by Mark Liu
The rise of fast fashion in Australia means 6000 kg of clothing is dumped in landfill every 10 minutes. The ABC’s War On Waste visualised this statistic by piling a giant mound of clothing waste in the middle of the city. So what to do about it?
Sustainable fashion experts advocate abstaining from buying fast fashion, promoting clothing swaps and repairing old clothing. Others suggest buying organic and ethically-sourced clothes or designing clothing using zero waste techniques. The hope is that greater transparency in supply chains will lead to an end to sweatshops and unsustainable fashion practices.
These are admirable initiatives, but they only reduce wastage or delay garments from ending up in landfill. They do not address the fact that the scale of fast fashion is so massive it can easily eclipse other sustainability initiatives. Nor do they address the wastefulness of existing technologies and the urgent need to research new ones.
Even if we could magically stop the global production of all garments, we would still need new, green technology to clean up the waste we have already created. There are long-term strategies for green technologies such as electric cars, but where are the major companies and research institutes developing the next generation of sustainable fashion technologies? The development of new synthetic biology technologies may be the key.
From catwalk to research
I would like to share my journey from zero waste fashion design pioneer to trans-disciplinary fashion researcher to highlight the challenges faced by sustainable fashion and the need for more research.
Ten years ago, I presented my “Zero-Waste” Fashion collection at London Fashion Week. I and other sustainable designers at the time took the waste streams of other industries such as scrap materials and leftover fabric and created our collections from them. I was selected for “Estethica”, a new initiative created by sustainable fashion gurus Orsola De Castro, Filippo Ricci and Anna Orsini from the British Fashion Council. Sustainable fashion was shown on London catwalks next to luxury fashion – a revolutionary step for the time.
I pioneered a way of creating tailored, high fashion garments so that all the pieces of a garment fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle and no waste was created. Conventional pattern cutting creates about 15% wastage of material, even if the pattern has been optimised by a computer. I wanted to systemically change the way clothing was made.
But the problem with zero-waste design is that it is very difficult to create. It requires a skilled designer to simultaneously imagine the garment as a 3D item and a flat pattern, while trying to fit the pieces together like a jigsaw. It is easy to make an unfitted or baggy garment, but creating something that looks good and fits the body was a real challenge.
Even after all these years, most contemporary zero-waste fashion is still not tailored to the body. I practised this technique for years to master it. It required breaking all the rules of conventional pattern-making and creating new techniques based on advanced mathematics.
These were exciting times. Our fabrics were organic, we made everything locally and ensured everyone was paid an ethical wage. The press loved our story. But problems started to emerge when it came to sales. We had to sell more expensive garments, using a smaller range of fabrics – our materials and labour costs were higher than those of companies that produced overseas. Often fashion buyers would say they loved what we did, but after looking at the price tag would politely take their business elsewhere.
As a sustainable fashion designer, my impact was limited. It was also impossible to teach zero-waste fashion design without explaining how advanced mathematics applied to it. It was time to try a new approach, so I decided to apply science and maths to traditional fashion techniques.
My PhD research explored the underlying geometry of fashion pattern-making. Combining fashion with science allowed the traditional techniques and artistry of making garments to be explained and communicated to scientist and engineers.
In the meantime, fast fashion companies rapidly expanded, with Zara, Topshop and H&M reaching Australia by 2011. They produced massive amounts of cheap products making low margins on each garment. Consumers quickly became addicted to the instant gratification of this retail experience. The size and scale of their production produced hundreds of tonnes of garments every day.
The limits of fashion technology
Fast fashion companies such as H&M have developed recycling initiatives in which consumers can exchange old clothing for discount vouchers. This is supposed to prevent clothing from going to landfill, instead recycling it into new clothing.
However, there are those who are sceptical of H&M’s recycling process. In 2016, investigative journalist Lucy Siegle crunched the numbers and concluded that “it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste”. This, she said, was the amount of clothing they produce in about 48 hours.
A 2016 H&M sustainability report reveals that only 0.7% of their clothes are actually made from recycled or other sustainably-sourced materials. In the report, H&M acknowledges :
Today, this is not possible because the technology for recycling is limited. For this reason, the share of recycled materials in our products is still relatively small.
