When it comes to clothes these days, maybe you should ask: What’s your waste size?
You know you have those clothes sitting in your closet: That shirt you spent less than $10 on because it looked cool for a second, or that skirt you only wore once before it went out of fashion.
Fashion cycles are moving faster than ever. A Quartz article in December revealed how fashion brands like Zara, Gap and Adidas are churning out new styles more frequently, a trend dubbed “fast fashion” by many in the industry. The clothes that are mass-produced also become more affordable, thus attracting consumers to buy more.
“It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more,” says Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.
The top fast fashion retailers grew 9.7 percent per year over the last five years, topping the 6.8 percent of growth of traditional apparel companies, according to financial holding company CIT.
Fashion is big business. Estimates vary, but one report puts the global industry at $1.2 trillion, with more than $250 billion spent in the U.S. alone. In 2014, the average household spent an average $1,786 on apparel and related services.
More styles mean more purchases — and that leads to more waste created. Journalist Elizabeth Cline writes in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion that disposable clothing is damaging to the environment and the economy. We are more likely to dispose of cheaper, mass-produced fashion garments than pricier ones.
“We don’t necessarily have the ability to handle the disposal,” Lewis says. “The rate of disposal is not keeping up with the availability of places to put everything that we’re getting rid of and that’s the problem.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded.
How To Deal With All This Textile Waste?
One way developed nations get rid of their excess clothing is by donating it to developing nations. According to the United Nations, the United States is the biggest exporter of used clothes, and the top importing countries of used clothing are India, Russia and Pakistan.
But with the strong dollar and availability of cheap clothing from Asia, some are worried that demand for exports of secondhand clothing will decline — thus forcing developed nations to find new ways to deal with post-consumer textile waste.
Fast fashion and the disposable culture also hurt sorting companies that export second-hand clothing.
Adam Baruchowitz, founder of Wearable Collections in New York City, collects second-hand clothing and sells it to sorting companies. The companies then sort through the clothes, separating those that will be made into other low-grade fiber products and those that will be exported.
Baruchowitz says the most valuable part of a sorting company’s business is in selling reusable second-hand clothing. But if the quality is questionable, more of the garments collected might have to head to the shredding bin rather than the second-hand clothes market.
“It’s very damaging to the environment, this fast fashion culture, and it also affects the secondhand market because these clothes aren’t meant to be used for so long,” he says. “I can’t say for sure, but the secondhand H&Ms would probably be in less demand than a garment that was produced with more quality. I’m getting all this stuff from fast fashion and I’m hearing from clients that it’s hurting them.”
Do Retailers’ Recycling Programs Encourage Consumerism?
Several clothing retailers have announced take-back programs that collect used garments from customers to be recycled, sold or remade into other clothing. H&M, for example, has allowed customers to bring unwanted garments — which will be transformed to recycled textile fibers for new products — since 2013. The company aims to have “zero garments going to landfill.” Patagonia also recycles and sells used Patagonia products in its stores.
It plays into the concept of extended producer responsibility, which means the manufacturer has to take into consideration the product’s afterlife.
But does it actually encourage more consumerism? For many stores, customers can get store credit and vouchers for sending in used clothing.
“If you bring it back to the store and you see something new and you’re going to give me a discount, I’m having a buying moment I may not have had before because you’re having me back at your store. It’s very smart in terms of business,” Lewis says.
The concept, however, might encourage a different type of thinking: If manufacturers have to think about how they’re going to get the most out of the product after it has been worn, Lewis says, it might spur them to start designing products that can be taken apart easily, have better quality, or might be biodegradable, for example.
H&M introduced new garments made of recycled textile fibers two year ago.