The 2015 documentary The True Costhas largely accomplished what it set out to do: wake up Western consumers to the horrifying impact of the fashion industry on exploited workers and the environment. And more consumers watch it every day.
But there’s one criticism of the movie that rings true: After all the visual carnage, viewers are left with no next steps. If we agree that mass-produced fashion is awful, that garment workers shouldn’t die making our clothes, that rivers should not be poisoned just for a cheap T-shirt, and that 1.715 billion tons of CO2 released a year (or about 5.3 percent of the 32.1 billion tons of global carbon emissions) is way too much, what can we do to change it?
Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent in the fashion industry to Michael Pollan’s sharp, easy-to-remember instructions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” That’s because the fashion supply chain is so confoundingly opaque and complex, that even if you buy a purse that was handcrafted by a Peruvian artisan, the leather tannery might still have poisoned the local river, and the cows that provided the leather might have been abused. It’s exceedingly difficult as a shopper to say with any certainty that you are making the “right” choice when you buy something from a green collection or one that is purported to be fairly made.
Still, once you know all the horrible, awful, no-good things the fashion industry does to the planet (pouring carbon into the atmosphere, dumping increasingly large mounds of waste into landfills) and to (mostly female, mostly brown) workers, it feels wrong to throw up your hands and say, “Welp, everything sucks, and I’m going to do some retail therapy at Forever 21.”
As complicated as it can be, there are still things that you can do to lessen your impact on the planet and, of course, not feel like a total hypocritical dirtbag. Here they are.
According to this analysis, a full 22 percent of a garment’s climate impact comes from the process of a consumer driving to the store to try something on, driving to another store to try that thing on, then bringing their final selection home in their car. If you live in a city where you can walk or take public transportation to a store, then do that!
And don’t feel guilty about ordering items online. First, because a UPS, FedEx, or USPS truck is like public transportation for your clothing: efficient at moving a lot of stuff with minimal fuel. Second, your clothing probably comes through a distribution center, skipping the process of going to the store at all and going straight to you. And according tomultiplestudies, online shopping has a much lower environmental impact than brick-and-mortar shopping. It may feel wrong to get an item of clothing in a plastic bag in a box, but rest assured that if it goes to a store instead, it’s also showing up in a plastic bag — the bag’s just gone by the time you see it on the rack.
Another benefit of shopping online is the opportunity to be more thoughtful and discerning with what you buy. In a physical store, it might not be possible (or even occur to you) to research every brand you encounter then and there on your phone. But when you’re home and on the internet, you probably have more time, along with more access to resources, to do some deeper digging.
There are some excellent resources documenting the bad, good, and gray areas of shopping. The Good on You app lets you search for a brand’s environmental impact, labor policies, and even animal-friendly considerations, plus makes recommendations in different categories (dresses, hosiery, outerwear) of sustainable and ethical brands. Project JUST does about the same thing — carefully researches the impact and policies of various brands, plus puts out roundups of the most ethical and sustainable brands in categories like athletic wear and denim — but on a website.
There’s also the DoneGood browser extension, which pops up in the corner of your browser when you’re shopping and tells you whether or not the brand site you’re on is sustainable and/or ethical, and links you to alternatives if it’s not. If you’re visiting a conventional webstore, it also highlights which sustainable brands you should check out while you’re there.
Also, look through the About section or — even better — the sustainability or social responsibility section of a brand’s site to see if they say anything about how items are made. (If they don’t, it’s a bad sign. Skip ahead to step #7 and reach out to your favorite brands.) Google the brand’s name and look for recent news. And finally, check and see if it’s in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a trade group that requires its members to quantify their supply chains’ impact on the environment and is funding some really cool initiatives along the way. (It’s not the same as a third-party certification like the ones mentioned below, but does indicate that a company is serious about making changes.)
Of course, all of this supposed efficiency will be negated if you’re the kind of person who buys a dozen things from a dozen different stores and returns 11 of them. All of this advice really only works if you’re the type of person to use the internet to buy smarter, rather than impulsively.
Look for certifications.
There are a few gold-standard certifications that indicate that an objective deep dive into a product’s supply chain has been conducted. OEKO-TEX is an independent test and certification system for textiles, and it offers multiple levels of certification, the most basic of which indicates that the product is free of hazardous chemicals. The next level up concerns whether the textiles are made in socially and environmentally responsible conditions. GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is a certification for textiles that contain “a minimum of 70% organic fibers.”
Forest Stewardship Council certification indicates that any trees involved (yup, some fabrics are made from trees — more on that later) were sustainably harvested. Fair Trade certification indicates that the factory workers are paid at least the minimum wage, and that the working conditions are safe.
