If you could advise government policy to set new sustainability standards for the fashion industry, where would you start? What changes are necessary for genuinely sustainable fashion?
Waste is what we throw away and what we do not use. But what really happens when we throw things “away”?
In a perfect world, fashion would be a more circular industry instead of linear. But new materials are currently very often made from virgin (and irreplaceable) resources instead of making new materials from old ones. Plus, there is no “away” when things are discarded. They end up in the landfill.
And in garment manufacturing, it is no different because waste occurs from the textile production and the garment manufacturing phases, up to and through the retail and end-of-life phases – plus approximately one-fifth of manufactured clothing heads to landfill directly because it is deemed unfit somehow. There is significant waste, and it continues all along the supply chain.
Fashion Revolution’s Co-Founder Orsola de Castro says, “the lack of transparency in the fashion value chain prevents us from seeing exactly how much waste is created, where this waste is produced and the impact it has on our environment.”1
So, what can you do with your unwanted clothing? You can swap it with – or give it to – a friend, sell it, upcycle it, or donate it if it is clean and in good condition, but too many garments just end up in the trash. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans sent 10.5 million tons of textiles to landfills in 2015, and that comprises over 7% of the bulk of our national landfill waste. Even worse, a U.K. study found that “the majority of fashion purchases see the light of day just seven times” before they are discarded.
First of all, why does this matter?
Why do we want to keep things out of the landfill? “When natural fibers, like cotton, linen, and silk… are buried in a landfill, 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,” Alden Wicker reminds us in Newsweek magazine.
But back to the donations – many people report that they donate their unwanted clothing, and they feel good about doing so. However, the harsh reality is that maybe only one-fifth of those donations are resold as clothing. The rest of them are sold by weight and downcycled into rags and insulation, or they are baled up and shipped off to other locations as far as sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and China to be resold there.
And, lately, some of these countries have been trying to “restrict the influx of Western clothing imports” to their secondhand markets in part due to the low quality of the garments. Even Goodwill Industries admitted that in 2014 they sent about 11% of all clothing donations to landfill.
This is a great opportunity to make a big difference. There’s simply too much in the used clothing market, and, as consumers, we should “buy less and choose well” – as fashionista and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood advises.
But waste is a huge problem in the fashion industry all along the supply chain, so we must also address this issue in government policy to set new sustainability standards. We need greater transparency and better infrastructure to encourage better methods of decreasing waste in the manufacturing process. And methods of certifying these improvements will be key to maintaining safety and sustainability. If we do not address these problems, we will never achieve a sustainable industry.
We cannot continue to think things go away when we “dispose” of them. Thankfully, some brands today are realizing the importance of going zero waste. The fashion industry needs to get on board with this idea and begin to make changes in policy and practice to work toward a brighter and more sustainable future.
1 Ditty, S., & DeCastro, O. (2017). Loved Clothes Last (Vol. 2). Ashbourne: Fashion Revolution CIC.