By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Fashion is a notoriously dirty industry.
Its labour practices are abominable. And its environmental footprint is atrocious – especially its use of carbon, pesticides, plastics, and water.
As Grist reported in August in A scrappy solution to the fashion industry’s giant waste problem:
Considering the climate when it comes to our clothes is important since more than 60 percent of textile fibers are derived from fossil fuels (petrochemicals). On top of that, The United Nations estimated that the business of what we wear, including its long supply chains, is responsible for 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions heating our planet. As an industry, fashion uses up even more energy than aviation and shipping combined.
In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that individual Americans generated 16 million tons of textile waste. New Yorkers alone throw away 200,000 tons of clothes, linens, shoes, and accessories each year. Only about 15 percent of unwanted apparel ends up being recycled. The remaining 85 percent is burned or added to municipal landfills.
In recent years, the rise of “fast fashion”- cheap, on-trend clothing, generally of poor quality, intended to be worn a couple of times and then discarded – has exacerbated the industry’s environmental impact. Yet consumers have started to worry more about sustainability, and several fashion heavy hitters – luxury brands – have launched the Fashion Pact to address these concerns. Alas, as I wrote in Waste Watch: Big Fashion Embraces Sustainability? Ha! and Waste Watch: Fashion Stumbles on Sustainability, thus far this effort seems to be little-more than corporate greenwashing, fashion-style.
But there’s another trend I wash to discuss, partly driven by millennials. They tend to travel light, and are less interested in acquiring possessions. That includes clothing. They are aware of both of fast fashion’s environmental impact its quality concerns. But they don’t disdain fashion.
Solution: clothing rental. Now, this has long been an option for men, who can- and do – rent formal wear. Not so much in the UK, where black tie events are more common, so that many men acquire at least a dinner jacket. But certainly in the US. Renting rather than buying allows for some fashion abominations that wouldn’t exist if a chap had to lay out to buy that baby blue tux.
I will confess here that there were at one time pictures of my date for the Newton High School Class of ’79 junior prom, held in the spring of 1978, outfitted in a baby blue tux, alongside moi, wearing one of those floaty Gunne Sax “long dresses” that were à la mode in the 1970s. But I believe I managed to destroy all photo evidence – or at least I intercepted the pix. And I can’t resist sharing a factoid I just stumbled upon in this article in the wonderfully-named website Man Repeller, A Surprising Spring Dress Trend I Wholly Endorse:
Gunne Sax is a now-defunct clothing label founded in 1967 that specialized in Victorian and Edwardian-style designs. It’s no coincidence the brand began the same year as the Summer of Love; in an article for Vogue.com, writer Laird Borrelli-Persson quotes Gunne Sax partner-turned-owner Jessica McClintock, who said that these dresses were “a stamp” among hippies of the era. And! Hillary Rodham Clinton even wore one when she married Bill in 1975.
Back to my main point.
Options for women’s rentals? Much less so. But if you think about it, it does make sense for women to rent rather than buy formal wear – as the convention for women is certainly not to wear the same gown, year after year, season after season. Women are expected to vary what they wear, and stay aware of current styles. Whereas a standard men’s dinner jacket can last and look au courant for many years. (There are exceptions, e.g., wide ’70’s lapels)
Enter Rent the Runway, a service that allows women to rent formal wear and designer duds, touts its green credentials, and is now valued at more than $1 billion. Other retailers: Banana Republic, Bloomingdale’s, H & M, Urban Outfitters have joined the party (see this Refinery29 account,H&M For Rent? The Company Is Testing A Service To Tackle Environmental Concerns).
But as Eugene Rabkin wrote in a recent Business of Fashion piece, Op-Ed | Buy, Don’t Rent: The Virtues of Owning Clothes:
First, rental’s sustainability credentials are suspect. No one knows the real footprint that rental companies leave when they dry-clean, package and ship mountains of clothes, a cycle that has to be repeated after each and every garment has been rented, even if it hasn’t been worn.
“There is no thorough research to support the notion that subscription rental platforms are inherently sustainable. We need more data on their shipping and dry cleaning impacts,” says Elizabeth Cline, the author of two books on clothing consumption, Overdressed and The Conscious Closet, and who in a recent article for Elle questioned whether the clothing rental business was, in fact, sustainable.
The problem as Rabkin sees it is that the sharing economy promotes mindless overconsumption (just as the standard, neoliberal everyone out for her or himself economy does). He instead recommends buying less, paying more, and holding garments longer.
Just another way of saying Reduce and Reuse really.
NYC Tackles Commercial Fashion Waste
Notice that Rabkin doesn’t doesn’t rest much on the third element of the three-R mantra: recycle. Readers know I’m no fan of the recycling fairy, who’s a key player in the fashion fantasyworld. One sad and not widely known consequences of the rise of fast fashion and the desire of some consumers to do something about waste is to dump it in the third world. Even if, as indicated above, Americans only recycle 15% of their textile waste, that’s still a massive amount of waste. Not to mention that other countries – the UK – do the very same thing.
