&M and Adidas said their ocean plastic efforts were designed to be more than just ploys to attract eco-conscious consumers. Adidas began selling its recycled shoes for $220 in November 2016 with a commitment to making a minimum of 1 million pairs by the end of 2017. It also plans to team with Parley on communication, education and research efforts.
Meanwhile, H&M is attempting to increase its percentage of garments made from sustainable materials, which was reported at 20 percent in 2015. It also asserts to be one of the biggest users of recycled polyester and organic cotton, and has a lofty goal for all cotton to be sustainably sourced by 2020.
However, despite its commitment to sustainability, H&M has still been vague in its transparency efforts and faces ongoing criticism for being a fast fashion retailer that is still using significant resources to produce low-priced goods. Natalie Grillon, founder of Project Just, told Glossy in a previous article that despite the assertions made against the company, H&M has still made strides in efforts like employee wages.
“H&M comes under fire a lot for their initiatives because they do publicize it,” said Grillon. “When really, they’ve made a ton of effort in support of better wages. But then they talk about it a lot, and then they come under fire a lot for anything at all that goes wrong.”
*This story first appeared on Glossy
Sustainability for retailers is a particularly slippery slope. While some are lauded for campaigns that make a significant impact, others are cited for hyperbole or greenwashing.
Regardless, having an environmentally friendly ethos is important to consumers — a Nielsen study found that 75 percent of millennials are willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — and brands have taken note. It’s not enough to just sell run-of-the-mill goods, brands need to have a defined social and societal impact.
We took a look at some of the recent efforts by eight major retail brands and assigned them letter grades based on genuine transparency ventures, reception by consumers and industry leaders, and commentary from outside experts.
Patagonia has long been the frontrunner when it comes to sustainability in retail. In November, it pulled an unprecedented move and donated 100 percent of its global Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organizations. Patagonia also has a robust repair program that helps consumers maintain longevity of their products, in addition to selling used branded clothingfrom its Portland retail store. (And no one has forgotten its watershed “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign in 2011, which asked consumers to think twice before making a purchase in an effort to prevent waste.)
“Patagonia has done a tremendous amount of innovation for people and the planet. It’s been in their DNA from the beginning,” said Rebecca Mallard, founder of Maven Women, a sustainable women’s wear company.
Levi Strauss and Co. recognized it had to do something to cut its abundant water usage, so in 2011, it implemented its Water<Less program, which streamlines its production process to reduce water used to make denim. However, what really sets Levi’s apart is its focus on inter-industry collaboration when it comes to environmental efforts. It hosts an annual “collaboratory” that convenes retailers from around the world to glean insight and tips about more sustainable operations. It also expanded its worker well-being program last year to benefit more countries.
“They’re taking their role seriously in supporting innovation,” Ballard said. “It’s open source and about creating a cohesive network, rather than having a clutched fist attitude. Partnership is an essential element of ethics and sustainability.”
Gap, Inc.: B
Earlier this week, Athleta, part of the Gap, Inc., announced that it is launching its first line of athletic wear fully certified by Fair Trade USA, which is focused on supporting global factory workers. For every garment sold in the collection, factory workers are given an additional financial premium to use to benefit their community in areas like childcare, transportation and education. With its Fair Trade line, Athleta primarily aims to support female factory workers — the new styles are made by a factory in Sri Lanka where more than 80 percent of employees are female.
The move by Athleta follows Gap, Inc.’s announcement last year that it has begun disclosing global factor lists in a push for transparency, taking a cue from companies like UK-based Marks & Spencer and Belgium-based C&A. While it’s an important move, it only serves as the initial step before making tangible improvements to working conditions and Gap has yet to launch a program like Levi’s worker well-being efforts.
“It’s a really great first step in transparency and accountability, saying ‘these are our factories and we’re going to own up,’” said Natalie Grillon, co-founder of Project Just, a informational platform focused on sustainable fashion and beauty.
Kering Group: C+
Kering came under fire in December when it received low marks in the Apparel & Footwear Benchmark Findings Report, developed by watchdog organization KnowTheChain. Kering was positioned fourth-to-last on the report, which ranked mass retailers in several categories, including risk assessment, recruitment, monitoring and governance.
Kering claims the score was a result of issues around its information disclosure practices and that information highlighting its most recent sustainability efforts was not considered. Among these ventures is Kering’s environmental profits and loss app, which launched in October as an educational tool to track the environmental cost of fashion design. In response, Kering launched a “next generation” sustainability strategy at the end of January, a comprehensive plans to curb emissions and increase working conditions.
Though H&M launched its Conscious Collection in 2012 and has since worked with organizations to help improve transparency standards, the actual level of transparency from H&M is minimal, with sporadic posts on social media alluding to improved working conditions. Additionally, the company has been caught in several troubling incidents, like the revelation that it had used refugee workers in Europe.