It’s pretty hard to avoid polyester altogether, especially if you enjoy athleisure clothing, swimsuits, or anything with stretch. So look for polyester that’s made of recycled water bottles, fishing nets, carpet, and other post-consumer products. These products financially support the recycling industry and help to keep plastic waste from the landfill and ocean.
Tencel is a viscose rayon alternative by the Austrian company Lenzing made from sustainably-sourced eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop process that ensures no toxins are released into waterways. Silk, hemp, linen, and wool are all natural, low-impact textiles. (Just watch out if you’re vegan — the typical silk thread process kills the silkworms, and wool-producing sheep aren’t always treated the best, especially in Australia.)
Vegetable tanned leather doesn’t use heavy metals in the process (but as an FYI, that means it’ll take longer to soften up and break in). More leather alternatives are coming, but right now the best new alternative available for purchase is Piñatex, which is made from pineapple leaf waste.
Seek out brands that pay their artisans fairly.
Understanding the environmental impact of your garment’s entire supply chain is nearly impossible — all the variables (production, dying, finishing, shipping), debates (are GMOs bad or not?), and scientific reports can lead to a mental burnout on the whole idea of conscious consumption. But picturing the positive social impact of a fairly-made garment is much more inspiring — and easy.
Many fair trade brands, like Lemlem, Voz, Siizu, Brother Vellies, Par en Par, Ace & Jig, Uniform, Manos Zapotecas, and more, have photos and information on their websites of the women and men who hand-make the garments or the factories they use. Other brands, like Reformation and Saint James, give factory tours. Still others, like Naja and Nisolo, give you a report on working conditions, pay, and benefits, plus how getting paid to use their community’s traditional skills positively impacts a worker’s community.
We could argue all day about relative merits of recycled polyester versus organic cotton, or how much you’re benefiting the environment by paying more for organic cotton, but it’s hard to argue with a mother getting paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. It feels a lot more rewarding, too, which can help keep you motivated.
There is a glut of secondhand fashion in the West. Secondhand shops can only resell about 20 to 45 percent (75 percent on a really good day) of unwanted threads — the rest is downcycled into insulation, carpeting, or rags, or (if it’s still wearable) shipped to developing countries to be resold for a few dollars.
This overabundance of orphaned clothing makes secondhand the perfect solution for fashion addicts who feel guilty about their waste and wallet. It prevents production of toxic or exploitative new clothing, and it keeps textiles out of the landfill or from being shipped overseas. Secondhand stores are almost all charitable, locally, or family-owned, so you direct your dollars away from multinational corporations and to small business. And best of all, it’s a way to get fresh threads (sometimes with the tags still on!) for fast-fashion prices.
If you have something really specific in mind and find the chaos of the thrift store intimidating, you could shop online at affordable sites like ThredUp and Tradesy, or Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal for upscale and designer items.
Show your favorite brands you care.
Not ready to pass up on that so cute ruffled viscose top from J.Crew? Curious where it’s made? Email or tweet at the brand! “Consumers think their voices don’t matter, but they do,” says Jessica Radparvar, the founder of the social impact communications consultancy Reconsidered. “Tweets, emails, questions asked in retail stores — if frequent enough, these communications get laddered up. I know many Corporate Social Responsibility teams that then use these anecdotes as ‘proof points’ to show that consumers are demanding transparency,” she says. “That can in turn help them get buy-in, approvals, and funding for projects they want to push forward.”
Again, that only works if the brand has a team like that instated. If they don’t answer, and you can’t find any information anywhere about attempts to go sustainable or ethical, you might want to cross them off your shopping list.
Capsule your wardrobe.
The best thing you can do is just buy less stuff. And you can buy less stuff if you buy things that are timeless and high-quality enough to last a long time.
How you launder it, how you dispose of it, even where it’s shipped from — all these factors are a sliver of the total impact of a typical garment. But most of the impact comes from the very fact that it was produced. The longer you use a garment, and the more times you wear it, the lower the impact. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy exclusively locally-made, organic fashion that costs well in the hundreds of dollars. Whatever it is, if you think you will wear it 30 times or more, that’s definitely a sustainable choice.
One popular notion in the conscious fashion world is the idea of a capsule wardrobe: an extremely edited collection of versatile pieces that can be endlessly mixed and matched, so that you get maximum use out of minimal possessions. If you want some guidance in this area, try the app Cladwell, which helps you discern your style, whittle down your wardrobe, donate or sell what you don’t love anymore, and come up with interesting new combinations.
The goal is to stop getting tossed about on the expensive seas of new trends, and confidently stand in your own personal style, with a closet full of (and only of) pieces that make you feel like your best self. If you love your closet and can easily put together a great outfit, you’ll never say, “I have nothing to wear!” and run out to buy something last minute to make you feel beautiful again, nor will you be tempted by whatever fun cheap thing is in the window at Forever 21, because you already have everything you need, thank you!