Which has overwhelmed the textile markets in the places waste is dumped. And destroyed local textile production. So much so that some countries don’t want any more of our textile rubbish (see The High Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion, for my discussion on a proposed ban on secondhand clothing imports to East African states).
The August grist piece does address one positive recycling development: the FABSCRAP nonprofit textile recycling program. I crossposted another article in August, this from the Independent Media Institute, FabScrap Tackles Fashion Waste, about the same initiative.
Now, this isn’t your typical consumer recycling initiative, all well-meant and feel good, but with unfortunate consequences. According to the IMI crosspost:
Under New York City law, if your commercial waste is more than 10 percent textile, it must be recycled. Globally, nearly 75 percent of materials used to produce clothing are sentto to a landfill or destroyed. Less than 1 percent of old clothing is actually used to make new clothing
Despite the city law, for many years there was no convenient or easy way to recycle textiles, and reams of fabric scrap and trim didn’t really fit with the second-hand store model.
The industry churns through swatches, samples, reams, trims, patches, yarns, and more, and a lot of waste is produced. Another unfortunate byproduct is guilt: The industry has stories of people hoarding scraps out of guilt of not wanting to throw them away.
The solution? Again, over to IMI:
So, Jessica Schreiber founded FabScrap, the world’s first and so far only fashion industry recycling warehouse.
Sixty percent of what FabScrap takes in is reused— much of it un-recyclable. For example, spandex and elastane aren’t fibers. They’re additives to the fiber. In the recycling shredding process, these additives melt and destroy the shredding machine. “It’s really problematic,” says Schreiber.
Many textiles that have petroleum-derived products in them, including spandex, acrylic, and polyester, are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle. (Ninety-eight million tons of oil wereused in the textile industry in 2015. By 2050, that number is expected to be 300 million.)
FabScrap takes those textiles in, and some of it is then sold online, in scrap packs, and in one-pound packs sorted by color—all has 1 percent or more of spandex. “Those scraps are popular,” says Schreiber. “The smaller pieces tend to be the pieces with spandex. It draws attention that there needs to be more solutions.”
Of the fabric they receive, says Schreiber, 40 percent is recycled. “So far this year, we’ve shredded 46,000 pounds” of textiles.
While they separate out 100 percent cotton scrap that gets reused, the smaller pieces will get shredded.
For fashion students, home sewers, quilters, and artists, FabScrap is a gold mine of high-quality fabric at dollar store prices. For the designers who are starting out, it’s a huge resource.
“Our goal is to give away as much fabric as we sell,” says Schreiber. “If there is a non-profit needing fabric, we’ll give them what they need.”
Schreiber’s background is in waste management, previously working with New York’s Re-FashioNYC program where she learned about the fashion industry and realized the thrift store model really didn’t work for it.
The sheer value of really beautiful material that would go to landfills for slight blemishes, including full cowhides, interesting patches, and fabric with interesting patterns and designs, shocked her.
One piece FabScrap received as waste has 24k gold thread woven in, a piece now framed and on display on Schreiber’s desk.
What Is to Be Done?
I do a fair amount of textile recycling and repurposing. Through my work on my textile book, I have acquired far more items than I need. But I don’t generally give things to charities or impersonal textile drives. Instead, I give apparel away to people I know can use it when I tire of things – or when I see someone has a greater need for something than I do.
I buy lots of high quality fabric – again, as a consequence of my textile research. Most of this I have made into apparel by a trusted tailor (Gurdeep Singh, with a shop on Free School Street in Calcutta). He cuts carefully and tosses none of the “waste” away. I have a friend – an English solicitor – who is an avid quilter and visits India occasionally. I save my small scraps for her, and when I know she’s in India – or I or someone I know is headed to the UK – I see that my textile scraps get transferred.
Now, I understand not everyone is as well-supplied with textiles as I am. Nor, for that matter, as compulsive about trying to minimize textile waste.
There are, however, steps to reduce one’s textile waste that everyone can take. So let me close by repeating some suggestions from the IMI article:
Here are tips for reducing your own fashion waste:
- Stop buying plastic and other synthetic or petroleum-based clothing.
- Invest in pieces that last longer.
- Learn to tailor and mend, or find someone in your community who can and work with them so your clothing can be part of your wardrobe for a longer period of time.
- Read the labels on the clothing you want to buy. Often a product marketed as “Made with 100 percent organic cotton” is really an organic cotton-spandex-acrylic-polyester blend.
- Learn how to properly care for your clothing (and blankets and sheets and curtains, etc.) so it lasts and is meaningful to you. Proper cleaning, spot removal, and drying techniques can keep your textiles looking good for longer.
- Learn about the regenerative fiber movement of local producers of natural fibers, including wool and hemp, and support a co-op or local business making and selling clothing, textiles, winter wear, and more using natural, locally made fibers.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Repair. (see my previous post, Four Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and…Repair.)