FASHION’S WASTE PROBLEM & THE INNOVATORS LOOKING TO CHANGE IT
If it were a country, the fashion industry’s emissions would rank almost as highly as the entire European continent, led there by the disconnect we have developed towards clothes, their consumption and our natural world.
Anyone with half a foot in the sustainability world will be aware of the issues the fashion industry poses.
Over the space of two articles, we will explore the issues present in the fashion industry, from waste to chemicals, and the innovators looking to change it.
In the last 15 years, production rates have doubled in the fashion industry, in part thanks to new attitudes, particularly among the middle classes, towards the value of clothes. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Clothes are cheaper than they have ever been, meaning they are worth less to the consumer, meaning the consumer can generally afford to be more wasteful and buy more, reducing their value further. These has led to a reduction in the amount of time each item is worn by about 40%. The average lifespan of an item of clothing is now just 2.2 years, worn an average of just 7 times.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH WASTE?
Wasting clothing is problematic for several reasons. Many types of clothing are created from valuable natural resources, which use energy, space and water to grow. For example cotton, one of the more sustainable fabrics used in our clothing, uses up to 20,000 litres of water for a single t-shirt by some estimates. In fact, nearly 20% of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry.
Needless to say, using up so many natural resources, labour hours and, of course, money for a product simply to be thrown out is immensely wasteful. Much of the clothing we wear nowadays is created using synthetic fibres, which are essentially fossil fuels. Again, wasting these items at any stage of the production process or post-consumer means an increase in non-biodegradable fabrics making their way to landfill, or being incinerated – both of which are harmful to our environment.
The methods of production for any item of clothing can be immensely damaging too, so maximising usage of fabrics and clothing and extending the time it remains out of landfill is in intrinsically beneficial, both to the environment and to us. According to WRAP, £140 million worth of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK each year – that is a lot of wasted resources and money.
WHAT HAPPENS TO WASTE CLOTHES?
So what happens to our clothes after we dispose of them? Unfortunately, in the UK, 73% is burned or sent to landfill. 12% is downcycled into mattresses, cleaning cloths, insulation and other low-value items. Just 1% is upcycled into new clothing – meaning the fashion industry is missing out on a shocking $100bn worth of pure materials each year, as well as the high costs of disposal on top of that. Even the best-performing countries, such as Germany, only reuse around 50% of disposed clothes – the rest may be downcycled or end up in landfill abroad. There is a lot of room for improvement. This is only post-consumer waste, but the consumer is certainly not the only one at fault here. What about pre-consumer?
Pre-consumer waste refers to the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fabric that is wasted at each stage of production before it is purchased by the consumer. This could be surplus material from cutting patterns, surplus stock (brands over order by around 3-10% to avoid running out of stock, other brands burn stock to avoid ‘damaging the brand’) or faulty items from printing/weaving mistakes. Of the 1,100,000 tonnes of fabric wasted in the UK in 2016, 73% of this was pre-consumer, at a huge 800,000 tonnes.
As with many environmental issues, while the onus is often placed on the consumer to make better decisions and be less wasteful, in reality much of the issue lies in holding brands and governments to account.
WHO IS DOING IT RIGHT?
The sheer amount of fabric, both used and unused, that goes to waste globally is a great business opportunity for many. There are some great examples of brands specifically looking to reduce both pre and post-consumer waste in the industry. Find below some of many examples:
PATAGONIA has a Worn Wear policy that allows customers to send in old clothing to be repaired or replaced as needed. This is a brand that trusts in the longevity of its product and champions fixing items, rather than disposing of them.
NUDIE JEANS, along with multiple other brands, provide free repairs of their jeans, so technically they could last forever. This is the way we should be thinking about all our clothes.
DEPOP has massively capitalised on the second-hand industry, which is projected to grow to nearly 1.5 times the size of the fast fashion industry in the next 10 years. Rather than sending clothes to charity shops (many of which are shipped abroad or end up in landfill), Depop raises the value of second-hand clothing, ensuring a second (or third, or fourth) life. Brighton based brand ILK & ERNIE purchases surplus fabric from the fashion industry to recycle into beautiful clothes (I am obsessed).
MAISONCLEO is based in France and run by a mother-daughter duo. It also sources deadstock fabrics from French Couture houses to create its designs, all of which are hand sewn to order, thereby further reducing waste. Pieces can be tailored to your measurements. Leather’s sustainability credentials are often called into question, but leather brand TRMTAB upcycles waste leather and offcuts into long lasting accessories and shoes, reducing the amount that ends up in landfill.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
WEAR YOUR CLOTHES MORE
Increasing garment lifetime is one of the most effective ways of reducing their environmental footprint – simply wearing something for 9 months extra could reduce its carbon, waste and water footprint by 20-30%.
In the UK, we buy more clothes per person than anywhere else in Europe, and five times the amount we bought in the 1980s. Each item of clothing we buy has its own sizeable environmental footprint, and will eventually be added to the massive waste problem that fashion already has.
FIX, SELL OR SWAP
At the end of a garment’s life, consider fixing the item at your local alterations service. If you still don’t want it, try to sell it or swap with a friend also looking to refresh their wardrobe. Only send to a charity shop if you cannot find someone else who wants it.
Aiming to purchase clothes (when you need them) from sustainable and ethical brands will likely reduce both pre-consumer waste and the overall environmental footprint of your clothing. Put your money where your mouth is – support sustainable brands and encourage other brands to become more sustainable.
As with everything, individual change is important, but not everything. By lobbying governments and voting for candidates that favour environmental causes, big businesses are held responsible for their environmental impact. Ideas such as a 1p levy on garments sold in the UK could raise over £35 million per year to improve textile reuse and recycling facilities. However, ideas such as this need to be implemented by governments to take effect.