If you’re keen to try out a new trend, have a special event coming up, or you’re just bored with your closet but on a budget, renting lets you feel fabulous while using fewer resources. You can try Style Lend, which lets you rent luxury fashion from real women’s closets; Le Tote, which sends you a box of everyday items to try; or the OG of renting, Rent the Runway.
The main thing to know is that you can take or leave any of these tips and build a sustainable wardrobe that feels right for your lifestyle, your budget, and your personal style. There’s no one way to be a conscious consumer, just like there’s no one way to dress yourself. And as the sustainable fashion movement grows and evolves, dressing yourself with thought will hopefully only get easier with time.
Fashion for Good is making an industry-wide call for collaboration to transform the apparel industry at a gathering of innovators, fashion and sustainability thought leaders in Amsterdam.
As a holistic and inclusive open-source initiative, Fashion for Good invites the global fashion industry to reimagine how fashion is designed, made, worn and reused.
Fashion for Good aims to promote the five “Goods” of a new, transformed fashion industry: Good Materials, Good Economy, Good Energy, Good Water, and Good Lives. In pursuit of this goal, Fashion for Good enables the fashion industry to embrace innovation, change its business models and adopt a totally new mindset.
“The Five Goods represent an aspirational framework we can all use to work towards a world in which we do not take, make, dispose, but rather take, make, remake,” said William McDonough of McDonough Innovation. “Fashion for Good is about transforming the industry from serving one generation to serving many generations.”
Leslie Johnston of C&A Foundation said: “Open and inclusive, Fashion for Good will share all knowledge and lessons learned from its activities. In doing so, we want to inspire all stakeholders in the fashion industry to work toward a future in which everyone – farmers, workers, customers, and communities – can flourish.”
Fashion for Good is changing the apparel industry through innovation and new business models. Its innovation platform scouts for, nurtures and funds early-stage ideas and it scales proven technologies and business models for wider adoption by the industry. Its Apparel Acceleration Fund aims to catalyse access to finance and its open-source Good Fashion Guide shares knowledge to help the apparel industry transform. As a convenor for change, Fashion for Good enables conversation and collaboration, bringing together co-locators at its first hub in Amsterdam, as well as visitors to the Fashion for Good Experience to learn more about Good Fashion.
With an initial grant from founding partner C&A Foundation, Fashion for Good inspires brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders all working towards a Good Fashion industry and invites industry to join and collaborate.
Fashion for Good has six complementary programmes:
Early-stage Innovation Accelerator: Fashion for Good works with Plug and Play, a leading Silicon Valley accelerator, to give promising start-up innovators the funding and expertise they need to grow.
Late-stage Innovation Programme: Fashion for Good finds innovations that have proof of concept and helps them scale by offering bespoke support and access to expertise, customers and capital.
Apparel Acceleration Fund: IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, is scoping a fund that aims to catalyse access to finance where this is required to shift at scale to more sustainable production methods.
Good Fashion Guide: This open-source guide proves that Good Fashion is feasible today and shows brands how to embrace it. The online guide provides practical tips, a self-diagnostic tool and a step-by-step guide to production, based on lessons learned while creating the world’s first Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM GOLD cotton t-shirt produced in Asia, at scale, at a value retailer price point.
launchpad exhibition of the Fashion for Good Experience:Fashion for Good has opened three floors to the public in its historic building in a first step to build a community around the ambition to make all fashion Good. With vibrant displays, thought-provoking messaging, and a call to action, the launchpad will inform and inspire its visitors to be part of this larger movement of Only Good Fashion. In 2018, the launchpad exhibition will evolve into a permanent Experience Centre.
Circular Apparel Community: Fashion for Good has rented an historic building in the heart of Amsterdam (our first hub) in order to bring likeminded organisations and partners together, including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) and Made-By. This community will embrace collaboration to create change and build a vibrant eco-system of entrepreneurs and innovators in the name of circular fashion.
About Fashion for Good
Fashion for Good is the global initiative that is here to make all fashion good.
Fashion for Good sparks and scales innovation by offering practical action in the form of support and funding, shares best practice and lessons learned in open-source roadmaps, and fosters sector-wide collaboration for the entire apparel industry to change.
Fashion for Good invites brands, producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organisations, innovators and funders to jointly transform the industry.
Guests are invited to learn more about the industry at a newly opened Launchpad exhibition in Amsterdam. Fashion for Good was created with an initial grant from founding partner C&A Foundation, and other partners have joined to help build the foundation of Fashion for Good: C&A, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, IDH the Sustainable Trade Initiative, Impact Hub Amsterdam, Kering, McDonough Innovation, Plug and Play, and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
Investment in industry-level research and development can give consumers a meaningful metric of sustainability, says former corporate sustainability analyst Mary Hable.
