Fast Fashion: Recycling No Panacea

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recently launched an inquiry into the social and environmental impact of disposable fast fashion and the wider clothing industry (see Sustainability of the fashion industry inquiry launched).

Regular readers might recall that the fashion industry is the second dirtiest industry there is–a topic I first explored in The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion. The environmental costs it imposes in the UK are huge– with more than 300,000 tonnes of textile waste  ending up each year in landfills, not to mention the microfibers produced by washing synthetic fibers polluting rivers, other waterways, and entering the food chain.

As The Guardian reported in MPs to examine environmental footprint of UK fashion industry:

Last year the fashion designer Stella McCartney condemned her own industry as “incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment.”

A report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation put the annual cost to the UK economy of landfilling clothing and household textiles at about £82m. It warned that if the global fashion industry continues on its current growth path, it could use more than a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.

Stuffing landfills is only part of the total global environmental impact of the UK’s fashion consumption patterns: as the country is no longer a major producer of textiles and apparel, most environmental costs of the production of textiles and apparel consumed in the UK are borne elsewhere.

Closer to home, competition from the global fast fashion industry has hurt working conditions for the country’s remaining domestic producers, according to the committee:

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in clothing that has been made in Britain. However there are concerns that the need for quick turn-around in the supply chain to facilitate the demand for “fast fashion” has led to poor working conditions in UK garment factories.

Broader Trend: The Empty Sustainability Mantra

The committee’s enquiry is part and parcel of a broader trend to examine the sustainability in fashion– an issue which has, I should point out, the industry itself has highlighted. Yet  as this British Vogue account, How Sustainable Is Your Wardrobe?, recognizes:

Much like the word “healthy” in relation to food, there are few trading standards that define what “sustainable” or “conscious fashion” actually mean. And until there are, greenwashing – the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice – is likely to be widespread across the industry and beyond.

Leaving aside the serious and legitimate concern as to exactly what sustainability means– one to which I may return in a future post– I’m pleased to see greater political attention to the problem. Otherwise, I fear that as I wrote in Fast Fashion Juggernaut Rolls Along, “[t]he fast fashion juggernaut just keeps rolling, rolling, rolling along.” According to The Guardian:

Despite recent troubles on the UK high street, the fashion sector has continued to grow. According to the British Fashion Council, the UK fashion industry contributed £28.1bn to national GDP in 2015, up from £21bn in 2009. But the globalised market for fashion manufacturing has facilitated a “fast fashion” phenomenon; a proliferation of cheap and cheerful clothing, with quick turnover that encourages consumers to keep buying, the [Commons] committee warns.

I noticed that one central committee focus appears to be on recycling and I’m afraid that emphasis is  wrong– and this problem is not limited to analysis of the fashion industry.  As I’ve written in the context of criticising the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy– mere recycling won’t solve plastics management problems (see EU Makes Limited Move on Plastics: Too Little, Too Late? and Plastics Pollution Policies– “Bold” or Pathetic?).

With respect to textile and apparel recycling, if anything, the problems are even more acute. First, there are significant technical problems involved in trying to reuse or recycle fibers. Second, most of the fast fashion articles are shoddily produced, and not intended to be long-lasting. The garments fall apart, meaning they cannot be passed along. Finally, as I discussed in my High Hidden Costs post, dumping of excessive fashion into developing country markets has harmed their domestic textile producers– so much so that some countries themselves say: enough already. These countries don’t want to participate in more recycling. The committee’s press release suggests it’s at least tangentially aware of this last point, “Charities have complained that second hand clothes can be exported and dumped on overseas markets. That seeming awareness leads me to ask, why then, so much emphasis on recycling as a solution to the problems fast fashion creates?

Industry to the Rescue?

