By Lucy Seigle
Every year millions of garments are discarded as consumers ditch fast-fashion styles for a new wardrobe. At last the industry is acting – but more has to be done
Facebook users will be familiar with the On This Day feature. From time to time it greets you with a blast from your relatively recent past. Some find it unnerving, especially if it’s a picture with an ex, for example. But my eye is always drawn to the clothes. Whatever happened to that handbag? Do you still wear those jeans?
If it’s an image from more than three years ago, then the answer is probably “no”. According to a recent report from Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years. For a younger demographic, you can probably halve that. A UK-based fashion company tells its buyers to remember that a dress will stay in the owner’s wardrobe for only five weeks.
The way we get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behaviour of previous generations, for whom one garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that we purchased 1.13m tonnes of new clothing last year in the UK. While an estimated £30bn-worth hangs about gathering dust – Tinie Tempah’s refrain “I have so many clothes, I keep some at my aunt’s house” was spot on – an unpalatable quantity goes in the bin. A survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s last spring found that 235m items ended up on landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer. Surely we can do better than this?
Vivienne Westwood – never one to miss an opportunity to call her legion of fans to action – thinks we can. “It’s about quality, not quantity – not landfill,” she said recently at one of her own shows. Hot on her heels, Vetements, very much the “it” brand of our times, made its own statement last week. The label filled the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York – one of the commercial hotspots of global fashion retail – not with its latest collection, but with waste garments en route to a recycling charity.
But it was Stella McCartney who really upped the ante, electing to shoot her latest collection on a Scottish landfill site. Models lay across the rusted husks of old cars and languished on top of household waste. From a sustainability perspective, Stella McCartney is the luxury Kering group’s top-performing brand. Much of this success is based on McCartney’s own personal resolve. It’s clear that the landfill backdrop is not just an interesting aesthetic to her.
Now there’s an obvious contradiction between selling fashion and instructing us to buy less, but what these designers are calling for is some sanity in an industry now rated as the fifth-most polluting on the planet.
The fashion industry has developed a pretty terrible reputation – not least for exploitation of human capital, outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies. Four years ago, 1,133 garment workers were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, while producing clothing for high-street brands and their subsidiaries. After that, many worried what was next.
For those in and around the industry, garment waste has long been rumoured to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecast to increase as fashion waste becomes an environmental crisis to rival plastic pollution in oceans. This is a tale of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionised both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced – and not often for the better.
Much of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and doesn’t make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the colour. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory (and a large factory in Dhaka can produce 240m pieces a year).
There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced globally each year (predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka without waste management systems) but my own research puts it between 80bn and 100bn garments. That means a lot of hidden fashion waste.
Where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of big production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting room (called jhut) often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires a regular occurrence. But what happens to all the rest?
“You don’t even want to know,” says Estonian designer and clothing waste researcher Reet Aus, who spends a lot of time following unwanted garments out of factory gates. “You see it by the side of the road being sold, or just dumped, but a lot is burned,” she says. “I know a brick factory near the garment district where the main fuel is garment waste. You can’t really see anything around there, the pollution is terrible. Remember that thanks to the chemicals and finishing agents, used textile waste is basically toxic waste.”
Meanwhile, the urge to buy grows stronger as clothes shopping takes on a quasi-addictive quality. And let’s be honest here, are the fast-fashion corporations with their extraordinary profits likely to do anything about consumption, the driver of waste and the driver of the industry’s impact? Their business model, after all, depends on it.
Increasingly these brands are signposting a way of allowing us to have our cake and eat it. They are buying into recycling schemes and investing in competitions to close the loop on textile fibres. The idea is that if they can collect waste garments and regenerate fibres to be used in new garments, the impact of fast fashion can be negated.
The trouble is, it’s hard to buy into. I have been critical of brands overclaiming in this area before, particularly when I looked at the numbers around H&M’s recycling week in 2016. In truth, there are quite a few technical barriers to closing the fashion loop – that is, regenerating fibre from an old, unloved outfit, spinning and making it into something else, all within a timeframe and quality that’s interesting to the consumer.
