I’ve discussed the tremendous and growing negative impact the apparel industry has on the environment in previous blogs. Regardless of how sustainably apparel can and should be produced, there will always be a significant impact on the environment if clothing is ultimately dumped into a landfill. The ultimate solution to this issue is to develop a circular economy where clothing and its textile components are recycled in a continuous loop. There is much development underway to commercialize technology for effectively recycling clothing and I believe there will be a combination of technologies that will provide the means to do so.
The problem is, how do you get consumers to recycle and how do you collect used clothing? Several brands have established clothing takeback programs. One of the most aggressive is by H&M, who many would argue is the poster child for the fast fashion trend which has contributed to the apparel environmental crisis we are experiencing. H&M has been aggressively promoting themselves as a sustainable company. To their credit, they started a program in 2013 to collect used H&M clothing at all their retail outlets and working with a global recycling company, I:CO, transform the clothing to either re-use clothing, rags and insulation, or back into fiber. An article from Public Radio International, titled “How Good is H&M’s Clothing Recycling Program?” offers some insight into the success of this program. The article is linked here. In summary, even though H&M provides incentives for customers to return their used clothing, it appears only about 1-2% of the clothing they sell is returned. Not much of an impact, though H&M promotes this program aggressively.
While there is generally agreement throughout the textile and apparel industries that sustainability is an issue, I do not believe the industry will solve the problem on its own. For instance, here is a quote from Catarina Midby, Sustainability Manager at H&M UK and Ireland; “You could always argue that, of course, in order to be really sustainable, you should cut down on your consumption, but at the same time we are a fashion company and we don’t really want to compromise fashion for sustainability. But I don’t think you have to these days.” It’s not difficult to read between the lines in that quote. So, what can be done?
To truly have a positive impact on the sustainability of the textile and apparel industries, three things will have to occur:
· The trend to “fast fashion” and the culture of disposable clothing will have to end. Consumers will have to consider the cost per wear versus the cost per garment and learn to value quality and durability. More importantly, they will have to understand the impact of their choices.
· Technologies to efficiently and cost effectively recycle clothing into renewable and reusable outputs, effectively closing the loop, will have to be developed and commercialized.
· The means to collect and sort enormous amounts of clothing will have to be developed and deployed.
While that may sound daunting, I believe real progress is possible. It all starts with consumer awareness and demand. Industries stay profitable by meeting the needs and demands of consumers. If consumers are demanding their apparel be sustainable, I believe the industry will respond in a meaningful way.
We have made real progress in cleaning up our streets and highways over the last 50 years. It all started with the “Keep America Beautiful” program in the 1960’s. Those of us old enough still remember the indelible image of a native American sheading a tear while seeing trash littering our highways. Broad based and effective public service advertising works if the message is powerful and purposeful. We have made good progress in recycling glass and plastic bottles, cardboard, and other waste materials due to a combination of public awareness driving PSA’s, government led trash separation and pickup, and to a limited extent state mandated bottle deposits. I believe these examples provide the template for taking the next important step in global sustainability; a closed loop, circular apparel economy.
Here is how I see it happening:
· Sustainability focused non-profits like The Textile Exchange and The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, working with industry groups like The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, should develop and fund a global public service advertising campaign explaining the enormous environmental effects of apparel disposal. The financial and ecological benefits of purchasing and continuing to wear high quality and durable clothing and ways to dispose of that clothing in a sustainable and responsible manner should also be highlighted.
· Assuming the campaign is successful, current methods for responsibly disposing of used clothing such as donation to Goodwill Industries or returning to Brands’ stores will soon be overwhelmed. At that time either entrepreneurs will fill the need for expanded collection and sorting if there is a profit to be made or, more likely, municipal and national government agencies will have to participate as they have for cardboard and bottle recycling.
· Technologies to efficiently and cost effectively recycle clothing into renewable and reusable outputs is already in development. If the waste supply is there, I believe many of these technologies are feasible and will be commercialized.
It will be difficult to truly establish a circular economy for textiles and apparel. Producers, brands, and retailers will have to figure out how to make profits in more sustainably responsible ways. If consumers demand it, and if they understand the impact their choices have on the environment, and I think they will, brands and retailers will have no choice but to provide it. Those that do will prosper.
To all my readers:
I believe this issue is critical to textile and apparel sustainability and I would like to hear what you think. Please add your thoughts and comments below so we may all engage in a substantive discussion. Also, please forward a link to this blog to anyone who may be able to contribute to this discussion.