“The issue with H&M is they brand themselves as better than they actually are,” Ballard said. “When you find Syrian refugee children working in factories in Turkey, which happened, and a recycling campaign that has a greenwashing component, it makes me pause.”
Like H&M, Zara has been plagued with similar challenges falling upon fast-fashion retailers. However, it took four years longer than H&M to launch its first eco-friendly line. As part of its new effort, launched late last year, the Spanish company began offering recycled packaging and boxes and also started a clothing donation program (modeled largely off of H&M’s existing program).
“As any retailer is planning for the next generation of customers, and its business in general, sustainability and social impact have to be a top consideration, and it’s positive to see Zara take a step to improve its supply chain,” Brooke Blashill, svp and director at Boutique@Ogilvy, told Glossy in a previous interview.
Despite operating on a mantra of “radical transparency,” Everlane has shown this notion is particularly elusive. Even with its push to share “Transparency Tuesday” Q&As on social media and its efforts to take customers on tours of factories, it is prohibited from disclosing its factory list and has unspecified compliance guidelines for locating new factories. However, the company audits every facility each quarter and avoids at-risk countries so there is no compliance risk, according to CEO Michael Preysman.
Preysman told Glossy in a previous article that the lack of information about its factories is an attempt to protect other brands that operate out of the same spaces. “Everlane makes products in the same factories as luxury brands,” he said. “We make the same quality product as these other brands, pay the same cost, but charge a much lower markup. We may jeopardize their business.”
In September 2016, an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Asos workers were subjected to particularly brutal conditions, including being discouraged from taking bathroom and water breaks and getting fired for taking sick time. Despite numerous reports, the brand denied that it was complicit in the allegations. “There have been a number of allegations about the working conditions at our warehouse in Barnsley that are inaccurate, misleading or based on out-of-date information,” it said in a statement.
*This story first appeared on Glossy
It may surprise you that 95 per cent of all textiles thrown away across the globe each year could be recycled. With this in mind, in 2013 H&M launched the world’s biggest retail garment collecting system. Since then the high-street retailer have introduced new collections which contain 20 per cent recycled cotton from their garment collecting programme. There was more exciting news from the press room yesterday as H&M have just announced an exclusive 2017 Conscious Collection using Bionic material – a recycled polyester from recovered shoreline waste.
Additionally, this week Emily O’Dowd spoke to Mattias Bodin, a Sustainability Business Expert for Materials and Innovations at H&M. He explained that the company have been very early contributors to the sustainable economy. In this interview, Mattias provides an insight into his role and his 14 years of experience with the company, along with some of the solutions that H&M have been making to improve their sustainability performance. He is just one of 200 employees looking to explore how this retail giant can improve their sustainability targets. With the ethos, affordability meets responsibility, H&M believe that “looking good should do good too.”
H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) is a Swedish multinational clothing corporation identitfied on the high-street for its fast fashion in 62 countries across the world. It is the second largest global retailer. But as more of us are becoming aware, the textile industry is the second most polluting industry in the world. This negative media attention has meant that retailers like @hm are finding solutions across the supply chain to make their businesses more environmentally friendly. Mattias informs @Bio_BasedWorld that H&M was one of the first clothing retailers to set the benchmark for sustainable business. So in 2013 they launched a garment collecting initiative in an attempt to change some of their customers’ mindsets as well as their attitude towards recycling textiles. As part of the scheme, a shopper can donate second-hand clothes to H&M in any UK store and they will receive a £5 voucher or a 15% discount in participating European shops.
H&M then sells the donated clothes onto I:CO (I Collect) a Swiss based recycling start-up who sells the garments onto second-hand or vintage markets. The clothes in poor condition are then converted for other use or upcycled into textile fibres. Like most other retailers, the company does not own any factories but works with independent suppliers instead.
What are the challenges?
Unfortunately, the amount of textile recyclers in the market to promote this activity are very few and far between. Whilst, many polyester manufacturers will now offer recycled polyester, the uptake of other recycled textiles remains small. Additionally, the textile industry is lacking essential technological advancements to convert unwanted fabrics into their natural fibres. The only method at the moment – mechanical recycling, is still costly and far from perfect. It looks highly unrealistic that clothing will become 100 per cent recyclable any time soon. Despite this, since H&M launched the initiative, 32,000 tonnes of garments have been recycled and reused amounting to the production of 100 million t-shirts. So any step, however small in this polluting industry is a step in the right direction.
H&M’s brand new Conscious Exclusive range
H&M are excited to announce their new Conscious range which is hoping to change the stigma towards environmentally friendly fashion. The collection will be available in 160 stores worldwide and online from April 2017. But for the first time in the high-street fashion history, H&M have designed bold statement dresses made from recovered plastic from shorelines. The Bionic Yarn is soft and adaptable, flexible enough to make anything from jeans to cocktail dresses.