“Every fabric is different,” says Aus, “so one garment might contain a blend of different fabrics. On top of that, you have to strip out the zippers and buttons inherent in post-consumer fashion waste.” So while a consumer may believe that a loved jumper or sundress is going to be magically regenerated into a new item, in practice your old T-shirt is probably going into a well-worn recycling network.
She and her team have developed software to keep track of potential garment waste data during production, which she is trialling with a large manufacturer: Beximco in Bangladesh. By getting information about the volume and material of leftover textiles, she can design that material back into a product before it becomes waste. “I’d rather not produce waste in the first place,” she reasons. “Plus, this is a better system for large brands who find recycling and regeneration difficult. That is easier for smaller, more agile companies.” This means some of fashion’s big lessons about its waste may come from unlikely parts of the apparel world. For once, the smaller companies have a chance to steal.
Tom Kay, the founder of Cornish outdoor brand Finisterre, is addressing a waste problem highly relevant to his customer and doesn’t care that it might seem niche to the rest of us. “The average neoprene wetsuit only lasts two years,” he says. “We’ve redesigned with wider seam tape and better stitching but it still only lasts probably for three. It would be disastrous for these things to be dumped, but there’s nowhere for them to go. That’s why you see them piled up in people’s garages.”
Last week, he launched an intriguing job advert in partnership with Exeter University: a £26,000-a-year position, paid by Finisterre, to be filled by a materials scientist who shares his dream of making wetsuits from wetsuits. “We don’t know how it will go, but I’m excited,” he said.
■ Last year 1,130,000 tonnes of new clothing was purchased in the UK – an increase of 200,000 tonnes since 2012.
■ Fashion in the UK lasts an average of 3.3 years before a garment is discarded.
■ Extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20-30%.
■ Providing one tonne of clothing for direct re-use by giving it to a charity shop or selling it online can result in a net greenhouse gas saving of 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.
*This story first appeared on The Guardian
The circular economy.
Closing the loop.
Cradle to cradle.
These are all phrases you may well have heard of. If not, best to familiarise yourself with them a.s.a.p. As our increasingly consumerist lifestyles reach tipping point, organisations are desperately trying to gather and reuse our rubbish, because otherwise, we may have nothing left to make anything with.
This year’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit was kicked off by someone I had, until that moment, not heard of: Bill McDonough. If you are as clueless as I was, take the next 14 minutes and 30 seconds to get to know him and his ideas a little better. You won’t regret it.
People were still clapping by the time I’d completed my purchase of his book, Cradle to Cradle.
Fashion’s grave reality
McDonough’s work is clearly applicable to the creation of many, if not all, products. But it is particularly relevant to clothing because this industry has arguably one of the most linear and wasteful cycles in modern society. And this cycle’s impact on the environment is exacerbated by its speed and the quantities involved.
The fashion cycle: cradle to grave
With 92 million tonnes of textile waste being produced by the global fashion industry in 2015, corresponding to more than 12 kg per person, it’s clear that we are hemorrhaging valuable resources every second of every day.
So What Exactly is Being Wasted?
In particular, I highlighted popular man-made fibre polyester as the most used in clothing production today.
Polyester is derived from fossil fuels, one of our planet’s none renewable resources. A resource so valuable in fact, that it should be treated as a ‘nest egg’ McDonough suggests.
And yet, not only do we buy cheap, poorly made clothing using this precious resource, but we throw it out in such a way that these valuable materials cannot be retrieved.
Perhaps excavating landfill sites will be a common activity in the future?
How insanely backward would that be?
How Can the Fashion Industry Do It Better?
How can this regressive fashion industry transform itself into a regenerative one?
When it comes to fashion, and the materials we use, we can work to achieve a circular system in two ways:
By creating a “biological” cycle, whereby an item made with 100% natural fibres (wool for example), able to be broken down by bacteria, is reclaimed by nature into its vast ecosystem when we no longer want or require it.