In 2010, fresh out of college with a degree in economics, I began a new job as a corporate sustainability professional at a major apparel retailer. I was hopeful. The apparel industry was full of environmental problems and opportunities for major progress.
At the time, Greenpeace had launched a Detox campaign directly linking textile manufacturing and water pollution, a claim confirmed by the industry’s most influential brands through their organisation of Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. The Natural Resources Defense Council was building its Clean by Design initiative to collaborate with brands that wanted cost-effective ways to clean up factories in their supply chains. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition was gearing up to foster collaboration among companies, non-governmental organisations, government and academia with the mission of improving the social and environmental performance across the industry. And corporate sustainability departments were being built across the industry.
The problems and opportunities were obvious, but one big thing was missing: Consumers were not clearly rewarding brands for sustainability. Without such an economic payback, brands lacked incentives to develop and deploy systemic sustainability initiatives and so limited themselves to less expensive short-term changes.
As a result, after five years in the field, I’m no longer looking for sustainability solutions to be created within companies. Rather, my view is that the more effective role for brands is to invest in external industry-wide sustainability research and technology aimed at developing those systemic solutions.
To drive investment, industry should track contributions from each company and share the information with consumers. Consumers could then use this information to judge — and reward — brands’ commitment to sustainability. After all, money, unlike environmental impact, is something we already know how to measure well, making sustainability investment a simple metric that can be used to activate consumer choices now.
The bottom line is: Individual apparel industry brands won’t deploy systemic solutions on their own because such solutions are not developed enough to provide either a direct economic payback or an indirect payback through consumer reward for more sustainable choices.
Wanted: Systemic Solutions
On the surface, the sustainability teams I was part of made progress. We found ways to achieve grassroots improvements despite minimal top-down support. At one company, we persuaded executives from design and sourcing to come together to educate each other about sustainability issues and to study what competitors were doing. At another large retailer, management was motivated to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, saving money that was used to fund other sustainability projects, such as corporate reporting and more internal education.
These successes, unfortunately, were far outweighed by missed opportunities. For years, we cycled through conversations on using recycled, natural and organic fibers without seeing change. We researched and piloted take-back and donation programmes that didn’t gain traction. We developed strict supply chain monitoring programmes, but couldn’t get key decision-makers to sign off on the next step of including sustainability expectations in business agreements. Ultimately, I watched both sustainability teams that I was a part of be downsized.
This wasn’t surprising. An apparel brand’s fundamental purpose is to sell product, not to promote organic agriculture or develop non-toxic fibers and finishes. To be sure, a handful of values-driven apparel companies have experimented with technologies such as greener chemistry, waterless dyeing, and natural and organic fibers. But those companies are the minority, because such changes are either too costly or risk reducing product performance in the eyes of the consumer. Material choices create the products that are the lifeblood of a brand. Any changes need to be made out of confidence, rooted in strong evidence. Currently, brands lack the data needed to make evidence-based changes.
On material recycling, it was also clear that apparel brands acting on their own couldn’t effectively “close the loop” on clothes and shoes at the end of their useful life. A robust take-back and recycling programme turns a store into a hub of reverse logistics, collecting and sending materials back to a facility that sorts, resells or down-cycles material. All of this takes the store’s focus away from the goal of selling product and creates projects that provide little or no economic payback.
The bottom line is: Individual apparel industry brands won’t deploy systemic solutions on their own because such solutions are not developed enough to provide either a direct economic payback or an indirect payback through consumer reward for more sustainable choices.
Investment as a Metric
Brands will make voluntary investments in sustainability only if consumers clearly reward them for doing so. The problem is, even caring consumers do not have the information they need to know what to reward.
Providing consumers with that information is one of the fundamental pursuits of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). Since 2009, the SAC has been developing the Higg Index, essentially a sustainability version of a nutrition label. Over the past three months, the SAC has released two important pieces of the Higg Index: The Design and Development Module and the Materials Sustainability Index. The goal of these tools is to provide consumers and brand designers with information they can use to easily compare varying degrees of environmental impact between products.
To measure and ultimately reduce environmental impact, the Higg Index depends on a vast amount of quantitative data grounded in science. For example, it needs to be able to provide a simple recommendation as to whether a 90 per cent recycled polyester blend or a 50 per cent organic cotton blend is the more sustainable choice. Currently, the Higg Index is not complete enough to make such a recommendation.
For a tool like the Higg Index to reduce environmental impact, the industry needs more sustainable technologies and better ways to measure the benefits they provide. What the industry needs now more than anything is a consistent source of funds to develop those data and technologies, such as research and development leading to new fiber and manufacturing technology. Brands can have a more impactful role in advancing sustainability by contributing to an industry fund that supports these initiatives.
