The rise of fast fashion has made textiles both more affordable and more disposable, and the likes of H&M, Inditex and Arcadia have tapped into a new breed of consumer for whom high volume, cut-price versions of catwalk items are the standard. According to the Ethical Fashion Forum, fashion houses offer up to 18 collections a year and it appears the market for low cost products, otherwise known as the ‘value end’, is booming, its size having doubled in five years. The upshot is that trends change in weeks not months, and the brands themselves have been forced to respond with faster clothing cycles and cheaper products.
Value of the textile and apparel industry
This movement – as much as it has democratised an elitist industry – has turned clothes into here today, gone tomorrow items, as opposed to something you treasure forever. Women in 2006 had four times as many clothes as they did in 1980, and the squeeze on workers means the lion’s share of production has shifted to the developing world. The increasingly globalised nature of the value chain and the journey made by products from sweatshop to high street means the apparel sector has been turned upside down.
A jumper made from recycled plastic bottles
Affordability is clearly one reason shoppers have taken to the trend, while a near-constant supply of clothes throughout the seasons means these same shoppers can swap in and out at their leisure. Fashion – particularly fast fashion – demands little of the consumer. However, its consequences – and there are many – are mostly invisible to the end user, and the impacts – environmental or otherwise – disproportionately affect those on the lowermost links of the supply chain.
The race to the bottom means manufacturing has migrated to countries where wages are low and regulations loose. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh, for example, and the over 1,100 resulting fatalities, underlined the pressures on factory owners to cut costs wherever they can. However, it isn’t just the human costs that warrant attention, but the environmental ones also.
As much as the make and use phases of consumption are sore points, it’s in the end of life phase where the most work is being done to shrink the sector’s environmental impact. US fashion designer Eileen Fisher caused a stir in 2015 when she announced to an audience in Manhattan that her industry was the second largest polluter on the planet.
Bleaching, dyeing and finishing require excessive levels of energy and water, while causing yet more pollution
Landfill sites pollute local groundwater supplies, in part through the bleaches and dyes found in thrown-away clothing, and the toxic water that collects at the pit of these sites is comparable to raw sewage. Critics say the reuse of existing materials, as opposed to the production of raw materials, not only alleviates some of the environmental issues, but also goes some way towards making the clothing and apparel industry more efficient. Bleaching, dyeing and finishing, for example, require excessive levels of energy and water, while causing yet more pollution.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American discards around 70 pounds of clothing each year, with around 85 percent of it destined for landfill. Of the remaining 15 percent, 45 is resold to second-hand dealers, 30 is cut up for rags, 20 is shredded for alternative purposes and the remaining five is treated as waste. The picture here points to a patchwork of recycling systems, which, while successful in some parts, fail to address the root cause of the problem.
Crucially, the $1.2trn textile and apparel industry is built on a linear supply chain, and the make-use-dispose model of economics we have all come to know and take for granted has not only squeezed the average lifespan of clothing but also made it more disposable.
China’s textile industry, for instance, churns out 41.3 million tonnes of fibre a year and accounts for 53 percent of global production, yet millions of tonnes go to waste either as offcuts or because they have been dyed incorrectly. According to Environmental Leader, 234 tonnes of textiles went into landfill in Hong Kong in 2010, while in the UK customers left around $46.7bn of unworn clothes lying in their wardrobes.
Recycling the sales pitch
A growing number of organisations are pushing to improve sustainability in the clothing life cycle by bringing together actors from industry, government and the third sector. The aim for all parties is first to reduce the use of resources and second to alter consumer behaviour and extend – perhaps indefinitely – the longevity of individual items of clothing.
In the UK, it is estimated 50 percent of the over one million tonnes of textiles thrown away each year are recyclable, yet only 25 percent are reused or recycled. The reasons for this boil down to the view – prevalent among businesses and consumers both – that clothes can be discarded without consequence. After all, more than half the population of most developed nations neglect to recycle or reuse their clothes.
CHINA'S TEXTILE INDUSTRY
Tonnes of fibre a year
of global production
In response, efforts to incorporate eco or recycled fabrics are growing increasingly common. The likes of Patagonia, Armani, and Marks & Spencer are using polyester made from recycled drinks bottles, while more obscure efforts, such as Adidas’ ‘eco-sneakers’, incorporate ocean waste and illegal fishing nets. Others such as Dutch aWEARness and London-based LMB, while not necessarily household names, have made it their mission to close the loop entirely. The former makes clothes from 100 percent recyclable polyester, using 95 percent less water, 64 percent less energy and 73 percent lower carbon emissions during production than standard cotton, while the latter runs a 360-degree textile recycling service.
As much as these cases and others offer proof that companies are beginning to take heed of the threats of improper waste management, it’s only recently that consumers have been encouraged – if not directly incentivised – to play a part.
Closing the loop
The textile and apparel industry is one of the most polluting on Earth, but there are those companies taking the lead on circular economy principles. This is a new way of approaching raw materials and it, together with an emphasis on output recovery, has given rise to recyclable and all-round more sustainable products.
Fast fashion titan and industry stalwart H&M is approaching 100 percent circularity and harbours ambitions to ‘close the loop’. The brand in 2015 collected over 12,000 tonnes of garments – equivalent to over 60 million T-shirts – from shoppers to rewear, reuse or recycle. Levi Strauss does the same by encouraging its customers to bring back old clothes and shoes to be reused, repurposed or recycled by it and its partner I:CO.
Should others follow suit, discarded clothes in the future will not necessarily be considered ‘waste’ but resources. For now at least, a great deal more innovation is needed if we are to improve on recycling technologies and reach 100 percent efficiency. Deficiencies aside, the textile and apparel industry is in many ways representative of how reinterpreting the concept of waste could benefit us all. With product innovation, consumer education and more oversight in the supply chain, we could soon see our clothes reincarnated time and again.