“For the design team at H&M, this year’s Conscious Exclusive is a chance to dream and create pieces that are both quirky and beautiful. It’s great to be able to show just what is possible with sustainable materials like we have done with the delicate plissé dress made of BIONIC,” Pernilla Wohlfahrt, H&M’s Head of Design and Creative Director. In addition to a full collection for women and relaxed formal wear for men, the collection will for the first time include kids’ pieces, as well as a Conscious Exclusive fragrance made from organic oils.
Conscious Exclusive is the drive in H&M’s move towards a more sustainable fashion future. Across all of H&M’s product ranges, 20 per cent are now made from more sustainable materials (2015), with the aim each year to increase the share. H&M is one of the world’s biggest users of recycled polyester and one of the biggest buyers of organic cotton. The goal for cotton is that it is to be 100 per cent sustainably sourced by 2020.
The Journey of a Dress. New for the 2017 H&M Conscious Exclusive collection is the material bionic
To find out more, Mattias provides a personal account of his experience with H&M and how we can all help to improve the future of the textile industry.
Mattias Bodin will be a guest speaker at this year’s Bio-Based Live conference in partnership with the University of Amsterdam.
Emily O’Dowd (EOD): What first led you to your role with H&M?
Mattias Bodin (MB): Environmental issues have always interested me. I studied a chemical engineering degree at university and I hadn’t even considered working in the textile industry before. It wasn’t until a friend of mind told me that H&M were looking to fill a chemist vacancy that I conducted further research into the company and the textile industry as a whole. I came to the conclusion that there are some big environmental challenges within the industry, so I
wanted to be part of finding solutions. Since then I have been with the company for 14 years working with sustainablity concerning chemicals, product safety, regulatory and the supply chain. Last year, I changed roles within the company so now I have an even broader focus on the environment.
EOD: How has H&M’s sustainability focus changed over the 14 years that you have been with the company?
MB: H&M was very early to begin working with sustainable materials, but during the last 14 years it has become a very important topic on everyone’s agenda. Consumers are more informed today the industry’s efforts have increased drastically and our knowledge has improved. I believe we are in a position to be an important change-maker to really contribute and make a difference to the sustainable industry.
EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?
MB: For me, I think H&M’s resources and their strong commitment to sustainability is very important. It not only helps our production process, but it also has the potential to make an impact in the industry as a whole. Additionally, the company’s management team have a long-term view when it comes to improving our environmental efforts. This means we are more successful when it comes to implementing longstanding solutions.
EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?
MB: I think at the moment it is a combination of two things – investment and commitment. Our biggest challenge has been sourcing and testing new materials. When they need to be produced on a large scale it means that more investment is needed to develop a new material or process. As a result, this can be a barrier for the textile industry.
EOD: What advice would you give for someone starting work in the sustainable/bio-based industry?
MB: I would say that it is very difficult to do it yourself. You need to look for opportunities to work with other like-minded individuals, companies or organisations. At H&M, we even like to work with our competitors to help each other’s confidence and improve all of our positions when we are working with the supply chain.
EOD: When you say that you are collaborating with your competitors, what sort of competitors are they?
MB: In my case it would be other retailers, because we are all sharing the same challenges. Therefore, it is better if we come to new solutions together.
EOD: What single change would help develop sustainable industry further?
MB: I think that consumer understanding is key. If we can get concrete examples to show the number of possibilities of how unwanted clothes can be turned into new garments, I think this would really help consumers engage and contribute to the sustainable economy. If materials were better bench-marked to help both the consumer and the producer make informed decisions we would see even bigger changes in the industry. Recycling technologies also need to develop to enable a circular economy.
EOD: Where do you hope to see H&M in 5 years’ time?
MB: We are already in a position to be change-makers in this industry, so I would like us to continue leading this change. Additionally, I would like to see us using more recycled and sustainably sourced materials in our manufacturing processes. Bio-synthetics are also developing, so I hope that these will become a natural component for all retailers to use in the textile industry.
EOD: How successful has the garment clothing collection been?
MB: Since launching this initiative a couple of years ago, many fabrics have become new products that we now sell in store. We are however still in the process of improving our technology because there is a lot of potential here. It would be a real success if we could upcycle as much of the fabric as possible. We appear to be only one of the retail companies actively pushing this so we hope this will eventually work in our favour. After all, it has the potential to benefit the consumer, the sustainable supply chain and ultimately the environment.
EOD: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk to Bio-Based World News today Mattias; we wish you success with the new launch of H&M’s Conscious range!
