Cloths Waste

Where do our clothes go?

In the United Kingdom more than 2 tonnes of clothing is bought each minute. I still struggle to wrap my brain around this figure. That is the weight of one hippopotamus, each minute. How are we not drowning in clothes?

It’s a desperate cycle from cheap prices to quick replacements. Once you’re part of this cycle, it is very difficult to get off it. But if you can recycle the clothes, or send them to a charity shop, we can have a guilt-free conscience. 


Well, like with many things in life, the answer is more complicated.

Fast fashion uses non-renewable resources including materials extracted from petroleum to make clothing that look great on the hanger but only lasts a few washes. A lot of resources go into creating clothing, including water. These materials are made in developing nations where water can be a precious resource. 

But we all outgrow our clothes, adults and children alike. We don’t all have the luxury to buy from local makers, or even afford to. We might need to make a quick purchase and can’t afford to save up over a period of time. But why can’t we recycle our clothing?

Well the answer is in the fine print - or in this case, the small details, embellishments and even the stitches in the fabrics. Starting with the fabric, this can be a blend of 2 or more fibres. This is often necessary, think of your skinniest skinny jeans, they need help stretching to fit - you don’t want to wear a wetsuit when it rains but you need materials with some water resistant qualities and therein lies the problem. But even a 100% natural single-source-material t-shirt is hard to recycle. The stitching, the labels, the buttons, the thread, the dyes and sequins all need to be separated in order to recycle a garment.

Currently many recycled fabrics come from non-clothing items that are recycled. This is because when clothing is recycled it produces shorter fibres that are not suitable for garments but could be used to make carpets or rugs. This also depends on the quality of your clothing to begin with. What is the old saying, you can’t milk a rock.

If you can’t recycle, what about donating? 

Numerous items of clothing are simply dumped into bags and donated. Our pre-loved items can find a great home but many don’t. Lorraine Needham Reid, a manager at Oxfam for 10years, says that over the past 10 years there has been a decline in the quality of the garments given to their charity, especially in the materials used. So what happens to the clothing this particular charity receives? 1-3% go back to second hand shops in the UK to be resold. Roughly 30% go to their partners in Senegal. The rest gets torn up and used as industrial cleaning clothes or used as stuffing for various items. A sad ending to the life of an item worn adoringly - at least for a short while. 

Without Oxfam’s caring volunteers and staff, this process would not be worth the labour. This often happens with reusing/recycling any material. The labour cost of sorting, cleaning, shredding and remaking is often not worth it to companies. It is, surprisingly, cheaper to manufacture virgin products and dump the old materials. At least, this is true at the time of writing. The future may hold increased taxation on pollution and polluting processes for many businesses as part of a green movement. 

That would require galvanising parliament so don’t hold your breath waiting for politicians!

Short from starting a nudist colony, we appear to be stuck in our old ways. But this trend might be changing - though we are still in the early stages of change. With many people moving towards greener, more sustainable materials, we are seeing an outpour of new labels that go beyond greenwashing and practice what they preach. As this market grows, we are seeing more investment and this is bringing them out of the fringes and towards the spotlight. 

So what exactly is changing? 

Garments made with recycled materials or even new innovative materials such as bio-materials break the initial chainlink of the fashion waste industry. Recycled materials are made from a variety of items, such as old fishing nets and plastic. However there can be a lot of greenwashing to wade through. Choosing smaller companies that are more transparent is one solution. Bio-materials are derived from plants where the protein (cellulose) is developed through a unique process to create a fabric/material. They include plant-leather (cactus, apple, pineapple…) and softer fabrics like that made from eucalyptus pulp, coconut fibres, mushroom enzymes and even milk! 

There are more businesses setting up on-site water recycling facilities. Bringing down the cost of these machines would really help water-poor, struggling communities, as well as being a step towards cleaner, safer drinking water.

Ethical brands are placing an emphasis on the working conditions where garments are fabricated. Often, this means the product is made locally and comes with a certain price tag. Hardly readily accessible, but the issue here might actually lie in the wages and government legislation favouring ethical practises over the exploitative. 

Many companies are now taking the first steps towards breaking our relationship with fast fashion. There is an increasing demand for cruelty-free materials, ethically made into durable garments, but beware of the fine print. With every wave of progress, there are those who wish to capitalise on it. 

Image by: M.D.Salman @unsplash

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