Sustainability 101

The Environmental Impacts of Textile Waste... And What to Do About It

Jane Pennoyer
050321 Garments Blog 1

Unless you’re living under a very comfy rock where polluting industries don’t exist, there’s a chance you’ve heard about the horrific impact that the textile industry has on the environment. A significant portion of this impact is a direct result of the textile waste that the fashion industry produces. With over 100 billion items of clothing produced worldwide each year and 10-20% of textiles wasted before a piece of clothing is even made, it isn’t surprising to hear that this industry is environmentally problematic. This level of production is a direct response to our always-hungry-for-more consumer culture, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. So how can we adapt to lessen the amount of waste produced by one of the most polluting industries in the world? In this post, we’ll get into the numbers, the barriers to potential solutions, and who is doing what to solve the problem. 

WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH TEXTILE WASTE?

In America alone, the volume of textiles thrown away has grown from 9 million to 17 million tons annually in the past two decades, amounting to over 80 pounds per person per year.

Yikes. In 2018, 14.7% of that 17 million tons was recycled and 18.9% was burned, leaving 11.3 million tons of textiles in landfills, accounting for almost 8% of total landfill waste that year. That’s a lot of math, so to sum up: Basically, textiles take up a LOT of our landfill space, and the fashion industry is mostly to blame for that. The home goods industry makes up a portion of this waste too, but the impact of sheets and towels isn’t as worrisome as that of fashion. Anyway, all of this waste is problematic from an environmental standpoint because those tons of textiles going to the landfill are missed opportunities to save resources like energy, water, and chemicals required to produce virgin fibers. Not to mention the fact that 60% of garments on retail shelves today contain polyester, aka plastic, which breaks down into microplastics and leaches chemicals into our soil and waterways. 

HOW DOES THE FASHION INDUSTRY PLAY A ROLE?

There are a few ways that the fashion industry perpetuates this wasteful cycle. First of all, some fashion brands (*cough* Zara, H&M, and really all fast fashion brands *cough*) produce their products on a massive scale, attempting to sell as much as possible as fast as possible. A customer can’t buy a product if that product is sold out, so brands do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s just good business, right? Well, the problem is that these companies end up producing a TON of clothing that will never be sold. Hello, overproduction. This doesn’t just happen occasionally… it happens all the time. Of the 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, nearly 20% of items go unsold. All of that unsold clothing needs to be dealt with and, since companies aren’t going to give it away for free for fear of diluting their brand value, it is usually buried, shredded, or burned. That’s right -- about 20 billion items of clothing are discarded every year before they even see the light of day. That can’t be good for business and it certainly is not good for the planet. 

This doesn’t have to be an occupational hazard. Fashion brands do not have to waste all of that clothing, and even if our always-hungry-for-more consumer culture persists, there are ways of reducing waste. 

TEXTILE RECYCLING

Textile recycling is a way of closing the loop in the fashion industry, and has the potential to help us reduce textile waste by diverting garments from landfill and using them to create new products. This system uses waste as a resource by breaking down garments into their original fibers, and then re-weaving those fibers to make wholly new items. The fashion and home goods industries are just dipping their toes into this practice, and there is a LONG way to go. But we love to see brands like Coyuchi, Adidas, Levi’s, Stella McCartney, Target, Tommy Hilfiger, The North Face, Bonobo, and even H&M, engaging in closed-loop initiatives with the help of textile recycling organizations like Evrnu, Recover, and Renewal Workshop

The closed-loop clothing company For Days has developed its own recycling system, whereby all products are returned to them and recycled into new clothing. We love to see it. In all of these scenarios, the clothing in question is broken down into its original fibers and re-woven into an entirely new piece of clothing. This closed-loop cycle is the ideal from a waste perspective, but it also involves research and development that can take years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For this reason, it’s not even an option for the vast majority of clothing brands. Many of the recycling organizations that help execute take-back programs (whereby a brand can take back old pieces of clothing from customers and reuse the raw materials for new products) won’t even engage with brands smaller than H&M and Zara because their projects require high volumes. And since it’s so expensive to recycle fibers and demand for them is low, recycling organizations usually require companies to buy back the new fabric once it has been recycled. Because of fiber degradation (each time a fiber is re-woven, it loses some of its integrity and must be mixed with a virgin fiber), this often means that companies are asked to buy back twice as much fiber as they recycled, all at a higher price than the original fiber. All arrows point to “too expensive,” “bad business move,” “it’s not worth all of the effort”. Major bummer. 