*This story first appeared on Bio-based World News
It’s the new year, so you know what that means — deals, deals, deals. Now I can’t resist a good deal as much as the next person, but I’m finding the affordable accessibility of clothing to be a year-round thing. In fact, according to Greenpeace, today we buy 60 per cent more clothing than we did 15 years ago.
The average US consumer, according to The Atlantic, buys around 64 items of clothes per year, proving that the fast-fashion industry is alive and well. What is fast-fashion you may ask? It is an industry where companies continuously churn out on-trend styles at cheap prices. In the beginning, it seemed like a pretty good idea. Companies produce clothes at low-cost and consumers get the hottest designer styles as fast as they want. Everybody wins right? Unfortunately, not the environment.
The fast-fashion industry is incredibly taxing on our environment due to the amount of pollution it creates. In fact, the fashion industry was deemed the second largest cause of waste in the world, next to oil and gas.
It all seems pretty bad right now, but luckily the trend of sustainable and ethical fashion is on the rise. Now more than ever, large fashion brands that you and I shop at are joining the fight to make our world more sustainable.
H&M, for example, launched its Conscious Collection that exclusively uses recycled materials in order to produce their garments. They also launched their Garment Collection program in 2013, which aims to close the waste loop in fashion and recycle unwanted clothing. Last year, H&M even came to the UBC’s Vancouver campus so that students could easily drop-off their clothing.
Birkenstock — who make those hippie sandals that we all wear — has now developed an alternative called Birko-Flor, which is made of acrylic and polyamide felt-fibres that are totally vegan.
Even startups are doing their part. Rothy’s is a San Francisco-based company that creates comfortable and stylish womens’ shoes out of recycled water bottles. So I would definitely be recycling my plastic bottles if I were you. They could end up being worn on your feet.
I know its hard to directly shop for ethical clothing with a tight budget, so it’s good to know that the stores people often shop at are doing their part.
But what about locally?
With Vancouver’s great sustainability culture, a few ethical clothing brands were bound to pop up. If you’re ever in the Gastown area, I’d recommend taking a walk into retailers such as Neighbour, who sells a number of ethically sourced brands, and One of a Few, selling handmade accessories and vintage leather bags.
More notable brands are John Fleuvog. A majority of their soles are made with 100 per cent biodegradable hevea tree latex and cemented using water-based glue.
There is also our beloved Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC)! This brand is known for consistently recycling fabric, and limiting the waste from packaging and shopping bags. They use lower impact options like organically-grown cotton and recycled nylon. A fun-fact is that twice a year, teams at MEC stores don coveralls and jump in their dumpsters to do a waste audit and find ways to improve. They go hard.
Eco Fashion Week, a not-for-profit organization, also aims to present the solutions and innovations that work to develop a more sustainable and responsible fashion industry. Just having its 11th season last November, it has expanded internationally to hosting a show in Seattle and grow the sustainability community.
What can you do?
So there are a lot of cool innovations going on around the world, as well as in Vancouver, but all these things mean going out and buying more. Weren’t we supposed to be reducing the fashion waste? That is definitely doable and here are a few tips:
- Only buy what you love. If you can’t see yourself wearing it 30 times, rethink the purchase.
- Buy quality over quantity. If you can hold onto your clothing article for a month longer and not buy anything else, you will actually be reducing your carbon footprint by 5–10 per cent.
- Finally, if you really want to know if there are some purely sustainable brands out there, check out the B-Corp website. As the website states, b-corps are for-profit companies, certified to meet the rigorous standards of social and environmental performance.
As author Anna Lappé stated, “Every time we buy something, we vote for what kind of world we want to live in.” Our purchasing power as consumers makes us in control of how sustainable the fashion industry and our environment can be. So let’s get on with it and — as cheesy as it sounds — make a difference in whatever way we can, big or small.
*This story first appeared on Ubyssey
The company’s giant recycling facility in Germany receives hundreds of tons of old clothes a day. Can it find a way to turn those old clothes into new garments and make its business model sustainable?
Two hours south of Berlin, in the colorless fields of Wolfen, H&M works with a massive textile sorting and recycling facility, one that might prove to be the unlikely looking future and redeemer of fast fashion. Around 25 to 30 trucks a day drop off an average of 14 metric tons of unwanted remainders from Europe’s closets, gathered from recycling bins at H&M’s thousands of locations on the continent. In Wolfen, this detritus of seasons past is industriously sorted for reuse, resale, and recycling, a relatively new trinity for the mass-produced clothing industry.
With 4,200 stores around the world, H&M is the second-largest clothing retailer in the world (after Spain’s Inditex, which has 7,000). Its 2016 revenue is in the neighborhood of $20 billion. It takes a lot of $50 blazers and $10 T-shirts to get to that number, and the company tends to be the prime example of fast-fashion feeding unsustainable consumer habits and environmental damage. And while it clearly has no plans of stopping (the company’s growth target is to increase stores by 10 to 15% annually) it’s also investing heavily in fabric recycling innovations, in the hopes that it can continue to grow while creating a closed-loop system, where most (if not all) of the raw materials for its clothes come from fibers that were already used.
