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Blog January 2023

Does recycling really make fast fashion circular?

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Courtney Garahee

Digital Marketing Specialist

Constant new designs and the appeal of cheap bargains ensure the fast fashion industry is growing rapidly - with serious environmental consequences. As consumer demand spirals, the recycling industry has stepped up, but is textile recycling enough to make fast fashion a functioning part of the circular economy?

What is fast fashion?

Every season, the fast fashion industry churns out hundreds of designs in response to high end brands, as well as producing many of its own. Behind the scenes, fast fashion is encouraged to boost sales and in addition to the lure of new designs, constant incentives like seasonal sales or promotions can make it hard for consumers to resist.

Gradually, the environmental impact of this model is becoming apparent. As a design student, I noticed a growing push to reuse materials, and monitor waste, yet design for durability was still notably lacking.

Now that I find myself at the heart of the environmental services industry, with its focus on sustainability and the circular economy, the problems of the fast fashion industry appear even more stark. So, as the amount of textile waste increases, and calls for re-use intensify, I wonder whether it’s time for the fashion industry to finally start creating clothes designed to last?

How much textile waste is produced?

The textile industry is responsible for about 92 million tons of waste per year ending up in landfill or being . That’s enough to fill one and a half Empire State Buildings every day.

Constant consumer demand for fast, affordable fashion has grown dramatically over the years and does not seem to be slowing down. As it stands, the fashion industry is the second largest industrial polluter with 1.2 billion tons of carbon emissions released every year. This means the industry accounts for 10% of global pollution.

In fact, textile waste is the fastest growing waste industry worldwide with 11.3 million tons of clothing in the US and 300,000 tons in the UK making it to landfill annually.

Waste in the textile industry comes in two forms, pre-consumer, and post-consumer, both of which are equally harmful to the natural environment.

Pre-consumer waste consists of fabric/yarn waste created during the production phase and chemical waste from the manufacture of manmade textiles. In addition to the significant use of resources, many garments will also be incinerated due to poor organization in the production phase.

Post-consumer textile waste centers on overconsumption within the fashion retail industry and the short lifecycle of garments. The demand for fast fashion has grown exponentially in recent years and can only be slowed down with a dramatic change in attitudes and buying behaviors.

How are fashion brands responding?

According to the Fast Fashion Global Market Report for 2022, 'the fast fashion market is expected to grow to $133.43 billion in 2026'.

With this growth comes an increase in textile waste and demand for resources to provide the never-ending supply of the latest trends at affordable prices. For most fast fashion brands, their carbon footprint is among the many growing concerns surrounding their approach to the manufacture and distribution of goods, with other issues including working conditions on the production line, poor living wages and labor-intensive working hours.

One company at the forefront of poor ethical and sustainable practices is online retailer, Shein, known for churning out approximately 1,000 units of cheap fast fashion daily, but also for their exploitation of production workers. According to SupplyChainDive, Shein’s operations for 2021 produced 6.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

In terms of textile waste, the primary issue with Shein’s product offering is the short life cycle of each garment. The majority of fabric used by the likes of Shein, H&M and Zara is polyester, a mass produced synthetic and non-renewable textile. The production of polyester for the fashion industry accounts for a whopping one-fifth of the plastic produced globally and contributes massively to plastic pollutants within our environment.

For these brands to make lasting positive change, they need to decarbonize their supply chain and look for ways to recycle or reuse textiles throughout production and retail.

What can consumers do? Rethink, Reduce and Re-Use

For consumers looking to make positive environmental change, it’s essential to think beyond recycling textiles as unfortunately this often means materials are dumped in developing countries, leading to poor environmental outcomes.

You may think that by recycling unwanted garments you are doing your part, but the reality is that developing countries are being used as global ‘dumping grounds’ for textile waste. In just one day, 65 to 70 truckloads of textile waste ends up dumped, burnt or sent to overflowing dumps in the Global South.

Recycling is the wrong solution. Instead, we need to concentrate on the other R’s including Reducing the amount we buy and promoting Re-Use.

As consumers, it’s important to remember that change is not always effected at a macro level. Collectively, we can make positive changes to the fast fashion footprint by becoming more conscious of our buying patterns, as well as our approach to textile waste.

  • Reduction – Buy less and invest in better quality/natural textiles
  • Durability – Extend the lifespan of your clothing by purchasing longer lasting/non synthetic materials such as cotton or wool.
  • Rental services – rent clothes for one off special occasions such as weddings or themed parties.
  • Choose to buy from sustainable, ethical brands or second hand where you can validate sustainability credentials
  • Shop pre-loved garments like vintage
  • Donate or Repurpose textiles to avoid landfill, ensuring any donated textiles are being repurposed ethically rather than dumped abroad.
  • Recycle unwanted textiles – various brands offer textile recycling including H&M, Tk Maxx and Levis.

In addition to big brand recycling schemes, you can make a difference by researching local initiatives closer to home. In Ireland, the CRNI have developed an initiative to donate textile waste funded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s program for Green Enterprise: Innovation for a Circular Economy.

Vito Vintage Limerick, Ireland

Designing clothes for durability

When it comes to design, most consumers aren’t looking for longevity. The cost of a garment is usually the main factor when choosing to buy, however, lower prices are often indicative of quality and in turn result in little to no longevity.

Fashion retailer, Patagonia is trying to break this pattern of behaviour by designing for durability and promoting sustainable practices within consumer culture. As a result all of Patagonia’s annual profit is used to fight climate change and in fact, founder, Yvon Chouinard, recently sold the company to a non-profit organization to support attempts to combat climate change and protect environmental landscapes globally.

This innovative approach to reducing environmental impact extends from product design, through materials sourcing, to product aftercare. As an example, the company recently implemented a program that promotes the repair, reuse, and ethical recycling of its products. The Patagonia Worn Wear initiative also works to sell worn or used clothing with shipping costs covered by Patagonia to incentivize consumers to take part.

Re-imagining the fashion industry by taking a different approach to buying patterns will have a significant impact in the long term. Re-use is another area where promoting consumer change can make a big difference, with both global and local retailers able to effect change. Below are just a few of the rental options I have spotted:

By making a conscious effort to reduce consumption and exploring new models like rental services, retailers and consumers can aid the reduction of mass textile waste.

Get ready for the new textiles economy

With so much at stake, the fashion industry cannot remain in its current form. As the world transitions to a circular economy and initiatives such reuse and rental become more common, we can expect to see the emergence of a new textiles economy.

In its report on fashion and the circular economy, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation explains what this might look like, describing a system that relies on:

  • New business models that increase garment use
  • Safe and renewable materials
  • Solutions so used clothes are rejuvenated

These changes deliver huge potential, not only for the fashion industry, but also for the textile waste industry. With purpose-built software for waste and recycling operators, AMCS can help you embrace that potential.

Our expertise already supports some of the leading textile recyclers, and now with our environmental, social, governance (ESG) solutions we also work with fashion and sports brands including Adidas, the second largest sports article manufacturer in the world.

So, as the new textiles economy emerges, AMCS stands ready to help you accelerate sustainability, because although fast fashion may be running out of steam, the race towards a circular economy is only just beginning.

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