TEXTILE DOWN-CYCLING

The cheapest and next best thing for a conscious clothing or textile company to do with their old stuff is down-cycling. Madewell and Levi’s have created successful denim down-cycling programs, through which they take back old jeans and turn them into housing insulation. This process is known as down-cycling instead of recycling because it is not endless. These jeans are being given a second life, after which they will be landfill-bound. Old clothing, bedding, and towels can be down-cycled into anything from carpet backing to car insulation to industrial rags, but in all scenarios, they are not being reintegrated into the system from which they were born as new resources. Still, down-cycling is a vast improvement upon dumping our stuff in the garbage, and we are all about it. 

IS THERE A WAY TO MAKE THESE PRACTICES MORE ACCESSIBLE?

For companies that simply want to keep their goods out of the landfill for a little longer, city-wide textile recycling programs are a great answer. San Francisco has developed a textile recycling and down-cycling program with the help of I:CO through which they take back used textiles and give them a second life. This program is part of their Zero Waste by 2020 goal. The city is currently diverting 80% of their waste from the landfill, and has hopes that the city-wide textile recycling program will help them close that 20% gap. New York City sponsors a textile recycling program that takes clean and dry clothing, bedding, and towels, which is awesome. Unfortunately they have shut down most of their collection sites due to COVID budget cuts, but you can check out their website to see if there’s an open one near you. There is no question that city-sponsored programs should exist all over the country, and that they should accept scraps (as we mentioned above, 10-20% of textiles end up as scrap waste during the production process). NYC’s program currently does not accept scraps, which leaves a huge opportunity for improvement since the city is a hub of U.S. textile manufacturing. Fortunately, local organization FabScrap has taken on the task of recycling NYC’s scrap waste, and so far they’ve recycled over 644k pounds of it. Pretty awesome. 

WHAT CAN I DO?

To state the obvious, the best thing that we can do as consumers is buy less. But as we acknowledged above, our always-hungry-for-more consumer culture doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so in the meantime, you can dispose of your clothing, bedding, and towels responsibly through a few different outlets. 

SHOES

We’re big fans of Terracycle, which will turn your old leather shoes into flooring material and plastic shoe parts into containers. You can also drop off your old shoes (from any brand in any condition) at a North Face store and they’ll repurpose them through their Clothes the Loop program. Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program is a good option for sneakers specifically. We recommend asking your local running store if they have a program, too. 

JEANS

Madewell and Levi’s both work with the Blue Jeans Go Green to turn jeans into housing insulation. All you have to do is bring your old jeans (from any brand in any color and condition) to a Madewell or Levi’s location and they’ll take care of the rest. The best part is, both brands will give you a credit towards future purchases in exchange for your donation. 

UNDERGARMENTS

The Bra Recyclers will recycle your old bras and lingerie, and H&M’s Garment Collecting program will take socks. 

OTHER CLOTHING

ThredUP is an online thrift shop that is a great option if you’re looking to get rid of slightly used clothing and make a few bucks. They’ll send you a “Clean Out Kit” free of charge for you to fill up and send back. Once they receive your clothing, they’ll determine if it’s sellable based on the condition and brand, and then they’ll notify you of your payout amount. If you’d prefer to donate that money to charity, they give you that option, too. Any clothing that is not suitable for their marketplace, they’ll recycle or send back to you. 

H&M rolled out a Garment Collecting program in 2013, through which they take unwanted clothing and textiles in any condition, from any brand. Just bring your stuff to an H&M store, and they’ll take care of the rest. 

Lots of other brands have smaller take-back programs for their own goods, including Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, and Marine Layer. If you’re looking to dispose of a piece of clothing, you may want to check out that brand’s website to see if they’ll take it back in exchange for a credit on future purchases. 

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, check out Ridwell, a company that will pick up your old stuff right from your doorstep for a small fee. 

Who doesn’t love to have a few extra dish rags around? Cut your old sheets and towels into dish rags to give them a second life. 

Before you send off your old clothing, bedding, and towels to be recycled, check out the recycling company’s website to ensure your garments fall within their specifications. Some organizations have pretty strict rules about what they can and cannot take, and may send your goods to the landfill if they don’t meet their standards. As always, do your homework.