A main feature of this plan is a partnership with a solutions provider called I:CO, which oversees this 13-football-field sized plant, which was opened by their parent company, SOEX, in 1998. (SOEX is a German textile collection and recycling group; I:CO is one of their subsidiaries.) Since 2009, I:CO, which is short for I:Collect, has run the Wolfen plant and since 2013, when H&M began garment collecting, everything left in their European stores has been trucked here. I:CO manages H&M’s in-store cast-off collecting all over the world, and runs two similar facilities—in the U.S. and India—for making zero-waste use of clothes, shoes, and textiles that would otherwise likely end up in landfills.
“For us, the way forward is to create a closed loop for textiles where clothes that are no longer wanted can be turned into new ones, and we don’t see old textiles as waste, but rather a resource,” says Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s sustainable business expert. The company first began to explore aspects of sustainability with the introduction of some organic cotton back in 2005, but the notion of circular production within their supply chain has really taken off just over the past few years, beginning with the 2013 launch of their in-store garment collecting initiative (you can now leave old textiles at any H&M store in the world).
But keeping clothes out of landfills, while laudable, is more of a first step on the way to the main goal, which is changing the company’s supply chain to a so-called closed loop, thus making far more use of non-virgin fibers (as in, fibers that come from already-worn garments). The H&M Foundation is in the midst of a four-year partnership with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), and has committed $5.8 million to develop the technology to recycle blended textiles into fabrics fit for new clothing. Fibers like cotton-poly are currently un-recyclable into wearable new material, a major obstacle to scaling up the company’s fiber-to-fiber recycling operation and closing that part of the production loop.
I:CO doesn’t know the exact amount of cotton-poly it collects, but the amount of blended textiles it has been receiving has been on the rise, so finding a way to recycle these into fiber that can be used for new clothing is a problem that needs to be addressed. In 2015, the company joined forces with luxury group Kering to partner with Worn Again, a UK-based textile research firm. Worn Again is trying to address problems like the shortening of natural fibers, which occurs when fabric is re-spun. Right now, when clothes you buy are marked “recycled,” that’s only 20% true. The rest is virgin fiber, which has to be combined with the recycled stuff to make a wearable textile. This is the problem that the scientists at HKRITA are trying to solve.
Both in speaking to its executives and in its exhaustive, public annual sustainability reports, H&M remains committed to finding a way to make all kinds of fiber-to-fiber recycling a major part of their closed loop materials, even if there is no target date yet in sight. In the meantime, at least, the company has produced 1.3 million garments with closed loop material in 2015 (it’s one of the biggest users of recycled polyester and organic cotton in the world) and H&M seems well aware that a future blended textile recycling capability is a key way to decouple their growth from new materials. “There’s resource scarcity on one hand, and we have huge waste on the other,” says Brännsten.
The multiple tons sorted in Wolfen on any given day are still minor compared to the 85% of discarded clothes that sent to landfills (the rest are donated), yet the operation requires seven hundred employees, most of whom work in the 24-hours-a-day business of sorting. I:CO says that salaries start above the German minimum wage, which is 8.50 euros an hour. They’re also offered health benefits on top of normal health insurance, like free physiotherapist visits in Wolfen, likely useful given that each person sifts through more than 6,000 pounds of clothing per eight-hour shift.
The sorting process is based on 350 different criteria which determine whether your old jeans will be re-sold, partly re-used (zippers are handy that way), or fully recycled. Nothing that is fit for reuse, Brännsten stressed, would be recycled. Reuse extends an item’s lifespan, thereby lengthening the time it takes to go around H&M’s circular production loop.
But everything in Wolfen is used, in one way or another. The most worn-out cotton items head to a shredder, where they are gradually broken down and repackaged into inviting bales of fluff, and become wipes and cleaning cloths. The absurd amount of dust produced by the sorting, shredding, and baling is sucked up into brickettes and sold to the paper industry. The reusable clothes—and about 60% of what ends up in Wolfen is still wearable—are sorted by type, fabric, color and quality, packed in 130 to 175 pound bales, and shipped to any of 90 countries (predominantly in Eastern Europe and Africa) for re-sale in used clothing stores.
Customers who drop off clothes receive incentives, in the form of discounts or vouchers per bag of clothing. The idea is to make it as compelling as possible to get rid of clothing that would otherwise be trashed, and the incentives vary by H&M brand and home country regulations. In the U.S., a bag with at least three items (from any brand, and this can include stuff like old sheets) nets you a 15% discount coupon at H&M, while the same bag at the more upscale & Other Stories is rewarded with 10% off. Meanwhile, the proceeds from used clothing re-sale do not feed the company’s bottom line, but are donated to local charities and the H&M Foundation, which splits the funds between social and recycling projects, including the HKRITA partnership.