In fact, their 2016 annual report states that more research is needed:
if a greater proportion of recycled fibres is to be added to the garments without compromising quality, and also to be able to separate fibres contained in mixed materials.
Sustainable technologies strive for a “circular economy”, in which materials can be infinitely recycled. Yet this technology is only in its infancy and needs much more research funding. H&M’s Global Change Award funds five start-up companies with a total of 1 million Euros for new solutions. Contrast this with the millions required by the most basic Silicon Valley start-ups or billions for major green technology companies such as Tesla or SolarCity. There is a dire need for disruptive new fashion technology.
Many of the promising new technologies require getting bacteria or fungi to grow or biodegrade the fabrics for us – this is a shift to researching the fundamental technologies behind fashion items.
For example, it takes 2700L of water and over 120 days to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt. However, in nature, bacteria such as “acetobacter xylinum” can grow a sheet of cellulose in hours. Clothing grown from bacteria has been pioneered by Dr Suzanne Lee. If a breakthrough can be made so that commercially grown cotton can be grown from bacteria, it may be possible to replace cotton fields with more efficient bacteria vats.
But why just stick with cotton? Fabrics can be generated from milk, seaweed, crab shells, banana waste or coconut waste. Companies such as Ecovate can feed fabric fibres to mushroom spore called mycelium to create bioplastics or biodegradable packaging for companies such as Dell. Adidas has 3D printed a biodegradable shoe from spider silk developed by AM silk.
Although I began my journey as a fashion designer, a new generation of materials and technologies has pulled me from the catwalk into the science lab. To address these complex issues, collaboration between designers, scientist, engineers and business people has become essential.
To clean up the past and address the waste problems of the future, further investment in fashion technology is urgently needed.
*This story first appeared on The Conversation
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
As consumers, we have come to expect fast, cheap, trendy fashion. We have been trained to shop often and to consistently succumb to new trends, the latter of which, at the retail level, are nothing more than a marketing ploy to keep us in the sped-up shopping cycle. The prices of garments and accessories offered for sale by fast fashion retailers (think: $24 pants and $19 blouses) largely facilitate this pattern of consumption, and their ad campaigns actually make it look pretty appealing.
But fast fashion – the model of retail that typically prices garments and accessories much lower than the competition, operating in a manner that emphasizes low quality and high volume and which is pioneered by brands such as Forever 21, H&M, Topshop and Zara – is cheap for a reason, and because retailers are not paying the price it costs to manufacture clothing in a reasonably responsible manner, that means, logically, that someone else is. Before we go any further, it is worth noting that Zara’s owner Amancio Ortega is the 3rd-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $57 billion; Forever 21’s owners have a net worth of $4 billion; and Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso has reportedly amassed upwards of $250 million. Garment workers in Bangladesh, who supply these exact retailers, make $73 a month, a jump from the $38 per month they were making before the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013 that killed 1,100 garment workers. That is the general divide upon which fast fashion thrives.
Accordingly, it is the laborers, many of whom are women and children, who pay the price, and not just in terms of low wages. (Note: that the previously cited $73/month figure remains below the average wages of textile workers in other Asian nations). Laborers also pay in terms of safety. Foreign companies that serve as suppliers to fast fashion retailers routinely bypass important quality control and manufacturing health/safety standards because these practices are costly to implement and monitor and that would cut into their bottom line. Hence, the toxic chemicals in clothes, the frequent employee hospitalizations, and the increasing number of fires and buildings collapsing.
In case you need more proof that your $20 top was made in less than desirable or ethical conditions, here you go. Garment manufacturers in far-flung locations, such as Bangladesh (the world’s second largest apparel manufacturer second only to China), Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam that serve as suppliers to H&M, Zara, Topshop, Nasty Gal, and even Nordstrom – just to name a few – are commonly cited [see: “List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor” U.S. Dept. of Labor (12/2014); “Fast Fashion Tied to Forced Child Labor” (12-2-2014)] as employers of child labor, and even forced child labor. And the conditions are egregious. Individuals working in these garment factories are constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, given limited access to soap, water and working toilets, go without proper medical supplies, and lack proper lighting and ventilation. Factory owners and operators often fail to adequately compensate workers and to observe overtime-working standards, and often abuse labors verbally, sexually and physically. That’s not fashion.
