Waste in fashion

Aktualizováno: 24. 1. 2019

Change our shopping habits? I don't think so. So what do we do?

Waste. It really is everywhere, including the fashion industry.

So what are we going to talk about today? You guessed it- our beloved waste. This time, about the waste that is created in the fashion industry. It’s a pretty hot issue right now. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has recently published a report which reveals the numbers related to waste in the fashion industry. In other words, how much clothing is thrown away every year, every minute and every second. And yes, you've guessed it right again- these numbers are terrifying. We’ve finally realized that waste is not only the plastic bottle in the ocean or the chocolate bar wrapper on the street, but clothes as well. The problem exists and we are now starting to search for ways to tackle it. But where does all this waste come from?

I am no expert, but something tells me that the main problem would be the significant rise of fast fashion. In the past few years, the number of cheap apparel retailers offering clothing for more-than-affordable prices has grown substantially. The problem with these chains is that they mostly offer only seasonal pieces- clothes that will be out-of-fashion by the end of the year. You might be lucky to find that they are “in” again in a couple of years, but by that time they most likely will have ended up in the clothing recycling container or worse, in a landfill. “Seasonality” is one thing, but the other is quality. We would be foolish to suppose that something that originally costs 4 EUR and 2 EUR on sale will last more than two years. So we throw away and shop, and shop and throw away, not to mention the marketing and media pressure of the big brands, Instagram, fashion bloggers and other things. Simply, the pressure is on. Let's consume to the max, and then throw away. I have this little theory that we don't perceive throwing clothes away as something bad, because contrary to food and packaging waste, it is not something sticky, dirty or simply ugly. Food and packaging waste recall rather negative emotions, but an old t-shirt or jeans? There's nothing really negative about it, right…?

Until recently, most people (myself included) have thought that when we put something we don't wear anymore into a container for clothes, we will be forgiven for our consumer sin. The same thing happens when people who recycle think they are basically saving our planet. Well, don't let yourself be fooled. Of course, it is great to recycle and collect old clothes, but the problem is that we produce too much waste, no matter if it is packaging or clothes. When it comes to the containers for clothes, the supply of the collected apparel is far bigger than the demand for it. What’s even worse is that this year, most East African countries, some of the main importers of used clothes, banned these imports in order to boost their own textile industry. Hm, so I won't buy an Abercrombie jersey on a market in Tanzania ever again (true story). But seriously, actions like these have disrupted efforts of not wasting too much, as the clothes that might have been reworn are simply being thrown away now. Last but not least, I have to mention that the big problem here is also the fact that the disposed textile is basically not recycled at all. The industry is therefore purely linear: make-use-throw away. This is wrong. The right model is make-use-recycle-use again.

So what now? Do we change our shopping habits and switch from fast fashion to slow fashion? Do we buy one quality, beautiful t-shirt for a higher price that will last at least 5 years versus buying many cheap t-shirts whose lifetime is less than 1 year? The former seems like a rational and better bargain in the end, not to mention how much better these clothes look on you. I'm not saying that the clothes from H&M don't look good (I would be a hypocrite, since half of my closet is from there), but you have to admit that the high-quality, well-designed and original pieces look different and, most importantly, they are not worn by thousands of other people. But let's be honest with ourselves, who is this rational? And if you earn the average wage, it's not that easy to dish out a couple hundred euros just to buy a t-shirt, no matter how budget-friendly it ultimately is. Then, there's the convenience of the fast fashion chains: OMG, I need a basic white tank top RIGHT NOW, so what do I do?! I go to H&M or Zara, of course! I buy it for 4 euros and it's done. Last but not least, there's the emotional aspect of shopping (at least among women). Sometimes we want to buy something just for the pleasure of it. Bad day at work? Gloomy weather? Or, contrarily, beautiful weather? Work promotion? And there's a sale at Zara? Don’t hesitate! You’ll only wear it twice? Who cares? The most important thing is the feeling you get when leaving the store with a paper bag in your hand. So, let’s go back to the question of whether a change of shopping habits seems to be a realistic solution. I don't think so.

The second option is much more realistic though. What if the clothing chains made some effort themselves? After all, they are the ones who produce all the textile that later becomes waste. Most people probably don't know, but many big chains have already started changing for the better. Take the aforementioned H&M, for instance. They've had the sustainable collection called Conscious for a long time, which is made from organic cotton. In order to show that sustainable fashion can also be pretty, and even beautiful, they create a new Conscious Exclusive collection every year. It is high fashion at its best, but made from sustainable materials. I was invited for its launch here in Prague with my colleague, and I have to say that it's indeed gorgeous. I chose a wedding gown, a skirt and two blouses...so yes, the creators definitely managed to prove that eco-friendly fashion doesn't necessarily need to be just plain cotton t-shirts. Apart from that, the Swedish chain develops new materials such as Bionic, which is a polyester made out of recycled plastic waste from the seashore. What I like the most though is their project called Garment Collecting. They've installed bins in the stores where you can drop off the clothes you don't wear anymore (they don’t need to only be from H&M, of course) in exchange for a small discount on your next purchase. After that, the clothes are sorted out and further reused as second hand clothing, recycled for the textile fibres or for the production of rags or cleaning cloths. It's a nice loop, isn't it? It is not only H&M of course. The person who is most linked to circularity in fashion is Stella McCartney. Then, there's Adidas with their Parley collection of sneakers made from recycled ocean plastic waste. G-Star Raw has the most sustainable jeans ever. Outdoor gear brand Patagonia has a second hand clothing concept...and there will certainly be more. Sustainability is in, after all.

However, these efforts are not flawless. The sceptics often call them as "green washing" - even though the big brands try to do something, their business model remains the same, and that is constantly change the sortiment and sell. As much as possible.

What is the solution then? The fashion industry as a whole should aim to establish a circular model, where waste serves as a resource. This is a long-term mission which requires the creation of appropriate infrastructure such as containers for the collection of used textiles as well as a recycling system.  

Before this circular system is created though, let's not forget to behave responsibly. Let's not buy what we don't need, let's support the brands who care about sustainability, and let's put the clothes we don't wear anymore somewhere where they are put to further use.

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