At the stores themselves, the Conscious Exclusive collection gives organic and partially-recycled clothing a fancier vibe, while the affordable Conscious line might be in your closet already. Close the Loop, an understated recycled denim and knit line for men and women debuted earlier this fall, and is made with 20% post-consumer cotton and wool from I:CO’s India plant. The company uses about 20% sustainable materials overall—using organic cottons, linens, and leathers, recycled polyamides and polyesters, and now, recycled cotton and wool.
So far, the company has collected about 34,000 tons of waste, or the weight of 178 million t-shirts, according to Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability. Of course, the equivalent of 178 million t-shirts over three years sounds less impressive next to the 550 to 600 million garments the company produces annually (this is based on outside estimates; H&M does not release production numbers). Its sheer size means “we will get criticized,” Brännsten says, throughout their ongoing move toward fuller sustainability.
And certainly, the criticism the company receives for its unsustainable production pales in comparison to its issues with garment production and worker protections. While H&M has publicly committed to fair living wages and working hours for its garment workers, human rights activists on the ground tell a different story. The Clean Clothes Campaign reported last spring that Bangladesh factories who work with H&M were behind schedule on badly-needed improvements (like fire doors) and vendors in Cambodia and India were coercing pregnant employees to get abortions, lest they instead be fired. Any advances the company makes in terms of recycling science certainly must be balanced with a continued push toward worker rights and worker safety, or the quest for sustainability in its supply chain will be meaningless.
Ultimately, the company “need[s] to ask I:CO, instead of the cotton field,” for new material, says Brännsten, noting that one effect of the company’s size is the potential of its influence over supply chains. In Wolfen, the U.S., and the India, already zero-waste facilities, the goal is to move away from down-cycling (the paper brickettes, wipes, cleaning cloths), maximize fiber-to-fiber recycling, and source all cotton sustainably by 2020. Developing cotton-poly recycling will likely speed up if and when H&M’s competitors get on board, too, Brännsten conceded. “It will not be called ‘recycled’ in the future,” she says, “because that’s the polyester that you get.” Walking through Wolfen, under hundreds of suspended sacks of discarded clothing, it’s believable that they are on their way. Now, for its efforts to outstrip the criticism of its business, what it needs most is a hard and fast timeline for that circular future.
[All Photos: via I:CO]
*This story first appeared on Fast Coexist
As ‘new consumerism’ sees shoppers’ demand shift increasingly towards sustainability and ethically produced fashion, jeans, one of the worst offenders in terms of human and environmental production costs, will present some of the best opportunities to make a sound business out of ethically produced apparel. The peculiarities of the UK’s relationship with jeans will make it easier for brands to convince shoppers to trade up to higher quality and higher prices, mitigating the costs of ensuring more ethical production.
While jeans have been cemented as a staple garment for fashion and function, mounting evidence has spoken to the huge impact on people and the environment of supplying the UK’s appetite for cheap denim bottoms. Their mass production, which often requires highly toxic chemicals in order to produce pre-faded on-trend garments, has come under particular scrutiny from regulators and organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign.
As a result, apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers have rushed to quantify the commercial potential of ethical and sustainable apparel. The greatest challenge has been to meet growing demand for ethical fashion while dealing with the increased material and labour costs of monitoring supply chains and ensuring ethical production.
Value Placed on Quality and Fit Makes Jeans a Stand Out
The characteristics of the UK’s relationship with jeans make this one of the best products to absorb increased production costs. Studies on ethical spending have shown that consumers are willing to spend more on products that provide improved quality along with the ethical guarantee. Because jeans are so ubiquitous and versatile, UK consumers place a higher value on product quality than they do in other apparel categories. While ‘fast fashion’ has reduced consumers’ desire for hard-wearing bottoms, many have still been willing to accept higher prices and remain loyal to brands that guarantee them comfortable materials and a flattering fit.
Compare this to the tops category, where trends change more rapidly and consumers spend less time wearing any single garment. This makes fit, comfort and durability less pressing and premium pricing more closely linked to branding. As a result, it’s more difficult to convince consumers that spending more will bring an added benefit. This happens to be where volume-driven, fast-fashion brands have led and consumers are decidedly disloyal.
As the UK becomes more mindful of its consumption, sustainably produced jeans present an opportunity for players to target a high-profile ethical issue, while supporting revenue with a product that can drive higher value sales. In many cases, the costs of ensuring ethical production will overlap with the costs of improving quality. For example, near-sourcing production may allow closer monitoring of suppliers labour practices in addition to more control over quality assurance.
