The environmental impact of fashion waste

Friday, 14 September 2018  |  Kate

As reported by the BBC there's a quiet revolution going on in the fashion industry, sparked by the scandalous amount of waste that some brands cause. Take Burberry who, apparently, recently burned almost £30m worth of unsold clothing, accessories and perfume instead of selling them off. They did it to protect the brand's exclusivity, which reveals just how silly the whole 'posh brand' thing really is. So is Burberry the only sinner? Sadly not.

How many 'premium' brands destroy unwanted stock?

Big brands have been destroying unsold fashion for decades, a dirty secret that has been kept pretty quiet so far. When the BBC quizzed 35 high-end designers and retailers only six replied with a breakdown of what they do with unwanted stock. The rest, remaining  typically secretive, either refused to help or didn't bother to respond at all. And that makes it really hard to pin down the scale of the issue.

On the other hand we do know that global production of fashion exceeds 100 billion garments every year, and if the current trend continues experts are predicting 'potentially catastrophic' environmental damage. And all because of unwanted clothes. Madness.

All this happens in a landscape where designer brands manufacture less stock than high-street retailers. So why do they waste so much? Brands like Zara and Bershka make small numbers of items at the start of the season and make more if demand dictates more is needed. Bigger commercial manufacturers have more stock, and they tend to cut prices to shift old stock. Some even recycle the leftovers. There are businesses that specialise in buying up unsold stock, and some donate unwanted clothes to good causes. But so-called fast fashion is the biggest sinner of all.

About fast fashion

Fast fashion describes the western world's incredibly high fashion consumption rate. We buy it, we wear it, we throw it away, all in record time. Because global clothing production has doubled in the past 15 years, people are throwing away perfectly good clothes in larger volumes than ever before. So while fashion waste is a premium brand thing, it's also down to ordinary people as well. People who buy from ordinary high street shops. People like you and me.

Until recently many of the used clothes we donated to charity were re-sold abroad, but now that's in decline thanks to the poorer quality of the fast fashion-type clothing we discard. At the same time demand in the developing world is growing for fast fashion. Rwanda is, for example, making its own clothes these days rather than importing used ones from the West.

Is the fashion industry changing?

People's passion for new clothes and a fast turnover for clothing means we're all to blame. If you buy clothing, wear it a couple of times then get rid of it, you're part of the problem. Luckily things are starting to change. Take the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, for example, which was adopted by loads of brands at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit in spring 2017. It's all down to Global Fashion Agenda, a group that wants to do things differently. They want to use monofibres instead of synthetic and mixed-fibre materials, which don't break down easily during recycling and pollute the seas. The fabrics currently used are hard to recycle. Just 1% are recycled into new clothes. They're mostly turned into insulation and cleaning cloths, which ultimately end up in landfill sites.

There are some exciting new targets in place for 2020, so there's hope on the horizon. An impressive 12.5% of the global fashion market has signed up to them, including Nike, Asos and Gap. Some brands are even setting even more ambitious targets all on their own, a sign that the sector is finally waking up to its responsibilities. Adidas will use 100% recycled plastic in their shoes by 2024 and H&M hopes to be using  100% sustainable materials by the year 2030, a long way away but better than nothing.

We mostly sell clothes made sustainably from natural fabrics

Things aren't all bad. There are people like us, working quietly in the background. We buy unique, affordable clothing from people who make it from repurposed, recycled, natural and sustainable fabrics. We don't sell fast fashion. Our clothes are made to last. And you won't find us being environmentally irresponsible, throwing away perfectly good unsold clothing! 

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