The fashion cycle: cradle to cradle (biological)
Or a “technical” one, whereby the clothing we buy made of man-made fibres is designed in such a way that the fibres can be separated and reused in a never-ending production cycle, whilst not degrading in quality.
The fashion cycle: cradle to cradle (technical)
Some organisations are themselves working on large-scale collection schemes in their shops. These schemes provide them with the raw materials to experiment with ways of recycling fibres.TT
Unintelligent and Inelegant Things…
My favourite phrase from ‘Cradle to Cradle’ is: ‘products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant –what we call crude products’
Everything we buy, and everything we do, is part of a bigger process.
We can’t know everything. But know this: as a wearer of clothes, what you chose to buy and wear really matters. Because with every purchase, you are telling the world who and what you support.
Choose not to buy cheap clothes from people who cannot tell you how or where their products are made.
Chose not to buy clothing from companies who ignore our collective responsibility to address the issues the fashion industry and, by default, we all face.
A product without background, without craftsmanship, made without thought or purpose or regard for the future is a product without beauty, without meaning and without worth.
It’s a crude purchase. Simple.
*This story first appeared on Study 34
To listen to the interview, click https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/takeaway/#file=/audio/json/661109/&share=1” target=”_blank”>here
It’s Fashion Week in New York City, and brands and innovators are coming from all over the world to show off the latest styles. But the push to keep up with the newest color or hottest trends has a dark side. Whether it’s to make way for the next season’s wardrobe or just getting rid of the old, consumers throw away about 85 percent of all the clothes we buy.
And brands often toss huge amounts of fabric and even finished clothes, because something wasn’t quite right or they made too much.
That all contributes to textile waste, which is a growing part of our country’s landfills. Traci Kinden is the founder of Revolve Waste, a consulting group that works with different brands and organizations to reduce textile waste. She explains what you can do to stop textile waste.
*This story first appeared on WNYC
‘The EcoChic Design Award is a powerful platform that is driving change in the fashion industry. Over the last five years, we’ve introduced sustainable fashion education to thousands of emerging designers, influenced global fashion brands to produce sustainable collections and reached millions of consumers,’ said Christina Dean, Redress’ Founder. ‘But whilst we pause for momentary celebration, we can’t be complacent because textile waste is still a critical environmental and social issue and our work to inspire tomorrow’s leaders to be agents of change is far from over.’
Chelsia Lau, Chief Designer, Ford Motor Company said, ‘Ford is proud to be partnering again with Redress this year. Design and sustainability are key goals of the competition as well as drivers in the development of our global Ford vehicles. This partnership allows us to push the boundaries of sustainable design into new realms of creativity, collaboration and innovation.’
- International judges are Raffaele Borriello, Creative Consigliere, Shanghai Tang; Orsola de Castro, Fashion Designer, Co-founder of Estethica and Co-founder of Fashion Revolution; Susie Lau (Susie Bubble), Fashion Writer and Editor; Anderson Lee, Vice Chairman of the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium (SFBC); and Stephanie Zhu, Fashion Editor ELLE China.
- Key sponsors are The Create Hong Kong of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Major Sponsor), Ford Motor Company (Gold Sponsor), Shanghai Tang (Prize Partner), UPS (Logistics Sponsor), ADM Capital Foundation (Bronze Sponsor), EAST (Hotel Partner). Other partners include Bloomsbury Books, Ethical Fashion Forum, Hysan Place and Aveda.
The EcoChic Design Award 2015/16 Ambassador is Supermodel Bonnie Chen.For high-resolution images, statistics, further information and videos please visit our media kit here.About The EcoChic Design Award (www.ecochicdesignaward.com)
Fibre-based textiles claim to be highly recyclable, but fashion quality controls prevent them from going mainstream
As clothing brands experiment with textile-to-textile recycling models, the emergence of new fabrics built around closed loop processes could help accelerate this progress. Examples of recent innovation in this field include Econyl, X2 Plus, Returnity and SaXcell. Based on the concept of regeneration from the outset, these fibre-based textiles are largely crafted from waste materials and claim to be highly recyclable or reusable, making them suitable for multiple life cycles.