Providing simple information on individual brands’ contributions to the fund as a per cent of revenue can drive consumer choices and, consequently, competition between brands on investments.
The downsizing of corporate sustainability positions that I experienced could be a sign that brands are moving away from investing in internal sustainability initiatives. Given the complexity of the issues, that makes sense. Brands don’t need more people working on sustainability. What is needed is financial investment in systemic solutions related to fiber, chemical, and manufacturing research and technology.
Brands can’t create these systemic solutions on their own, but they can help pay for them on an industry level. Providing information to consumers aboutbrands’ investment in industry-wide sustainability would give consumers a powerful tool for making purchases based on sustainability, which would motivate the apparel industry to take action toward reducing its environmental impact.
Mary Hable is a freelance writer and former corporate sustainability analyst in the apparel and footwear industry. She produced this feature as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. Her mentor for the project was Marc Gunther.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global industry coalition that is standardizing social and environmental sustainability performance measurement, launched the Higg Index Design and Development Module (DDM). The Higg DDM empowers product designers and developers to make sustainable choices at the earliest stage of apparel, footwear and textile prototype design.
“Product designers and developers’ choices can influence over 80% of the environmental impact created by a product,” said Jason Kibbey, CEO at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “Empowering them with credible information to make better choices in the early stages of product creation can benefit the people and communities where the products are made, consumers, and our environment as a whole.”
Designers have the most freedom to minimize eventual environmental impacts of the finished product at the earliest stage of the design process. The data collected through the Higg DDM, which replaces Higg’s Beta Rapid Design Module, helps steer them toward selecting lower impact materials, using more efficient construction techniques, and considering the complete life cycle of the product.
After completing a simple product assessment, the Higg DDM provides members with a single design score, making it easy to compare design concepts and make quick decisions before production. The Higg DDM provides useful benchmarking and analytics that allow users to compare products or defined groups of products to each other, to company averages, and to industry averages. Using the Higg DDM encourages continuous improvement by teaching designers and developers where they have the most control over the impact, and by giving rapid feedback on how to improve their score.
“At Brooks, we are always looking at ways to improve our impact on the environment and communities where we run. The Higg DDM makes it possible for us to connect our product sustainability focus areas into a single tangible score so we can engage our product design team more directly with our sustainability goals,” said David Kemp, Sustainability Manager, Brooks Running Company. “With the scientifically driven MSI at the foundation of the tool , the DDM helps steer our product design teams towards more sustainable design choices that reduce our impact on the earth.”
The Higg Product Tools include the Material Sustainability Index (MSI) Contributor, the Higg MSI, and now the Higg DDM. Each tool help measure product environmental performance at different stages within the product-development cycle , from initial prototype to sourcing raw materials to final design. SAC members have access to all Higg Index tools as part of their membership dues. Non-members can explore the Higg MSI at product.higg.org. Companies or organizations that are not currently members of the SAC and are interested in accessing the Higg DDM, may inquire at apparelcoalition.org/join-us/.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”
Updated Materials Sustainability Index Empowers Apparel, Footwear and Home Textile Industries with Environmental Data on Thousands of Material Types
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global industry coalition that is standardizing social and environmental sustainability performance measurement, today launched a new and improved version of its Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI). The Higg MSI is a ground-breaking cradle-to-gate material scoring tool that measures and communicates the environmental performance of thousands of materials used in creating apparel, footwear and home textile products.
The publicly available tool allows design teams and global supply chain participants to select more sustainable materials during product design and development.
“The new materials database/MSI represents a leap forward in standardizing the way apparel companies profile materials, sustainable or otherwise,” said Barruch Ben-Zekry, VF Corporation’s Director of Sustainable Products and Materials. “This provides the type of certainty in interpretation that will help guide our industry toward better materials choices. At VF, we’ve already begun to integrate the MSI into our internal systems of product impact measurement and we will continue to advocate that others do the same.”
The benefits of the updated Higg MSI include:
Contributing to the world’s knowledge about materials and their impacts through a centralized database accessible to the public
Creating a common baseline for material performance against which textile manufacturers can work to improve their performance and differentiate their capabilities with their customers
Providing information in a user-centric way that empowers product designers and developers to iterate on designs while considering sustainability during the product creation process
Reducing data requests of manufacturers, thus saving time and money
Growing the spectrum of known environmental impacts against which material impacts are evaluated including climate change, eutrophication, abiotic resource depletion (fossil fuels), water scarcity and usage, and chemistry
“The updated Higg MSI paves the way for deeper material transparency and awareness of environmental impacts,” said Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “It is a vital addition to the Higg Index allowing us to do brand, facility, and product level assessment.”
