The Environmental Crisis Caused by Textile Waste
Before you dive into the main content in this post, here are some surprising facts about textile waste:
- The volume of clothing Americans throw away each year has doubled in the last 20 years, from 7 million to 14 million tons
- In 2018, 17 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, making up 5.8 percent of the total MSW generation that year
- According to the World Resources Institute, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt.
- Textiles can take up to 200+ years to decompose in landfills (see other decomposition times here)
Moreover, many people may be shocked to learn that 84 percent of clothing ends up in landfills or incinerators. In New York City alone, more than 400 million pounds of clothes are wasted each year! With these numbers in mind, Roadrunner Smarter Recycling thought it would be useful to explore what exactly is driving this unsustainable behavior and what kind of impact it has on the environment. In this post, they cover everything you need to know about why managing textile waste is so challenging, the impacts it has on the environment, what brands are doing to reduce textile waste, and how your business can take action.
The EPA estimates that in 2017, of the 16.9 million tons of textile waste generated in the United States, only 15.2% was recycled, which resulted in 11.2 million tons of textile waste ending up in landfills. Since the 1990s, consumer behavior has shifted towards shopping for new clothes frequently, but as consumers purchase more clothing, more frequently, that means textile waste ends up in landfills faster. To put it into perspective, in less than 20 years, the volume of clothing Americans threw away each year doubled and is likely to triple if we don't make a change. The reason for such a drastic increase? Fast fashion. To meet the high demands of the latest fashion trends, many retailers produce inexpensive, non-durable clothing. Because of this, fast fashion retailers (like Forever21, Zara, and more) may churn out new clothing multiple times a month. Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University's Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design explains, "It used to be four seasons in a year; now it may be up to 11 or 15 or more."
A factor that most people don’t ever consider is the impact our clothes have on the environment. Textile production requires significant amounts of chemicals, water, energy, and other natural resources. According to the World Resources Institute, it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt. And when consumers throw away clothing in the garbage, not only does it waste money and resources, but it can take 200+ years for the materials to decompose in a landfill. During the decomposition process, textiles generate greenhouse methane gas and leach toxic chemicals and dyes into the groundwater and our soil.
BRANDS WORKING TO FIGHT TEXTILE WASTE
Every year, the average American generates around 80 pounds of textile waste. However, with conscious consumers and environmentalists pushing for change in this area, a few brands have started working hard to keep clothing out of landfills by changing how they produce their textiles and by providing better ways for consumers dispose of them. Here are some of the strongest examples the authors have seen as of late:
In 2017, Patagonia launched Worn Wear, an online platform where you can buy, trade and sell second-hand Patagonia goods. And in November 2019, Patagonia opened its first physical pop-up store for Worn Wear. The shop offers a selection of used products that Patagonia buys back from customers, recycles, and redesigns. Patagonia explains, “One of the most responsible things we can do as a company is make high-quality stuff that lasts for years, so you don’t have to buy more of it.” By recycling and reselling their customer's apparel, Patagonia will help extend the life of their gear and keep more textiles out of landfills. Customers will receive a store credit in exchange for their unwanted clothing.
H&M, still a known contributor to the fast fashion industry, has at least started offering recycling services at more than 4,200 stores to prevent their customer's unwanted clothing from reaching landfill. H&M was the first fashion company to have a clothing collection initiative worldwide. The retailer explains, "Every year, tons of textiles end up in landfill, but as much as 95 percent of these textiles could be used again. We want to offer an easy solution for our customers to leave their old garments with H&M and at the same time do something good for the environment." H&M accepts textiles old or new, from any brand, then sends them to the nearest recycling plant. For every bag of textiles customers drop off, they receive a discount card for 15% off their next in-store purchase. According to H&M, the brand collected 20,649 tons of textiles for reuse and recycling in 2018, 16% more than the previous year and equivalent to 103 million T-shirts.
You would never know by the look of their clothing, but Ecoalf creates their textiles from used fishing nets, coffee grounds, plastic bottles, and other recycled products. Ecoalf's mission is to create the first generation of recycled products with the same quality and design as non-recycled products. The brand hopes to prove that it is not necessary to use our planet's natural resources carelessly. In their ongoing efforts to reduce the consumption of natural resources, Ecoalf has taken over 500 tons of waste from the bottom of the ocean, recycled over 120 million plastic bottles, and developed over 300 fabrics and turned them into top quality garments.
Madewell's recycling program is a unique one. The popular clothing company makes sure your jeans don't end up in landfills by using them to build homes. By partnering with Cotton's Blue Jeans Go Green program and Habitat for Humanity, the donated jeans get recycled into housing insulation. Since their partnership began, Madewell has recycled 830,714 pairs of jeans and saved 415 tons of waste from landfill. In return for your used jeans (no matter the brand), Madewell will give you a $20 store credit for your donation.
To reduce their environmental impact, The North Face encourages people to drop off unwanted clothing and footwear at participating stores. Through its Clothes The Loop program, The North Face accepts and sends the apparel to Soles4Souls, whose mission is to create sustainable jobs and provide relief through the distribution of shoes and clothing. In exchange for their donation, customers will receive a $10 reward toward their next purchase. So far, customers have brought in 95,000 pounds of clothing and footwear to be reused and/or recycled.
While many big brands are working to reduce textile waste, businesses and individuals need to do their part as well. Here is how your business can get involved:
The textile recycling rate is currently one of the lowest compared to other materials. But these fabrics, including worn jeans, stained sweatshirts, and even mismatched socks, can be given a brand new life as new clothing, housing insulation, rags, or even stuffed animals. Retailers like H&M, Madewell, and The North Face make textile recycling as easy as a trip to the mall by offering in-store recycling containers. RoadRunner even offers one-time pickups for different types of materials, including (but not limited to!) clothing donations. Learn more here.
HOST A CLOTHING SWAP OR EXCHANGE
You've probably heard the saying, "one man's trash is another man's treasure." The same is true when it comes to your used clothing. Hosting a swap or exchange event is an excellent way for your employees to receive new clothing while responsibly getting rid of the items they don't want anymore.
RENT YOUR CLOTHING
For special occasions that require a new outfit, like a job interview or important business meeting, brands like Rent the Runway make it possible to rent a brand new outfit while saving all of the resources needed to manufacture a new piece of clothing. Renting also allows you to stay up to date with the latest fashion trends without spending a fortune and eventually sending your clothing to the landfill.
Donating gently-used clothing to charitable organizations is a great way to give back while keeping textiles out of landfills. Companies like ThredUp, The Salvation Army, and Savers will accept your used clothing and recycle the clothing that they can't sell.