In our defense, it is easy to forget the human rights abuses, environmental damage, corrupt business practices and the violations of workers’ rights, or to shield ourselves from these things in the first place. Bangladesh is far away and those $24 printed wide legpants look great on the billboard, especially when your clothing budget is limited. Moreover, fast fashion is packaged so very neatly for us. It is very easy to ignore the very ugly reality that comes hand in hand with it. But that cannot continually be our excuse.
Many years ago, I wouldn’t have given fast fashion a second thought. I may have traipsed into Zara and stockpiled an array of season-specific clothing, which I would have worn for literally one season, grown tired of, moved on from, and discarded or pushed to the back of my closet. Then, I would have repeated the same consumption habit for the next season and the next. [As such, this is NOT an article for the purpose of shaming fast fashion shoppers. This is is me saying, I get it!]
However, somewhere along the line, I realized that the cost of fast fashion is just too high for me. Fashion is supposed to impart some sense of confidence or beauty or happiness, and I simply don’t feel any of those things knowing that I am wearing a garment that was made in conditions that I wouldn’t want for my mother or sister or myself. I also found that repeatedly purchasing a bunch of cheap clothing and constantly stripping and revamping my wardrobe (out of necessity because the clothes literally fall apart) simply isn’t fulfilling. I get a lot more joy from building a wardrobe of garments and accessories that I actually love, that I want to keep and that I can wear for years – because they haven’t fallen apart and because they aren’t so specifically tied to Spring/Summer 2013, for instance, that they are simply unappealing after Spring/Summer 2013.
I began paying attention and became aware of how fashion and fast fashion actually worked. I saw how much time and effort designers spend in their New York Garment District studios, for example, to create collections. I witnessed their creative process, how they create a collection of garments from nothing (both figuratively in terms of starting from scratch and pin-pointing their inspiration, building a mood board, choosing colors, etc.; and literally, money is often very tight for emerging designers and what they earn each season goes right back into their business so they can actually afford to manufacture the garments). I saw the garments go down the runway.
I also saw (and continue to see) how frequently fast fashion retailers blatantly copied those designs, delivered the copies to the market months before the original garments, and sold them for a tiny fraction of the wholesale price of the originals. While the designers I know and love, like Cushnie et Ochs, Prabal Gurung, Joseph Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler, and Pamela Love (just to name a few), spend countless hours working to create innovative new designs, sourcing beautiful, high quality materials, and employing garment workers in well-runfactories in New York City – ones that I have personally visited – fast fashion retailers simply cannot say the same. Not even close.
While our clothes are only ancillary to our other traits (the late great, Oscar de la Renta did say, after all: “To be welldressed you must be well naked”), they do speak for us to a certain extent. In fact, whether we like it or not, our clothing says a lot about us. It is one of the first things people notice about us, and so, in a way, it defines us. I decided I don’t want to be defined by fast fashion. I don’t want the clothing I wear to be connected to the pain and suffering of others. I don’t want it to fall apart after a few wears. I don’t want to look exactly like every other girl my age. And if nothing else, I think life is simply too short to wear fast fashion.
This is usually about the point when someone interrupts what sounds like the idealistic preaching of a fortunate fashion girl and says: “Well, not all of us can afford to wear Prada all the time.” And, guess what? That is a valid response. I am happy to tell you, THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES, aside from buying one Prada sweater instead of 20 fast fashion ones. There are probably more alternatives than ever before – and they come in at just about every price point. Second-hand shopping is a great one. There are also ethically manufactured, reasonably priced alternatives to fast fashion — and they are not weird or ugly or any less “fashiony” than fast fashion. Helpsy, Shop Ethica, Zady, and Accompany are sites dedicated to offering such alternatives. Mobile shopping site, Spring, provides an array of garments and accessories from emerging designers, including access to sample sale prices. Everlane, Reformation, Ryan Roche, M.PATMOS, and Libertine champion ethically made clothing. Orley, Wes Gordon, Jenni Kayne, Costello Tagliapietra, and Brandon Sun manufacture locally – some in New York, others in Los Angeles – and ethically. These are just a few of the many, many brands making clothing responsibly. Right now we have a lot of options – no matter your price range.