Econyl is a type of nylon manufactured wholly from waste streams that include abandoned fishing nets and carpets. It is billed as a sustainable alternative to Nylon 6, which is traditionally sourced from caprolactam (a derivative of oil). Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, the company behind Econyl, says the clothing industry has been quick to take advantage of Econyl since its launch in 2011.
“Swimwear brands were among the first to invest in the use of Econyl fibres as the majority of their products are made from nylon,” says Bonazzi. “Brands such as Koru Swimwear and Adidas were impressed with our efforts to not only recover derelict fishing nets … but also expand our supply source for post-consumer waste.”
Besides swimwear, Econyl is suitable for the manufacture of sportswear, lingerie and outdoor clothing.
Returnity is a 100% recyclable polyester which is replacing not only traditional polyester, but cotton and wool-based fabrics too. According to Dutch aWEARness, which owns the European license for the product, Returnity fabrics reduce CO2 impact by 73%, waste management by 100% and water usage by 95% compared to cotton.
Returnity is mainly used in the workwear market, where takeback of corporate garments is easier to arrange. Dutch aWEARness founder Rien Otto believes the potential is there to widen its appeal: “Extension to the fashion market is possible, in particular in areas where garments are polyester-based, such as sportswear, outdoor wear and jackets.”
Yarns appropriate for consumer fashion fabrics are already under development, Rien adds: “We see that more and more brands are looking for new production methods, new collections and materials. At this moment, we are sharing our knowledge with different brands that want to change their way of working.”
With their Garment Collecting and Shwopping in-store clothing takeback programmes, H&M and Marks & Spencer (M&S) respectively are both keeping a watchful eye on such activities. H&M’s environmental sustainability coordinator Carola Tembe says the company’s long term goal is to find a solution for reusing and recycling all textile fibres and to use yarns made out of collected textiles in its products.
“There are a lot of different exciting projects and research going on in this field, and we aim to find a scalable solution for textile-to-textile recycling with an outcome equal, or hopefully even better, than virgin fibres in the near future,” she says.
H&M has already started to use pre- and post-consumer recycled textile waste in its products, but Tembe points to limitations, particularly when it comes to closing the loop on natural fibres. “For recycled cotton, the highest amount of mechanically recycled post-consumer fibre H&M can use at the moment is 20% without compromising the quality,” she says.
“In the mechanical recycling procedure, the textile fibres are being regenerated in a way that makes the textile fibres shorter and with lower quality than virgin fibre. They need to be blended with virgin fibres to reach our quality standards.”
M&S’s general merchandise innovation delivery manager Jo Gordon sees “huge potential” in reusing post-consumer raw materials in retail fashion – the company plans to launch more closed loop clothing lines later this year. However, she acknowledges there are still challenges involved.
M&S is now looking to drive its own agenda in this space – it is working with the University of Cambridge on a project called Redress, part-funded by Innovate UK, to examine circular economy opportunities around garment recovery. “It’s a two-year project that will investigate opportunities to increase volume and value of textile recovery. It’s too early at this stage to go into further details on what the different opportunities might be, but we have committed to sharing the learnings of the project publicly in 2016,” Gordon says.
Building greater durability into fabrics that can be used again and again could pave the way for the ultimate in closed loop clothing – leasable fibres. This would allow fabric suppliers or textile manufacturers to effectively retain ownership of a garment’s raw materials.
Dutch aWEARness’ Otto says it’s a concept to aim for. “The advantage of a lease model and performance-based contracts is the continuous drive to optimise the performance of the product, the environmental performance and the costs.”
Financing such models, however, remains a huge sticking point, he adds: “We are investigating if there are possibilities for a green investment fund with pension funds or investors.”
Aquafil’s Bonazzi agrees it’s a “great concept”, but cautions: “The logistics could be a potential snag if not cost-effective to all parties, convenient for the consumer or if there is an overall lack of interest and participation from the consumer.”
** This post first appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business blog here.