We live in a disposable society. It’s easier to throw things out than to fix them. We even give it a name – we call it recycling. —Neil LaBute
Sitting near my back door are two trash bags full of clothing waiting to be donated to … something. We’ve thought about different charities, but looking into them we were disappointed by the number of clothes still ending up in landfills. There are a few stores around that will give you store credit (minimal as it may be) for donating your used clothing to them, but they still end up throwing much of those donations into the incinerator. Actual recycling of clothes doesn’t happen as much as we’d like to think.
As we prepare for the onslaught of new clothing that arrives with the beginning of a month of fashion weeks, we need to stop and take a moment to consider what we’re doing with the things we cast off. As (hopefully) wonderful new designs come down the runway, we’re likely to see a lot that we want hanging in our closets. The problem is that our closets are already full. Our dresser drawers are already overflowing. Before we buy new, we have to make space by tossing out the old.
Some people religiously donate to charitable resale shops. Others try to make a dime back at consignment shops. Too many others don’t want to be bothered and simply throw things in the trash. In doing so, as much as we might think we’re doing something good, we are creating a problem.
Fast Fashion Is A Dirty Business
We’ve talked about it before, how much fast fashion generates more clothing than can be worn. By some accounts, fast fashion is the second dirtiest business in the world. Only the oil industry produces more pollution. For the better part of the past decade, environmentalists have warned about the tremendous impact of fashion’s overwhelming waste. Between the harsh chemicals used in fabric production and the amount of material deposited in landfills, the negative impact of fashion is greater than its economic benefit.
And that’s not even taking into consideration the immoral use of animal hide and fur.
Both the producer and the consumer are at fault. Garment manufacturers are under pressure to produce materials at increasingly lower costs in order to feed fast fashion’s discount-oriented machine. Recycling these materials is difficult because the chemicals used in their creation destroys fibers making it difficult for stitching to hold up over any length of time. Fabrics begin to fray, become discolored, and start to fall apart after only a few washings.
Consumers don’t treat clothes any better. We use fabric softeners and harsh laundry detergents that not only pollute the water but further erode the quality of the fabrics. Simply by trying to maintain our clothes we are destroying them. Then, not liking the damaged condition of our wardrobe, we throw them away, by the ton. We don’t even consider recycling in many cases because the condition of the clothing is just too poor.
A Possible Solution
Answers to big problems sometimes come from unlikely sources. In this case, one of fast fashion’s leading retailers, H&M, is at least trying to find sustainable solutions. An article in WWD yesterday takes a look at the retailer’s efforts at recycling used clothing by turning them into new fashion. H&M partnered with the London College of Fashion in creating a contest urging design students to use donated materials as the central element in a capsule collection.
Fabrics for the project came from H&M’s policy of allowing customers to bring in castoff clothing, regardless of origin. The program, which began in 2012, promises consumers a discount on a single item in the store in exchange for their donation. Shoppers are told that their donations will be recycled or used for new garments. The contest is an important step toward fulfilling that promise.
33 teams participated in the project aiming to waste no material in the production of new fashion. Eight winners were announced, though there is no mention as to whether any of the collections might be considered for production. The message sent to design students, however, was pretty clear: recycling materials gets you hard-to-find attention.
Will It Really Work
Cecilia Brännsten, H&M’s sustainability business expert, told WWD:
We will need a holistic approach to circularity. It will include the whole life cycle from design, what chemicals we put into our products, material choice, production processes and new ways of enjoying fashion by reuse, rental, and repair.
Such an attitude is necessary if fast fashion is going to survive. Without it, there is a place in the near future where the mountains of cast-off and unsold clothing become a burden that cannot be ignored. The current model of fast fashion is simply not sustainable.
However, recycling solutions require consumer participation at a much higher degree than what is currently taking place. While we are pleased to see design students thinking of recycling, making the leap from contests to actual production requires that those mountains of clothes be available to garment manufacturers rather than in landfills. If consumers don’t participate in recycling programs, there is no source for the new designs.
Doing Your Part
I’m going to stop short of actually endorsing H&M’s clothing donation program. I think it is going to take more than a one-time 15% discount for them to procure enough usable fabric to actually turn recycling into a viable fabric source.
At the same time, though, those who shop fast fashion retailers like H&M need to share in the burden of finding a sustainable solution to all the waste they’re creating. Perhaps if there were a requirement for shoppers to donate at least one item before buying a new one then recycling programs might stand a chance. I don’t see that happening, though, as it would cut into the impulse shopping that accounts for the majority of fashion purchases in the first place. Consumers, people like you and me, have to be motivated to do more.
Unfortunately, if a problem isn’t causing us adverse pain we tend to not care about being part of the solution. We want other people to do the work for us. Too many people think that their participation doesn’t matter. If we’re going to put a dent in the amount of fashion waste created then we all have to participate in recycling programs, whether at H&M or elsewhere. Stop putting fabric in the trash. Either find a way to reuse materials yourself or make it available to someone who can.
I sincerely believe H&M and other fashion retailers want to be responsible. Doing so is good for their bottom line. Nothing changes without your participation, however. You need to be fashion responsible. Before you swipe your credit card for that new Dior blazer, consider donating something from your closet to a recycling project. We’ll all be better for it.