You can’t buy style. We all know this. And while retailers are continually making it easier for us to shop in a more responsible and ethical manner, you also cannot buy a willingness to try to shop smarter and remove yourself from the cycle of fast fashion, but it is something to strive for, to work towards. Starting small, simply thinking about where your clothes came from and then taking some active steps to build a wardrobe that places value on quality over quantity, is an excellent place to begin. [Also, major revisions in terms of retailers’ and suppliers’ Codes of Conduct is in order for widespread change to occur. More about that HERE.]
* This story first appeared on The Fashion Law
Glossy 101: Circular fashion, explained
As fashion brands continue to identify ways to use recycled materials and curb emissions, the term “circular fashion” has been popping up more and more. So, what in the world is it?
In a nutshell, circular fashion is a product of the circular process, which involves integrating recycled resources into supply chains. It’s a nice idea, but for a lot of brands, going there is easier said than done. Levi’s has been successful at converting plastic bottles to denim, but most fashion brands have experienced great difficulty navigating the circular fashion model. Many have offered standalone recycled fashion lines—think Eileen Fisher’s Remade line, which is produced using discarded designs, and TopShop’s Reclaim effort—but very few have actually started integrating recycled materials into production.
The reason? It’s complicated. That’s why we decided to break it down: Here’s what you should know about the circular fashion movement—specifically, how brands are working to join it in order to change the system.
What is a circular material, exactly?
A circular material is a recycled material, part of the larger circular economy founded upon the traditional concept of “reduce, reuse, recycling.” These materials are designed to prevent the introduction of new resources into the supply chain by reimagining those already in the mix as new garments—high-quality garments, that is—using volume collaboration.
Volume collaboration? Give me the short version.
Volume collaboration is the result of multiple brands sharing materials—such as dyes, chemicals, trims, yarns and base fabrics—that they use to create fully designed garments. H&M, Stella McCartney and Tommy Hilfiger are among brands that are working together by sharing materials. In doing so, they are ensuring that those they use are as environmentally friendly and recyclable as possible.
Last week in a webinar hosted by Fashion Positive, H&M sustainability expert Cecilia Brannsten said that working together is vital to instigating change, since it can often be difficult for one brand to move the needle on issues like dye pollution. “The change will happen a lot quicker if there are more of us trying to do it, working on this in parallel, because we can do a lot of good together,” Brannsten said.
Who writes the rules on circular fashion?
Fashion Positive Plus—it’s an extension of an initiative led by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which was founded in 2014 to increase the use of circular materials by identifying, certifying and scaling them for the fashion industry. It’s focused on sharing insights and best practices around circular materials as well as integrating them into supply chains.
What does it take to get the “circular” label?
Fashion Positive has a Critical Materials list featuring the “high-priority, critical materials needed for circular fashion,” according to the site. These materials are assessed with five categories in mind: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness.
“We have set a vision at H&M—a really bold vision—to be 100 percent circular”
– Cecilia Brannsten, H&M sustainability expert
Does Fashion Positive work with any big-name designers?
Stella McCartney, a designer who has been a vocal proponent of sustainable fashion, is working to create a Cradle to Cradle Certified material to use in her knitwear collections. Likewise, participating brands like H&M, are working with the group to introduce such materials into production in order to reach lofty goals, like becoming a fully sustainable company. “We have set a vision at H&M—a really bold vision—to be 100 percent circular,” Brannsten said in the webinar last week. “What that means is we want to have a circular approach to how products are produced and will only use circular or sustainably sourced materials.”
What’s next for circular fashion?
Recycled fashion can be difficult to scale, since most garments aren’t designed with circular materials in mind. In the future, organizations like Fashion Positive, in tandem with brands dedicated to the mission, may be able to help promote the use of materials that are most conducive to recycling.
