Fashion Forward

In the age of “fast fashion,” where does all of that discarded clothing actually end up?

June 12, 2013

12 Min Read
Fashion Forward

Michele Nestor, Vice President of the National Recycling Coalition

The recent collapse of a building in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 workers has refocused global interest on the garment industry. The circumstances in which this tragedy occurred left little doubt that serious human rights and environmental pollution issues existed. Like any veteran of our industry, I tend to view events from a waste management perspective. My curiosities about the Bangladesh situation revealed current apparel manufacturing and marketing trends that clearly support wasteful practices. What I didn’t suspect was how closely my own actions would resemble many of those disturbing findings.

You’re never quite prepared to face an uncomfortable truth about yourself. It’s significantly more difficult when it involves a destructive and possibly addictive behavior. That’s why 12-step programs begin with a public self-declaration of the problem.

I’ve always fancied myself as a rather responsible steward of the environment. After all, wasn’t I a devotee of recycling, an active participant, a compulsive re-user of things, and an advocate? Yet when it came to clothing and shoes, there I was measuring up to all of the national statistics, and not in a good way. It was true. I had to look in the mirror and say it. My name is Michele and I am an addict, a dreaded “material girl.” Not only was I confronted with my shortcomings on the solid waste front, but also with the sobering and far-reaching realities of my role in the global marketplace. Sadly readers, if you’re honest with yourselves you’ll discover that I am far from alone.

Conditioned Behavior

Consumers have a growing tolerance for food and beverages in single-use disposable packaging. Planned obsolescence is now the norm for small appliances and electronics. Both scenarios increase the volume of waste. This is hardly breaking news. What deserves attention is just how far this line of thinking extends into a host of other consumer goods, even those traditionally expected to last. The aggressive pace at which this is occurring for certain products is raising concerns on a number of socio-economic levels. Clothing and footwear are perfect examples.

At the crux of the problem is a trend toward cheaply manufactured and low-cost apparel. Dubbed “fast fashion,” it is purposefully designed to be purchased and to be discarded, sometimes after one or two wears. The price of this disposable couture is meant to create the illusion of a deal to foster impulse purchases with little or no buyer remorse. Subsequently the “deal” enables guilt-free disposal making it easy to justify new purchases. While this tactic is most prevalent in off-brands, even flagship department stores with designer labels rely on this strategy for sales. Of course, this is all made possible by the availability of cheap labor in unregulated developing countries.

Market Conditions

Just a few decades ago, the garment industry was a greater part of the American mainstream. The label “Made in the USA” was a source of pride and accomplishment for many more American hometowns than it is today. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the United States is the world's largest importer of garments. As much as 97 percent of the apparel sold in the United States is now made outside the country. China is the primary source, but places like Bangladesh have become major competitors, all because of cheaper labor.

Consequently, in 2010 in the United States there were 7,855 private business establishments in the apparel manufacturing industry employing 157,587 workers, compared with 15,478 establishments and 426,027 workers in 2001.

In 1957, Coco Chanel quipped to a reporter from LIFE magazine, “Fashion is made to become unfashionable.” At that time, designers focused on the traditional spring/summer and autumn/winter runway debuts during “fashion week.” The diva from the House of Chanel could never have envisioned the current business model with its fashion cycle that features 30 to 50 trend-driven fashion seasons a year. The garment industry annually produces and sells 80 billion units of apparel at $1 trillion dollars worldwide. One third of those sales occur in the United States.