How It Works
The original version of the Higg MSI was developed by Nike and later adopted by the SAC in 2012 and incorporated into the SAC’s Higg Index. Since then, SAC has updated the methodology, technology, and datasets to create an unparalleled tool for evaluating the environmental impacts produced by materials from extraction through manufacturing.
Participating material and textile manufacturers to submit commonly used production data via the Higg MSI Contributor to be scored and publicly recognized in the Higg MSI. Once data is submitted, it is reviewed and verified by Thomas Gloria, Ph.D., Managing Director of Industrial Ecology Consultants, a leading material expert. Once data is approved it is scored and entered into the Higg MSI according to a specific and robust scoring methodology. Dr. Gloria was also part of a team of LCA experts and industry leaders that determined the scoring methodology, and believes that “the Higg MSI is an unprecedented industry-wide collaborative effort to apply leading science-based approaches to support sustainable design decisions.” To learn more about how impacts are calculated and the process and costs for submitting data, please visithttp://msicontributor.higg.org.
Two key players in the apparel industry become partners of the database project to improve the environmental impact measurements in the apparel and footwear industry
Zürich, Switzerland, October 3, 2016 – The environmental sustainability consulting group Quantis is pleased to announce that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and Austrian fiber company Lenzing have officially joined the World Apparel and Footwear Lifecycle Database (WALDB) as partners. WALDB, a pre-competitive global initiative founded by Quantis, is a to provide a robust and credible database for environmental impact assessment and footprinting in the fashion industry.
SAC and Lenzing join HUGO BOSS, Legero/Think! Shoes, the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and BSD Consulting, a group of industry leaders that have come together to collaboratively measure the environmental impacts created by materials used in the apparel and footwear supply chains.
The addition of these two new key players in the apparel industry and leaders in sustainability illustrates the need for more robust and credible data from the industry’s value chains. Data on the environmental impacts in supply chains is sparse, yet it is essential for organizations to drive metrics-based sustainability programs. WALDB will solve this data challenge.
The aim of WALDB is to bring together partners in the industry, in an open and precompetitive dialogue, to address the needs and challenges of environmental data collection and availability. In this initiative, the partners will work together to expand the database with reliable data on the processes along the apparel and footwear value chains.
WALDB enables apparel and footwear companies to identify environmental hotspots along their value chain as well as to quantify the benefits of improvement and reduction measures and to benchmark individual footprints compared with industry averages. Moreover, credible communications and marketing efforts can be built on sound metric-based footprint data, which can be used for sustainability reporting in full compliance with relevant ISO Standards and with the European Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) initiative.
The interest in calculating LCA in the apparel and footwear industry is rapidly increasing. Companies are looking for reliable data to make informed decisions and to prioritize their sustainability efforts. Furthermore, the development of new public policies like the Green Economy and the EU’s Single Market for Green Products are adding to the demand for credible data.
“I have witnessed a clear shift from the apparel industry – one that is characterized by a sharp increase in interest in developing a more holistic and quantitative approach to environmental sustainability,”Rainer Zah, Quantis Zurich Managing Director and WALDB project lead confirms. “Solid metrics serve as a guide to organizations’ sustainability strategies allowing them to make good decisions, based on hotspots across their operations, to make the most impact. The WALDB database will allow companies to assess their impacts, make strategic decisions, and engage their supply chains based on facts.”
Environmental impacts can range from water consumption for cotton cultivation, to impacts from dyeing and tanning, to greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and transportation.
The WALDB partners work together to collect comprehensive datasets based on primary data from the partners and on existing data from scientific studies. The datasets are released annually, the first release took place in July 2016 and consists of 60 datasets which cover wool, cotton, and leather supply chains for shirts, pullover, trousers and shoes. The datasets will continuously be expanded during the next two years according to the needs of the partners.
Quantis is a global leader in sustainability and (LCA) expertise, services, consulting and tools. Quantis is specialized in supporting companies as they measure, understand and manage the environmental impacts of their products, services and operations.
Retailers tackle the eco footprint of fashion, from the source of the fabric to the day you throw it away
At H&M’s flagship Canadian store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a rack of spiffy navy-blue jackets is rolled from the back room to the display floor.
“This one is made of wool with recycled fibres, and this one has recycled cotton,” H&M spokesperson Emily Scarlett says with a smile, showing off items from the chain’s eco-friendly line, dubbed the Conscious collection.
Scarlett points out proudly that H&M is also the world’s second-largest user of organic cotton.
The Swedish chain is eager to spruce up its environmental image. So is Zara, the massive fast fashion retailer from Spain, which just launched its first sustainable fashion line called Join Life, which uses organic and recycled materials.
Both retailers, which have dozens of locations in Canada, have come under attack in recent years — along with other fast fashion chains such as Forever 21, Joe Fresh and Topshop — for encouraging consumers to buy more clothing than ever, creating waste that eventually goes to landfill.
