According to a global estimate by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, one truckload of textiles is being burned or buried every second, so the task of establishing a circular fashion economy is recognized as crucial.
The charity calculates that the misuse and failure to recycle clothing costs the global economy more than $500bn (£420bn) a year. The long-term cost to the area can be much greater. Microplastics shed from the synthetic fibers in our clothes are found in human blood, placenta and, more recently, in Antarctic ice.
Developments such as the EU’s 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan and the UK’s 2020 Circular Economy Package have spurred many fashion retailers into action. The European Union’s Sustainable and Circular Textiles Strategy, published in March, emphasized the need for a reliable long-term sustainability, recycling and waste management strategy for the industry. In June, Boris Johnson pledged £80m in public funding to help establish a “circular fashion model”.
But critics of the fashion industry’s historically corrupt practices argue that ‘weight’ has become a myth.
Garment take-back programs have become central to the sector’s weight movement. The charity’s Waste and Resources Action Plan (Wrap) said schemes such as H&M, M&S and Primark prevented 620,000 tonnes of used textiles from ending up in British landfills in 2018. Recycling and Repair collected 18,800 tonnes of unwanted clothing in 2020 – the equivalent of 94 million T-shirts.
“Rental, resale, renovation and repair have the potential to account for 23 percent of the global fashion market by 2030, a $700 billion opportunity,” said Juliet Lennon, program manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Retailers work with white label services such as Yellow Octopus and i:CO, which categorize clothes for reuse or recycling based on their material properties and condition. In theory, such innovations are welcome, but not all the collected clothes are suitable for both processes. I:CO, a partner in H&M’s take-back program, reports that 8% of what it receives is either non-reusable or cannot be recycled, so it must be incinerated soon.
More worryingly, a study published by Greenpeace in April found that no more than 30% of used clothes end up in the donation country. Much of the rest is shipped to countries in the Global South, where it often ends up in “massive landfills, open fires, riverbanks and washed into the sea.”
The Kantamanto Market in Accra, Ghana illustrates the extent of this problem. About 15 million garments enter the market every week. Some of these can be used to support the local textile industry, but researchers estimate that 40% of the goods are of poor quality and are considered worthless upon arrival, or are buried or burned.
Viola Wolgemuth, a campaigner at Greenpeace Germany, said countries like Ghana “don’t have the infrastructure to deal with the huge amount of textiles that are coming in, even though they are all recyclable.”
Large-scale dumping of unwanted textiles is creating a socio-economic and environmental crisis for local communities. The waste is a health hazard, as decomposition not only releases microfibers into waterways, but also produces dangerous amounts of methane gas.
Moving clothes from one country to another is by no means circular. The practice is easily transferred to a region with limited capacity to handle the burden and weak environmental regulations. For example, Chile has long been a destination for used and unsold clothing from all over the world. The port city of Iquique receives about 60,000 tons a year, but less than half is bought by traders for resale. The rest is simply dumped in huge mounds in the Atacama desert, where it can take two centuries to biodegrade.
Wohlgemuth recounts a recent visit to Gikomba, Kenya, where she walked along the banks of the Nairobi River and noticed the abundance of textile waste, where clothes fall off and are swept to the bottom. It is no wonder that such experiences lead to the conclusion that “the system is not working.”
Transparency is key to encouraging participation in any sustainability initiative. A recent survey by Wrap found that 42% of consumers considered it important to know the destination of their donated clothing.
“When people return clothes, they expect these items to be reused, to raise money for charity or to benefit people in need,” says Wohlgemuth. “You don’t expect to find yourself in a huge, overflowing landfill in Africa.”
Some retailers run incentive programs that offer customers discounted vouchers for donating used clothing, but such initiatives have drawn criticism for fueling more consumption, which is counter to the circular economy. Wohlgemuth argued that “there was little evidence of intended reduction in fashion flow—a prerequisite for any meaningful weighting test.”
Consumers should proceed with caution when donating clothing or purchasing ‘sustainable’ clothing made from recycled polyester, she said. Regulations such as the Competition and Markets Authority’s Green Claims Code are designed to prevent companies from making misleading statements, but “most claims of circularity are greenwashing.” Less than 1% of clothing produced is made from recycled textiles.
Sarah Gray, senior textile analyst at Wrap, advises companies to “build strong evidence that they can verify details on recycled content to prove that their claims about circularity are true”.
True and effective circular initiatives require higher levels of reporting on supply chain risks. Effective monitoring systems; Investment in technology to enhance transparency; and legal collection procedures.
Lennon believes that “economic and regulatory incentives are needed to increase the viability of circular business models, as voluntary commitments by industry leaders alone will not achieve the required scale.”
Retailers should also focus on consistency. Any organization that is part of the circular movement about plastic packaging but does not publicly disclose the amount of synthetic material in their collections should reconsider its approach. Doing so will be key to its long-term survival.
Unclear reverse logistics operations and half-hearted circularity moves are leaving companies vulnerable to a host of ESG risks – and investors, if not consumers, are watching closely.