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The problem with fast fashion and need for recycled textiles

I’m sharing and expanding on the article “No One Wants Your Old Clothes” from MSN (via Newsweek) about fast fashion. Fast fashion caused environmental problems like huge amounts of waste going to landfills. The need for recycled textiles known as “closed loop technology” might help.  Human rights issues with sweatshop labor and hazardous working conditions are also major issues. I’ll leave that to the Social Justice warriors and focus on the environmental aspects we can work on as individuals.

This part almost sounds like a song lyric:

Picture yourself with a trash bag of old clothes you’ve just cleaned out of your closet. You think you could get some money out of them, so you take them to a consignment or thrift store, or sell them via one of the new online equivalents, like ThredUp. But they’ll probably reject most of your old clothes, even the ones you paid dearly for, because of small flaws or no longer being in season.

I buy most clothes used from ThredUp, Poshmark, ebay, or Vinted due to my own thriftiness. I also accumulate clothes being a packrat, but sell/donate when I can. Sustainable and eco-friendly clothing companies charge more, so secondhand is my preferred option. There’s no easy solution – buying used reduces the amount of clothes headed to landfills. Fast fashion encourages consumers to purchase and toss clothing at a fast rate:

With fast fashion speeding up trends and shortening seasons, your clothing is quite likely dated if it’s more than a year old. Many secondhand stores will reject items from fast-fashion chains like Forever 21, H&M, Zara and Topshop. The inexpensive clothing is poor quality, with low resale value, and there’s just too much of it.

I’ve bought from all of these brands (particularly Forever 21 and H&M), so I know this is true. My professional wardrobe from working office jobs at traditional companies lead me to buy better brands. I’ve noticed a difference in quality of materials and craftsmanship. Buying less and paying more for quality makes sense.  Though if you already have lots of clothes – what do you do with it? Donating and selling are the best options, right?

Thrift and consignment stores are overloaded with used clothing. The excess clothes is shipped to countries in Africa and they don’t even end up using it.

Forty percent of the clothing will be baled and shipped all over the globe to be resold as is. Japan gets the second nicest vintage items after the U.S. stores, South American countries get the mid-grade stuff, Eastern European countries get the cold-weather clothes, and African countries get the low-grade stuff no one else will take. In the 1980s, secondhand clothing began flowing into African countries that had dropped their protectionist economic policies.

Closed loop technology to improve sustainability in fashion

Producing clothes from recycled fibers or “closed loop technology” reduces waste in the production process:

“The holy grail for sustainability in fashion is closed-loop sourcing,” Marie-Claire Daveu of the global luxury holding company Kering told Vogue. (Kering owns companies like Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, among many others.) “Reuse old materials. Make new materials out of old materials. Recapture the fibers.”

Closed-loop technology, where a product is recycled back into almost the same product, is a tantalizing prospect for sustainability advocates, because it essentially mimics the natural process of life.

If closed-loop technology could be achieved for fashion, nothing would ever go the landfill—it would just be endlessly looped through textile factories, garment factories, stores, your closet, secondhand retailers, textile recyclers and back to textile factories again.

Patagonia leads the way with recycled fibers

From Patagonia’s blog
From Patagonia’s blog

Patagonia uses recycled fibers out of principle despite the expense.

Patagonia recycled a good amount of textiles, but are still far from perfecting closed loop technology:

Since Patagonia launched the Common Threads program in fall 2005, we have successfully recycled more than 6000 kg of garments, and we have collected much more. But this does not represent a significant amount compared to how many garments Patagonia sells, or how many garments are thrown into landfills.

But commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still five to 10 years away, at best.

H&M’s vouchers in exchange for recycled clothes is good in theory. “H&M will recycle them and create new textile fibre, and in return you get vouchers to use at H&M. Everybody wins!” H&M said on its blog. This donated clothing just ends up at a thrift store:

And despite the impressive amount of marketing dollars the company pumped into World Recycle Week to promote the idea of recycling clothes—including the funding of a music video by M.I.A.—what H&M is doing is nothing special. Its salvaged clothing goes through almost the exact same process as garments donated to, say, Goodwill, or really anywhere else.

On the other hand, the secondhand textiles market is about to collapse:

There’s a special sense of urgency to these brands’ efforts to close the loop, which would create a new and—hopefully—profitable market for old textiles. In the past year, the market for secondhand textiles has tanked, pushing this entire system to the brink of collapse.

So many problems without a clear solution… individually, avoid buying fast fashion new if at all. Stick to used if you buy fast fashion and don’t throw clothes in the trash. I don’t know why anyone would throw out clothes. Maybe if it was stained or beyond repair? Fast fashion is part of a larger issue of wastefulness treating things as disposable rather than reusable. In terms of plastic beverage containers, I’ve seen better alternatives. I avoid buying bottled water unless I have no other choice. Huge amounts of empty plastic bottles after large events is a problem.  Coachella’s 10 empty bottles for 1 free bottled water during one year was one great solution in action.

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Copyright 2016 Liane Chan