Buying Habits

The American Apparel and Footwear Association reports that Americans purchase an average of eight pairs of shoes and 68 pieces of clothing per year. (Be honest, some of you are actually wondering if this includes sandals and boots.) That’s a little more than one item per week. To accommodate all of this clothing, Time magazine reported in 2005 that master closets built in recent years now average about 6 feet by 8 feet, a size more typical of an extra bedroom 40 years ago. In upscale homes, every bedroom, not just the master suite, has the option of a walk-in closet. Based on 1940s bedroom standards, that’s like running a boarding house for your clothing. In fact, many of the clothing and footwear items purchased are never worn. Once bought, an estimated 21 percent of annual clothing purchases just sit in our closets, representing a large quantity of latent waste that eventually enters the solid waste stream.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows for 2010 that households spent 3.5 percent of their average annual expenditures on clothing and footwear. Curiously, the statistics also show that Americans spend more on eating out than they do on clothing. It isn’t that we can’t afford to spend more on clothing. We don’t need to because of the low unit price of fast fashions. So theoretically, based on unit price, we could be spending less than in the past; however, because of low quality and ever-changing styles we spend more frequently on significantly more items. Since 1985, as a percentage the average household spent more on apparel designed for women aged 16 and over than any other apparel product or service. It is no coincidence that waste clothing and footwear generation began to increase at that same time.

Wasted Wear

When more clothing and footwear was manufactured domestically, the cost was enough that some purchases were considered a wardrobe “investment” to be worn for years. Consequently, discarded clothing and footwear was a negligible part of the municipal solid waste stream — only 1.5 percent. Despite the decreased domestic share of sales, in the year 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that we generated almost 9 million tons of waste clothing and footwear, up from less than 6.5 million tons in 2000. While some of that increase can be attributed to population growth, other indicators demonstrate that individually we are buying and discarding more clothing and footwear each year.

The last detailed report on the nation’s municipal waste composition and characterization was issued by EPA in 2010. Then, clothing and footwear represented approximately 4 percent by weight of the total municipal solid waste generated. When all textiles are considered, it is closer to 5 percent. That is similar to or greater than other dense materials that receive considerably more attention in the development of municipal recycling collection programs. For instance, glass bottles and jars as well as newspapers each represent 4 percent of the waste generated.

Today, on a per capita basis, clothing and footwear is one of the few growing components in an otherwise diminishing waste stream. Based on EPA statistics, in 1960 we generated and disposed of waste clothing and footwear at the rate of approximately 0.04 pounds per person per day (15 pounds per person per year). In other words, there was no reported recycling of textiles in 1960. The 2010 reported data shows that generation increased to 0.16 pounds per person per day (58 pounds per person per year), with disposal at 0.14 pounds per person per day (51 pounds per person per year). Therefore, 0.02 pounds per person per day (7.3 pounds per person per year) were recovered for recycling.

The recycling rate for clothing and footwear has historically been lower than the rate for those commonly captured in curbside recycling programs. The current national recycling rate for clothing and footwear is 14 percent. To put this in perspective, nationally, glass containers were recovered at the rate of 33.44 percent, aluminum cans at 49.64 percent and newspaper at 71.6 percent. Based on the amount of clothing that is handled through thrift stores, this figure might appear to be low. However, the items that ultimately result in recycled fiber are considerably less than those simply repurposed are.

Traditionally EPA has not considered reuse or repurposing in its textile recycling data. Rather, those practices fall under diversion. The logic is that these items tend to be used quickly and thus re-enter the waste stream in short time. Adjustments are made to account for the materials in the same year in which they were originally discarded and processed.

Out of the Closets

When our secondhand clothing does come out of our closets, the journey to its final destination is long and complicated. Granted some goes directly into our trash and heads to the curb and is disposed. However, many of us prefer to send our discards to a thrift store. Our buyer’s remorse and any potential guilt for throwing away our short-lived purchases is typically erased by our notion that a less fortunate person will be grateful for our “generosity.”

While some of that is true, the reality is that thrift stores are more than overwhelmed by the avalanche of clothing they receive. The Council for Textile Recycling claims that each American donates 12 pounds of textiles annually to thrift and secondhand stores. A portion of that includes linens, but most is clothing and footwear. The fact is, according to the CTR, only 10 to 20 percent of the items donated to thrift stores are ever resold. In many respects, consumers have literally “dumped” on these organizations. If not for secondhand clothing brokers that sort and classify the material for its intended market, the disposal costs for the thrift stores would be prohibitive. Instead, it produces an alternative revenue stream.