As for the fashion industry itself, some producers are betting on millennials expressed willingness in surveys  to pay more for quality products to solve some of problems posed by fast fashion. But expecting that fairy to mitigate the industry’s destructive impact is itself not realistic. We may clap our hands, but Tinkerbell may elect not to appear. Or, as I said more prosaically in my Fast Fashion Juggernaut post:

There’s too much magical thinking going here along the lines that changed consumption patterns– whether based on geography or demographics– will somehow magically make the problem disappear…. just because Chinese and Indian consumers currently rank sustainability as a major concern does not mean that the global appetite for low-priced apparel that embeds huge environmental costs will necessarily shift much when these consumers account for a larger proportion of global demand.

Nor are the espoused preferences of millennials taking the bloom off of the fast fashion rose and shifting consumption patterns either…

The Bottom Line

Commitment to  “reduce, reuse, recycle” might mitigate the fashion industry’s environmental impact– particularly that of its fast fashion segment. While I’m pleased to see the Environmental Audit Committee’s commit to assess sustainability in this industry–much better to see some attention paid late, than never at all– undue emphasis on the third element in that triad– recycling– is misplaced. The problem is real, and serious, and warrants a more ambitious response.


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  1. sharonsj

    Shoddy manufacturing is not limited to clothing. It is especially terrible for appliances, heaters, etc. I try to avoid buying anything new because there’s no point. You can’t even get replacement parts.

    I spent $35 on an electric skillet at Walmart. The cats knocked it off the kitchen counter and one of the plasticized legs broke into pieces. When I called the number in the instruction booklet to get a replacement part (a very easy thing to do since the leg merely screwed into place), I discovered the manufacturer was “Walmart” and no replacement existed. My local hardware store helped me fashion new legs out of screws and various metal pieces for the grand total of $4. I will never make that mistake again in a Walmart.

    As for clothing, when a new silk blouse had 3 of the 5 buttons come off during the first wearing, I also swore I’d never make that mistake again either. All my clothes now come from thrift shops.

  2. Synoia

    Planned Obscelance comes to Women’s clothes.

    The solution? Become frugal. No you do NOT need 50 pairs of shoes.

    The problem is that the fashion industry exploits it’s customers, the majority of whom are women, by manipulation their insecurities.

    1. kareninca

      That may or may not work out overall economically for an individual. If you are female there really is often professional pressure to wear new clothing if you work in an office, and to always be wearing something different. Clothing is a topic of conversation; if you are not wearing something interesting you may be left out. It is part of the social conformity that is required by some workplaces; it is not a trivial problem. I really don’t see an easy way around that; the sense of insecurity is partly grounded in a real social/economic requirement. I avoid this by not working for pay, but if I did I could see the clothing cost taking a big chunk out of any pay I managed to take home.

      1. jrs

        definitely another option would be work in a male dominated office or field, yes people still need to look professional for work and thrift shop clothes may not always achieve that, but males really will not steer the conversation to clothes.

  3. Irrational

    The solution is to buy good-quality clothes and keep wearing them.
    Just kidding.
    In my experience, it is almost impossible to buy things without plastics in them – even the really expensive fashion names are no better, just pricier. And even then, hardly anyone caters to basics/classic wardrobe items anymore – I think the NC response is “feature, not a bug”.
    Very frustrating.

  4. kareninca

    My 93 y.o. father-in-law is not part of the problem. I cannot get him to relinquish a single piece of clothing. I do buy all-cotton myself (used, if possible, but it usually isn’t), and then wear it until it is old and ratty and then turn it into a cleaning rag. Same with my husband’s clothing. My parents do the same. But my father-in-law won’t even give up his old and ratty clothing. I guess we need another Great Depression in order to fix this.

    1. JTMcPhee

      The Great Depression repeat would not ‘fix” this, is my guess. Though one might hope that the experience of another Big One might be instructive — my parents and grandparents lived the real thing, and their mantra was, as I’ve written before,

      Eat it up.
      Wear it out.
      Make it do.
      Do without.