Jeans to Lead in Fast Fashion Fatigue
Getting consumers to accept higher prices for a product that a decade of ‘fast fashion’ has taught them to buy cheap and replace often will be a challenge. However, led by urbanised millennials, UK consumers are gradually buying into the ‘circular economy ‘and seeking to gain maximum value from less consumption.
As evidence of this, Euromonitor International’s apparel and footwear data shows that after consecutive years of decline, unit price growth has begun to stabilise across most jeans price segments. Notably, premium and super premium jeans have only just seen a marginal decline in price growth after maintaining markedly above-average historical growth.
UK Jeans : Price Growth by Segment 2011-2016
Brands such as Hiut Denim in the UK and Tuff’s in France have been gaining strength as a result. These players source all production internally and locally, keeping their supply chains short and guaranteeing the standards of production. Both brands have developed a fiercely loyal following of buyers who value the ethics and sustainability of their production as well as their high quality. Both brands pitch their jeans as a high value investment, justifying higher retail prices to account for the increased cost of nearer sourced production.
While it is always going to be a struggle to talk the average shopper into ‘breaking-in’ a stiff, heavy 19oz pair of raw selvedge jeans (waiting the better part of a year before washing them to get an authentic fade), high-quality denim can clearly sell big. The success of selvedge lines by Topshop and Uniqlo and H&M’s ‘conscious’ jeans has demonstrated that shoppers can be convinced to trade up on ethics and quality, fueling value-led growth.
Getting Ahead of the Curve
Sustainable jeans have thus far been limited to niche premium brands and high-profile, but small-scale, ‘green-washing’ efforts of major fast-fashion players. Those that prioritize ethics early will appear more authentic than those which seem to conform as a begrudging necessity; gaining favour with the increasingly influential millennial consumer. The challenge will be for winning brands and manufacturers to take bolder steps to make higher value ethical and sustainable jeans a more prominent feature in their product mix, before growing regulatory pressure and consumer outrage takes the initiative away from them.
*This story first appeared on Euro Monitor
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
Apparel chains such as H&M, Zara and Forever 21 conquered the retail world by promising fast fashion: cheap, trendy and disposable.
Yet there’s a growing number of consumers this holiday season who want just the opposite. Data shows that shoppers — especially millennials, the target market for fast-fashion companies — are increasingly looking for clothes made of higher-quality materials or they’re keeping their existing clothes longer. Some are even seeking apparel that’s been reused or recycled.
More than 14 percent of U.S. consumers looked for apparel and accessories made from natural materials in 2016, up from 12.9 percent last year, according to a Euromonitor International survey. Shoppers looking for clothes that were reused or recycled rose 2 percent this year. And more millennials looked for “sustainably produced” apparel and accessories than any other age group.
This shift to so-called sustainable clothing is threatening the underpinnings of a fashion industry that wants consumers to rapidly change styles and move on to the next hot trends.
“Certainly fast-fashion companies are doing a booming business, but there’s also an increased interest in vintage, learning how to sew and weave, and in repair and mending,” said Susan Brown, a fashion expert who serves as associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. “There’s the Brooklynization of the world — interest in higher-quality, handmade things that have a narrative story.”
The challenge may come earlier than big retail chains expect. Consumers are more willing to shop at niche, smaller companies this season, according to Deloitte LLP. Some of these retailers tout sustainable premiums for longer-lasting, higher-quality products — think, Zady or Everlane.
“People want to buy trends less and less,” said Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear: What your Clothes Reveal About You.” “It seems they’d rather buy items that are classic and will last a long time. The movement is happening, and it’s been gaining ground in the public eye.”
She said it’s going to be difficult for the fast-fashion concept to use high-quality, eco-friendly fabric and not create “mass waste.”
But fast-fashion companies are trying to respond. In 2013, H&M launched a worldwide garment-collecting initiative encouraging consumers to reuse and recycle their clothes. The chain also sells a “conscious collection,” a clothing line created entirely from sustainable materials. Zara launched its first sustainable line, Join Life, in September. The collection consists of simpler designs and clothing made from recycled wool, organic cotton and Tencel — a fabric that includes regenerated wood.
But these pieces make up just 1.5 percent of Zara’s assortment and 3.5 percent of H&M’s, said Emily Bezzant, head analyst at the fashion-tracking firm Edited. And the very nature of high-turnover fast-fashion companies strikes many as unsustainable, she said.
“Generally, fast fashion and sustainability are not a match made in heaven,” Bezzant said. She said the biggest challenge for retailers will be to make sustainable products affordable and accessible to millennials.
There’s been some progress toward that end. H&M’s Conscious Collection has an affordable median price of $17.99. At Zara’s Join Life line, a basic strappy top cost $9.90 — the same as their main line, Bezzant said. Lowering prices for sustainable collections would help these businesses stay relevant, as most consumers shop at H&M and Zara because of the cheap price tags.