The Council reports that 80 percent of the secondhand clothing finds its way to textile recyclers. These businesses, mostly long-standing family owned companies, have taken years to establish a global network of contacts to maintain a market for these post-consumer textiles. Exports account for 45 percent of the secondhand clothing, which is resold to consumers in developing countries, primarily Africa. There is speculation that these markets are becoming increasingly competitive and may not be sustainable into the future. Another 30 percent of the secondhand clothing is processed into industrial rags and residential and industrial absorbents. In the end, 20 percent of the secondhand clothing sent to textile recyclers, or 16 percent of all donations, actually makes its way back into recycled fiber.

A Competitive Business

In the past decade, along with the traditional thrift store operators like Goodwill Industries, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent DePaul, a new breed of textile collection bins have popped up in retail, school and church parking lots. Often the true sponsors of these collections are hard to identify. Many may be attempts by brokers to sidestep the thrift stores. Because textile recyclers tend to be small family owned companies, the need to maintain a steady flow of materials is crucial to their market commitments.

Two of the more visible and thus identifiable organizations are Planet Aid and Kiducation. Both file the required 501( c ) 3 information with the Internal Revenue Service. Planet Aid’s 2011 reported data shows that the organization collected and processed more than 50,000 tons of donated clothing and generated $37 million from selling these items. Kiducation (Community Crusade For Children) reported just more than $5 million in revenue that same year.

Real and quasi non-profit organizations aren’t the only sources of competition for secondhand clothing. Historically, municipalities did not consider textile recycling as an option in their residential collection programs, in part for fear of interfering with donations to local thrift stores. However, the need to dig deeper into the municipal waste stream to boost recycling/diversion rates has spawned recent interest. More influential in this decision is a desire to generate much needed revenue by dealing directly with the brokers.

Setting Up Municipal Programs

A survey conducted several years ago by Goodwill Industries found that half of the people donating secondhand clothing prefer door-to-door pickup, and more than half would not go more than 10 minutes out of their way to make a drop-off. That is consistent with behavioral studies of traditional drop-off collection programs for bottles and cans. Therefore, curbside programs, even if conducted periodically, could be strong contenders for waste apparel if the logistics and cost of collection can be controlled. There are plenty of examples of successful programs that have been implemented for many years. One way to make it more affordable is to incorporate the textiles into a dual-stream collection program. The textiles can occupy the same compartment as other fibers.

Since this time last year new curbside textile programs have been initiated in Arizona, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington state. New York City has an innovative program that addresses the issue in multi-family dwellings, which are the most difficult places to implement any type of recycling collection program. In the first quarter of 2013, New York had placed approximately 250 bins at apartment buildings and collected nearly 900,000 pounds of clothing. That’s a small dent in the city’s 200,000 annual tons of discarded textiles, but it’s a good start.

Consumer or Producer Responsibility?

While some of the numbers give the impression that secondhand clothing is under control, those statistics are somewhat misleading. As EPA has identified, a good portion of the clothing is only temporarily diverted from disposal. The bottom line is we dispose of nearly 9 million tons of secondhand clothing per year. The upfront purchase price of clothing masks the costs of end-of-life management.

The looming question is who is responsible?

In countries like the United States, where purchasing goods and services supports 70 percent of all economic activity, policies to reduce consumption face strong opposition from politicians and manufacturers. Similar issues exist in Europe. It is a global problem. As an alternative, retailers like H&M, North Face and others have proactively initiated voluntary take-back programs in their stores. Of course, when you recycle an item of clothing you receive a voucher for — you guessed it — a discount on new purchases! A simple answer is that consumers could be more responsible and buy less. As a nation, we could eat less too. How’s that working for you?

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources, Inc. a consulting firm located in the Greater Pittsburgh, Pa., area. The firm specializes in strategic planning for solid waste management and recycling programs.  She also is the Vice President of the National Recycling Coalition and the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center.

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