The impact of textile waste

September 18, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

Autumn is in the air! Cooler temperatures, long sleeves and light jackets have reappeared. Soon it will be time to set aside or ditch worn out or unwanted summer clothes and drag out your warmer items. Do they still fit? Are they still fashionable enough? Or maybe your wardrobe is so stuffed to bursting that some things must go. But where is old clothing supposed to go?

Local second-hand stores are happy to accept gently used items of clothing, either through direct drop-offs or donation bins for charities, although under the current pandemic those bins are sealed off. While donating clothing is still a good thing, unfortunately it has also received a bad reputation at times. A CBC investigation a couple of years ago found that no more than 25 per cent of clothing collected for thrift stores actually sells in stores. The rest is bought by second-hand retailers in other countries, sold as rags for industrial use or shredded and reprocessed for insulation or car-seat filling. 

And still, up to 85 per cent of worldwide textile waste ends up in landfill. Industrialised societies simply buy and then, all too quickly, dispose of their clothing. While we, collectively, bought 60 per cent more garments in 2014 than in 2000, we kept them only half as long. The Recycling Council of Ontario says the average person throws away 37 kilograms of textiles every year, resulting in North Americans sending over 10 million tonnes to landfill, when up to 95 per cent of it could be reused or recycled. I know that even despite my awareness and best efforts, I could still cut back more too. So, who or what is to blame for so much textile waste? 

One of the reasons is “Fast fashion”; clothing that is made and sold ridiculously cheaply. Think sweat shops in developing countries sewing cheap clothes with price tags that make any bargain hunter’s heart soar. That is hard to resist. The downside – apart from sweat shop workers’ appalling workplace conditions and minimum pay – is that such items do not last long. They lose their shape and colour, wear out fast or fall apart (like cheap shoes do, for example). Fast fashion is for quick sales and a large turnover but not for longevity. Quality brands and craftsmanship are easy to spot. Solid double-stitching and the weightier feel of a quality fabric means it will last you many years longer than the bargain stuff. 

The mid-priced fashion industry is not blame-free either. According to Business Insider, European fashion companies increased their style collections from two to five per year between the years 2000 to 2011 and some brands put out 12 to 16 collections per year (H&M) or as many as 24 (Zara). They do know we have only four seasons to dress for…? Even accounting for “in-between seasons” it seems excessive. But is it us, the consumers, who demand such a plethora of choice or have clothing companies simply become too greedy? Where is corporate social and environmental responsibility when you need it? 

In case you are now wondering about the environmental impact of this textile gluttony, it is this: The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in landfill every second (I believe this statistic meant globally). Washing clothes, especially artificial fibres like polyester – found in more than half of all clothing (what makes fleecy sweaters, jackets and scarves so wonderfully soft) – releases microfibers, which seem to be lumped in under the description of microplastics, that end up in our water, lakes and oceans and harm many aquatic animals and those that feed on them. This is estimated at 500,000 tonnes every year or the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. The production of polyester also releases 2-3 times more carbon emissions than cotton, whereas the processing and use of cotton for textiles makes the fashion industry the world’s second-largest consumer of water, given that it can take up to 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt! 

So, what is a responsible person to do? With temperatures fluctuating wildly between Canadian seasons, we really do need a variety of styles for our distinct four seasons, we just do not need as much as we have been buying and chucking out. Before you buy a pile of new clothes, STOP, and ask yourself if you truly need it. Try to curb your urge for retail therapy and consider the expanded 5Rs of recycling: not just reduce, reuse, recycle but also Refuse and Repurpose. If you can afford to, avoid buying dirt-cheap items that you know will not last more than one season. And when you do need to get rid of something lightly or never worn, trade it with close friends. I have received some very nice, new dresses and blouses that way. Some towns even have “clothing swap parties”, although that was pre-pandemic. But maybe you can get creative! You never know what amazing pieces of clothing you might receive from a fashionable friend. 

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