Still, some in the industry are pushing the notion that millennials will save money by spending a bit more on longer-lasting items. Consumers are starting to realize when they are “too poor to buy cheap ,” said Maxine Bedat, chief executive officer of Zady, a clothing site known as the “Whole Foods of Fashion.”
“The issue that we’re facing as a society is that 150 billion new articles of clothing are produced globally every single year,” Bedat said. “The challenge is to produce clothing at the design side of things that people want to wear more than seven times.”
Christina Kim, a designer who displayed her work at a Cooper Hewitt exhibit on sustainable fashion, said it’s actually been more economical for her to use recycled scraps to make her clothing. Kim founded Los Angeles-based Dosa after moving from Seoul. Her idea started in West Bengal, where she began collecting old saris to incorporate into new designs.
Kim tracked her expenses in both regular and recycled production. She found that when using recycled fabric, she was able to spend less on materials — but had to shell out significantly more for labor. With traditional clothing production, 40 percent of her expenses went to materials, 53 percent to labor, and 7 percent to shipping and other duties. With a recycled production, Kim spent 14 percent on materials, 81 percent on labor, and 5 percent on shipping and duties.
The big companies are taking steps in a similar direction. H&M, for instance, has started minimizing waste during textile production.
“Any leftover material or post-manufacturing waste is recycled into new materials such as recycled wool or recycled cotton,” said H&M spokeswoman Anna Eriksson.
“The customer interest in sustainability is growing,” she said. “We believe sustainability is the only way forward if we want to continue to exist as a fashion company.”
*This story first appeared on Bloomberg
Greenwashing is a term that was coined in the 1980’s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who saw the inconsistency in hotels that did not employ concrete recycling programs but encouraged the reuse of towels by patrons. (PRSA).
It refers to the promotion of green-based environmental initiatives or images without the implementation of business practices that actually minimize environmental impact (or any of the other negative effects of their businesses). It is also defined as the “dissemination is misinformation by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” (Oxford English Dictionary). This practice often includes misleading customers about the actual benefits of a product or practice through misleading advertising and/or unsubstantiated claims, in order to “create a benefit by appearing to be a green company, whether that benefit comes in the form of a higher stock price, more customers or favored partnerships with green organizations.” (Investopedia).
Methods: There are many routes a company can take in terms of greenwashing.
Brands can “make vague claims or omit important and relevant facts. They may do this inadvertently, just using information from their suppliers; in the recent case where several clothing companies claimed that they sold eco-friendly bamboo-clothing when they in fact sold rayon produced from bamboo – but processed in a way that uses harsh chemicals and can also release hazardous air pollutants.” (NFA).
Companies may utilize “press releases about green projects or task forces put into place, energy reduction or pollution reduction efforts, and rebranding of consumer products and advertising materials.” (Investopedia). For example, “Ford Motors — like other automakers often castigated by environmental groups for making gas guzzlers and opposing many proposed state laws aimed at fuel efficiency — has been running advertisements promoting its planned lines of hybrid and flexible-fuel cars.” (NYTimes).
Greenwashing also happens when “corporations parrot their environment programs with the end goal of earning profit.” (ABS).
Greenwashing in the Fashion Industry
Many fashion industry labels employ “green” and “ethical” marketing to target “conscious” consumers: H&M’s Conscious collection, made of organic cotton and recycled polyester; Puma’s biodegradable InCycle Collection; Adidas’ Design for Environment gear; Uniqlo’s All-Product Recycling Initiative; Zara’s eco-efficient stores; and the Gap’s P.A.C.E. program, to benefit the lives of female garment workers. (AlJazeera)
Examples of alleged Greenwashing include the following:
“Take, for instance, H&M’s use of cotton. It’s the material H&M uses most and the company boasts that the non-profit Textile Exchange has recognized H&M as the world’s number-one user of organic cotton, which has a lighter environmental impact, and reduces the use of “probably” carcinogenic pesticides. But only 13.7% of the cotton H&M uses is organic.” (Quartz)
In 2014, Forever 21 was subject to claims of greenwashing. “Not only has the fast-fashion powerhouse announced plans to the largest single-rooftop solar-power system in Los Angeles County, it also unveiled a new 18,000-square-foot concept store that promises greater quantities and even deeper discounts on its already cut-price clothing.” (ECouterre)
H&M launched a film campaign with actress Olivia Wilde to debut its new “Conscious Exclusive” collection for 2015 … yet in 2015, H&M will produce over 600 million new garments. That’s an increase of 50 million articles of clothing from 2011. It will expand its physical locations by 10 to 15 percent every year, requiring the use of energy-intensive resources. (Huffington Post).
*This story first appeared on The Fashion Law
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