Fast fashion gets its name from its ability to take the latest style trends from the runway to the store floor in record time. But the industry can’t move fast enough when it comes to its impact on the environment.
Critics aren’t buying the stylish environmentalism.
Misinformation in the marketing
“I am very skeptical of both the Conscious Collection and the new initiative that Zara is launching,” said Nikolay Anguelov, author of The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry, a book about fast fashion’s negative impact on the environment.
“There’s misinformation in the marketing message. The eco label is not deserved. The eco is a minor improvement, but unfortunately, it’s communicated to the consumer as if it’s problem solved.”
A professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Anguelov says his research shows that fabric accounts for only about 13 per cent of the cost of any piece of clothing, so a switch to natural textiles doesn’t make much of a difference. The fashion industry’s carbon footprint is huge, including energy used for transportation and toxic chemicals, such as bleach and dyes, used in manufacturing.
Then there’s the problem of massive waste. Anguelov says Millennials are consuming five times the number of apparel products as the generation before them and then discarding much of it.
That trend is driven by low prices, he says.
Mountains of textiles tossed in the trash
“We sometimes buy things we don’t need at places like Zara and H&M,” shopper Rafaella Silva admitted to CBC News, showing off the three sweaters she had just purchased at Zara for a total of $70.
“It’s mainly because of the price. If I had a choice to go somewhere that I could purchase something that would last longer and the price wasn’t that much, of course I would, for sure.”
Municipalities in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia are looking at ways to limit the amount of textiles being dumped in local landfills. A study done by the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) showed that North Americans throw away almost 37 kilograms of textiles every year.
“You want a jacket, you want a sweater, you want a hoodie,” says Colin White, a student at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax who had just bought a winter coat at Zara. “It’s just cheaper here.”
The fashion industry has responded, forming its own group to address the waste problem. Based in San Francisco, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a collaboration between two very odd bedfellows: super-retailer Walmart and Patagonia, the high-end maker of outdoor clothing that describes itself as an “activist company” when it comes to the environment.
It’s an industry-wide problem
Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey says the group’s 185 members include most fast fashion retailers, including H&M and Inditex, Zara’s parent company.
“This is not just a fast fashion problem,” he points out. “This is a problem across all segments. It’s a systemic challenge across all supply chains.”
Kibbey says a huge amount of industry investment is going into new, “closed loop” technology, where items of clothing can be broken down and recycled to make new items. It’s also known as a circular system, or a “cradle to cradle” approach.
“There’s a lot of investment and activity in that area right now,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go. But given the amount of activity I see, this will be our future. It’s just a question of how long will it take us to get there.”
Trying to spur recycling innovation
H&M is in its second year of a “Global Change” innovation challenge in which five winners split a grant worth €1 million ($1.5 million Cdn). The award is meant to be a catalyst to accelerate the shift from “a linear to a circular fashion industry,” says the company. “The aim is to protect the planet and our living conditions.”
Even some anti-consumer advocates praise the chains that are taking action.
‘They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.– Madeleine Somerville, author of All You Need Is Less
“I’m impressed,” said Madeleine Somerville, the Calgary-based author of All You Need Is Less, a book about how to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
“I think any time a retailer takes steps to develop manufacturing processes to actually address the waste and the pollution that comes from creating these clothes, that needs to be recognized and celebrated.”
But she notes that for all retailers, the overarching goal is to sell more clothing.
“They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.”
Consumers are challenged to make a choice between the health of the planet and their desire to wear the very latest, most inexpensive, fashion trends.
A previous version of this story said fabric accounts for six per cent of the cost of a piece of clothing. In fact, it accounts for about 13 per cent.
Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5 billion worth of T-shirts, pants, jackets and dresses last year. It also took 12,000 tons of clothes back. In a glossy, celebrity-studded video, H&M says: “There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”
Recycling has become a rallying cry in the apparel industry, with H&M as its most vocal evangelist. The Swedish firm launched a €1 million contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist M.I.A. to produce a music video called Rewear It that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling.”
With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy — an industrial system in which everything at the end of its life is made into something new, in contrast to today’s economy, where most consumer goods are produced, used and then thrown away.
“We have to change how fashion is made,” Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive officer of H&M, has said. “We have to go from a linear model to a circular model and we have to do it at scale.”
It’s not just H&M. American Eagle Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Co., Nike, the North Face, Patagonia and Zara all collect old garments (or shoes, in the case of Nike) in their stores, in some cases taking clothes from any manufacturer. Startups Ambercycle, Dutch Awareness and Evrnu are developing chemical processes to take cotton, polyester or blended apparel and transform them into new fibers. “Our ultimate goal is to harvest our raw materials from our consumers’ closets,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss.
