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The problem with fast fashion and need for recycled textiles

A friend on Facebook recently shared this article on MSN (via Newsweek) called “No One Wants Your Old Clothes,” a simple headline with a lot more detail on the effects of fast fashion, the huge amounts of waste going to landfills, and the growing need for recycled textiles and “closed loop technology” in the production process. I decided to expand my responses to a blog post since no one really uses my Facebook for discussing this type of thing. The fashion industry is full of human rights issues aside from the environment with sweatshop labor and hazardous working conditions, but I’ll leave that to the Social Justice warriors for now and just focus on the environmental aspects of fast fashion. 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 personally buy most of my clothes used (from ThredUp, Poshmark, ebay, or Vinted) since I can’t really afford to buy nicer luxury brands new, but I tend to accumulate a lot that I never wear and get attached to for some reason. I also noticed that companies that are specifically selling clothes as sustainable and eco friendly charge a lot more for something that I could get used. There’s no easy solution to this issue, buying used might help to slightly reduce the amount of clothes headed to landfills, but it doesn’t stop fast fashion or the speed at which people consume it and toss it.

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 actually have bought from all of these brands (I had a Forever 21 addiction for awhile that I somehow managed to kick), so this definitely makes sense. In my need for a professional wardrobe (just due to having office jobs in more traditional industries), I can justify the need to buy better brands and in doing so have noticed that there is a huge difference in terms of quality of materials and craftsmanship that makes certain designers worth the expense. Buying less and paying more for quality items makes sense, though if you already have a lot of clothes – what do you do with it all?

This article mentions thrift and consignment stores are overloaded with used clothing that eventually gets tossed out and shipped to countries out 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.

Producing clothes from recycled fibers seems like a possible solution, which the article mentions as “closed loop technology”:

“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.

From Patagonia’s blog

Patagonia is mentioned doing it out of principle (in spite of the expense) and according to their blog have managed to recycle a good amount of textiles:

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.

The article goes on to mention how far away we still are in this technology, which might not be an exaggeration if Patagonia is noticing it is not a significant amount:

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

The article mentioned H&M’s attempts to recycle where “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. It does seem that H&M is trying to make a change:

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, I didn’t know the market for secondhand textiles has tanked and 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… on an individual level, I think everyone should just stop buying into fast fashion – stick to used and don’t just throw clothes in the trash. I can’t really understand why anyone would do that unless it was stained or ruined in some other way. Learning to sew might be an easy fix to clothes that’s in need of repair. Though this brings up the general problem of wastefulness where we use disposable items instead of reusable. In terms of beverages, maybe there are better alternatives. I avoid using bottled water unless I have no other choice, seeing the huge amounts of empty bottles after music festivals made me think of how great their 10 empty bottles for 1 free bottled water was at Coachella one year.

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