*This story first appeared on Glossy
TopShop launched a new edition of its Reclaim sustainable fashion line last week, an ongoing effort that recycles old garments and excess material into new styles.
Now on its fifth line, the initiative — which first started in 1997 as part of the retailer’s partnership with environmentally friendly fashion company Reclaim to Wear — is continuing to focus on reducing textile waste. TopShop first began selling the clothes in 2012 in collaboration with Reclaim to Wear designers Orsola de Castro and Filippo Ricci, a duo that specialize in repurposing discarded clothing and excess fabric as new pieces.
Items in the latest collection range in cost from $35 to $125 and are available in select brick-and-mortar stores in the U.S., U.K., the Netherlands, Hong Kong and online.
“With all the environmental challenges we are facing, the fashion industry is looking for design solutions for the future. Sometimes, to be really innovative, you have to take the best from the past and bring it to the future,” Castro and Ricci wrote in the TopShop blog when the first line launched in 2012.
The collection is inspired by the ’90s, and pays lip service to doing good deeds with its “Call to Action Faction” slogan. The ’90s nostalgia play has been adopted this past summer and fall including Urban Outfitters, a TopShop competitor which launched throwback collaborations with Tommy Jeans, Calvin Klein, Wrangler, Fila and Adidas Originals. Urban Outfitters also has a recycled fashion effort called Urban Renewal, which selects clothing from vintage and flea markets and adds its own spin before selling it at a markup.
TopShop’s line also comes on the heels of Zara’s recent foray into sustainability. The brand launched its first ever environmentally friendly line, which includes garments sourced with sustainable materials. As part of the effort it implemented a series of recycled clothing receptacles at 300 locations across Europe, with plans to expand further. H&M has had a Conscious Collection line since 2012.
“It is a priority for us to minimize textile waste across all of our product categories,” Jacqui Markham, TopShop’s global design director, said in a statement.
Sara Radin, youth culture editor at WGSN, said the concept of recycling materials sets TopShop and Urban Outfitters apart from competitors like Zara and H&M, who are ultimately propagating waste and draining resources even if their products are sourced sustainably.
“A sustainable label is still creating more waste and using up resources,” Radin said. “A re-use label is smart because it goes one step further. It’s rethinking the entire production process to ensure nothing is wasted.”
Radin said TopShop’s efforts connect with consumers in a new way, and serves as an alternative to vintage shopping, particularly as shoppers start to turn their back to fast fashion retailers in an effort to find unique items made in a more ethical manner.
“There’s psychology behind it. I feel good when I buy vintage clothing,” she said. “A recycled clothing line is a big brand’s answer to appealing to young shoppers like me who have abandoned fast retailers to only shop vintage. It’s a way to bring them back into stores and show consumers they’re going one step further.”
*This story first appeared on Glossy
Just because something isn’t designer doesn’t mean it’s disposable.
From an environmental, ethical, and even artistic perspective, fast fashion as an industry is problematic; that’s a fact. But while it’s easy to point a finger at the companies mass-producing inexpensive designs, many of these issues also stem from customers who buy and then discard them at an alarmingly rapid rate.
According to the fashion documentary The True Cost, the world now consumes 80 billion pieces of clothing per year; meanwhile, the average American annually generates 82 pounds of textile waste, which goes straight into landfills. And for those who can’t resist the siren call of Zara, it’s hard not to feel like you’re part of the problem.
So what’s a trend-conscious shopper without mountains of money at her disposal to do? A quick Google search turns up dozens of similar stories urging you to “buy less, buy better!”They’ll point out that instead of purchasing, say, six or seven pairs of under-$100 heels from a fast fashion chain, it’s wiser to save up for one $600 pair from a big-deal designer.
But stories like these automatically assume that the expensive shoes will be more comfortable, better made, and — above all — will make you so sublimely happy that you won’t feel tempted to buy anything else for the rest of the season. On one or more of these counts, as you and I and Monica Geller know, they’re often wrong.
A reformed label snob who once filled my closet with whatever deeply-discounted designer pieces I could afford, I actually didn’t begin shopping at fast fashion retailers until well after I’d graduated from college.