  5. Lunker Walleye

    In textiles classes they used to emphasize certain characteristics of fibers and weaves as a way of judging durability, longevity and comfort. Few care about longevity now and not many people want to iron. I’m also guessing that if one has never worn decently woven, quality natural fibers, one does not realize how good they feel compared to “plastic” fibers. Your dollars go a lot further in the long run with quality natural fibers but good luck finding them. Petroleum based fibers must be extremely well-suited for printing on with new technology and there are certainly a lot of innovative and artistic expressions and wonderful colors being used, but for classic pieces, give me wool, silk, cotton and cashmere — like “in the good ol’ days”.

    1. CanCyn

      And good luck being able to afford them! I find that there is no middle ground in fashion/pricing. It is cheap and cheerful, out of style in 5 minutes vs EXPENSIVE and still out of style rather quickly.
      I am lucky to be in a workplace that is somewhat casual, no skirts/dresses or shirts/ties expected. My wardrobe staple is jeans, I buy classic styles that last, which I can dress up with a jacket if need be. I try to shop the small/independent shops, stay out of the malls and when possible buy Canadian or US made but it is difficult and often expensive.
      I agree with the comment about people not ironing anymore, people look at me as though I have two heads when I mention ironing. A couple of people I work with don’t even own irons. No one knows how to mend tears or rips, do light alterations or replace buttons.
      I too am dismayed by the focus on recycle – as in all things, Reduce is the most important of the 3 Rs Reduce, Re-Use, Re-cycle. I actually find it easier not to have too many clothes, less choice = being more organized.
      Karenica – Maybe it comes with age and getting closer to retirement but I no longer care what others think about what I’m wearing. Try changing the water cooler talk to what you’re reading or something else.

      1. Lunker Walleye

        “I actually find it easier not to have too many clothes, less choice = being more organized.”

        That is well-put.

        We are fortunate to have a few re-sale shops here with high end goods that are affordable. And at the end of the season one department store deeply discounts clothing. I don’t buy much and purchase on sale or at used clothing stores. I wear what I like disregarding what is “fashionable” or “trending” and find it fun to do my own thing, especially with color. My depression-era Mother is my greatest inspiration when it comes to being creative and figuring out how to get along with little. Because I’m an artist, there has never been much mula except for the basic necessities, but life is “rich” anyhow.

  6. oaf

    How many times can fibers be recycled before they are trash? How much *new* fiber must be used with recycled to have acceptable performance and durability?

  7. The Rev Kev

    Used to have a neighbour that came originally from Lancashire which was the at the heart of material manufacturing. She reckoned that she had clothing made forty years earlier from there that was still holding up to wear and tear while the latest clothes were basically one-season wonders. If you read very old wills, you will find clothing being gifted on down as it was all in solid condition. These days you would take deceased clothing to a charity shop, if not the bin.

  8. wilroncanada

    50 years ago I used to buy all my shirts from a menswear store in Toronto, Hathaway brand, cotton broadcloth . there was nothing like them. Of course that was also the time of real cotton suit coats or blazers, and jeans made of real cotton. Now, it’s mostly thrift shops.

    About 15 years ago when we lived in Nova Scotia, we stopped at a store on the south shore that had bought all the leftover stock of a shoe manufacturer in Yarmouth that had ceased business. My middle daughter, who wears a very small size, 4 to 5 depending on make, was able to load up on vintage real leather shoes. the store owner was thrilled to find someone who could wear the small sizes that she gave my daughter a free pair for every two she bought on clearance. She got six pairs of high quality shoes for about $60.

    1. Keith Newman

      Hathaway brand clothes!! 55 years ago my father and I would drive down to Burlington, Vermont, from Montreal, and buy a ton of shirts and underwear from the Hathaway seconds outlet store. It was great fun. We’d stay at a hotel overnight, eat hot fudge sundaes at Howard Johnson’s, wear half a dozen shirts and underpants each going back over the border, and what we saved on the clothes paid for the trip!

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