That H&M is leading the charge for the circular economy is no small irony. The company’s low-cost clothes — it sells women’s T-shirts for $5.99 and boys’ jeans for $9.99 — are one reason why the apparel industry is growing so fast and drawing fire from environmental activists.
It’s been estimated that the global apparel industry generates as much as $2.5 trillion in annual revenue and that it will double in the next decade. What’s more, despite efforts to collect old clothes by retailers and nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the U.S. Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman and child, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated.
Eileen Fisher, the founder of the apparel company that bears her name, has called the clothing industry “the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” a claim that can’t be verified because reliable data on fashion’s global footprint is scarce. But there’s no doubt that vast amounts of water, energy and chemicals are required to manufacture clothes — up to 200 tons of water, for example, to make a ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In places where environmental regulation is lax, chemicals are routinely discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. The textile industry long has been one of China’s biggest polluters, and it has fouled rivers and ruined farmland in India, Cambodia and Bangladesh, as well.
Growing cotton, the most-used fabric in fashion, requires water and agricultural chemicals. (Organic cotton is an exception.) While cotton is grown on just 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of global sales of insecticides and pesticides, respectively, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — an alliance of retailers, brands and nonprofits — has been working for about five years to measure and reform the industry’s environmental footprint.
In the long run, the industry will need to take more radical action, particularly if it wants to sustain current growth rates, sustainability executives say.
For Nike to achieve its “moonshot ambition” of cutting its environmental impact by half while doubling its business, the company “will need to forget the linear and move to a circular model,” said Hannah Jones, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there.” Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, said the company wants to “decouple growth from resource use, so that economic and social development can happen, but within planetary boundaries.”
This will be a daunting task. Consumer behavior is one obstacle. Most people don’t bring their old clothes back to stores, despite incentives. In the U.S., H&M, Levi-Strauss and the North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20 percent on future purchases, but they are collecting far fewer clothes than they sell, executives admit. (H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold.) San Francisco is one of very few cities to offer curbside recycling of textiles.
Some insiders say the hype about closing the loop in fashion is outpacing actual progress. John Mowbray, founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, said: “There’s a hell of a long way to go for the industry to get to meaningful scale, despite what the marketing people are saying.”
To see why the job ahead is so hard, it’s essential to distinguish between recycling and closing the loop. Conventional recycling of clothes doesn’t create feedstock for new clothes. Instead, garments that can be worn again are sold in thrift stores or bundled for overseas bulk sales at just a few pennies a pound. (Even at those rock-bottom prices, the U.S. exported $705 million of worn clothing last year, sometimes to the detriment of local economies.) Clothes that can’t be worn again are resold as rags; downcycled for use in products such as insulation, carpet padding and stuffing for toys; incinerated for energy, or sent to landfills.
By contrast, a closed loop or circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” stated the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For the apparel industry, this means designing a system that will keep textile resources in use for a long as possible, and then recovering the materials at the end of life to make new high-value products. No company today is doing this on a commercial scale, but several are trying.
London-based Worn Again began “upcycling” a decade ago by turning textile waste — including discarded McDonald’s uniforms, Virgin Atlantic airplane seats and prison blankets — into clothes, shoes and bags. But founder Cyndi Rhoades soon realized that making consistent products out of a variety of materials was “a very difficult business.” She turned her attention to recycling cotton and polyester, which poses a different set of obstacles. Mechanical recycling of cotton lowers its quality as chopped-up fibers get shorter and less soft, while recycled polyester costs more than new. Harder still is recycling clothes made from a blend of fabrics, which must be separated.
After several years of research, Worn Again joined forces (PDF) with H&M and the PUMA division of Kering to develop chemical processes that will capture polyester and cotton from old textiles that have been broken down to the molecular level. Said Rhoades: “The holy grail is a process that can separate blended fibers, recapture the raw materials and reintroduce them into the supply chain at a price competitive with their virgin counterparts.” The technology has been proven in a lab, but Rhoades declined to predict when it will be deployed more widely.
A partnership between Levi Strauss and Seattle-based startup Evrnu recently brought forth the world’s first pair of jeans made of post-consumer cotton waste. A preliminary lifecycle assessment of the product generated encouraging results, according to Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss.
“Cotton cultivation versus Evrnu, we’re looking at a 98 percent reduction in water use,” said Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places such as China, India and Pakistan that are — or soon could be — water-stressed.
Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, said its patented process purifies cotton garment waste, converts it to a pulp and extrudes it as a clean new fiber that is softer than silk and stronger than cotton. Evrnu expects to announce partnerships with two more retailers soon, one of which wants to make knit shirts out of textile waste. The other will focus on footwear.
Flynn said: “Our goal — and we’re not there yet — is to use no virgin product in the creation of our fiber, and create no waste.”
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.