Problem is, I treated a trip to, say, the Alexander Wang sample sale the way most people shop Urban Outfitters: Head for the clearance rack first, grab the trendiest items possible, and don’t overthink your purchases. Before long, I wound up with a wardrobe full of flash-in-the-pan pieces that clashed with my classic personal style — not to mention a completely depleted savings account.
So several years ago, I purged my closet of everything but my most beloved, versatile items, put myself on a strict budget, and overhauled my entire shopping strategy. Swearing off the sample sale scene, I headed to Topshop andZara instead to fill in any small, lingering gaps in my wardrobe — but I promised myself I’d only choose things that I knew I’d wear often and keep for the long haul, like plaid circle skirts and layering turtlenecks.
Sure enough, most of those pieces are still in my regular rotation today. The solution to a well-rounded wardrobe, it turns out, isn’t to swear off fast fashion altogether, but to be smarter in how you consume and care for it. And in my experience, there is a way to do that.
The next time you duck into a fast fashion store, shop thoughtfully. Steer clear of obvious runway knockoffs and aggressively trendy pieces, both of which you’ll likely get sick of after a couple of wears. Power past the sale and/or clearance sections, where it’s all too tempting to scoop something up just because it’s majorly marked down. Think twice about anything in a bold print or pattern, too, and avoid beaded or sequined items that are likely to get damaged quickly.
Instead, look for pieces that incorporate current trends but also fit in with the rest of your wardrobe and can be worn for more than several seasons. When you get into the habit of constantly buying something new just for the sake of buying something new — even when the price seems too good to pass up — that’s when the trouble starts.
Speaking of which, be realistic when you’re looking at price tags. Tempting as that $5 top may be, items in the $25 to $100 range will likely fare better in the long run than those under $20.
Next — and this is a biggie — try everything on. I know that your time is precious and the lines for those fitting rooms are long, but it’s crucial to see how your potential purchases fit — especially if, like me, you tend to be lazy with returns. Once you’ve put on a piece, sit down in it. Squat. Put both arms up and wave them around (I like to sing the chorus from Naughty by Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray” while doing so). Test all zippers and buttons to make sure they work properly, and make sure all seams and hems are even. Basically, do everything you can to test out the garment’s construction and comfort level before you buy.
Clean your clothes with care, too, regardless of how much they cost. As I’ve said before, many of my favorite, most comfortable sweaters are from brands like H&M and Forever 21 — and by hand-washing and line-drying them instead of tossing them in the machine along with my socks and leggings, I’ve gotten many years of wear out of them. (During that same period, it should be mentioned, I’ve lost several actually-expensive knits to pilling and inexplicable holes. Go figure.) Washing your things by hand will also prevent shrinkage and warping, both common complaints with low-priced fashion.
It never hurts to have a few basic sewing skills in your back pocket, either. Rips, tears, and popped buttons happen — but they can often be easily fixed at home, and will extend the life of your fast fashion purchases. I have a particular matching set from Zara, for instance, that I purchased in 2013 and that started coming undone at the side seam after three or four wears. It took approximately five minutes for me to fix, and I’ve since worn the set at least a dozen more times with no issues. If nothing else, you can also take things to your tailor, who can likely fix that zipper or rip for a few dollars.
Which brings me to an important point: By and large, claims that fast fashion garments are ticking time bombs that start disintegrating the second you put them on your body are exaggerated. I typically purchase a couple of pieces from Topshop and Zara each year, and have never once had anything fall apart, even after multiple wears. The fact of the matter is that there’s no reason why you can’t make a pair of $80 shoes or a $60 dress last for years.
Although under-$100 items comprise at least 50 percent of my own closet at this point, I actually consume and dispose of clothing less now than I did back in college, when I religiously visited every sample sale my schedule would allow. I am, in fact, “buying less, buying better” — I’m just not letting a garment’s price tag determine its worth in the context of the rest of my wardrobe, and am treating my high street favorites with the same care as my pricier pieces. After all, just because something isn’t designer doesn’t mean it’s disposable.
*This story first appeared on Racked
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