The fashion industry loves recycling its waste and looks to it as a scapegoat for its waste management problems. The industry on the whole produces 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity due to its long supply chains and energy intensive production; more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. It is responsible for over 10 percent of industrial water use each year, a figure which is projected to double by 2030.
In the last few years, especially since the pandemic, the fashion industry is trying to build a sustainable credential and there has been a move towards a circular economy. From swimsuits made of recycled ocean and plastic waste to vegan leather and fabric made from plant based fibres like banana and orange peel.
However, these are hardly saving the planet as the industry is producing way more than before and we are consuming and wasting at lightning speed. As per Ellen MacArthur Foundation, then apparel production approximately doubled from 2000 to 2015 across the world. During the same period, the number of times a dress was worn slumped by 36 per cent. As per the Indian Textile Journal – 2011, More than 1 million tonnes of textiles are thrown away every year in India, 73% is burned or buried in landfill ( is it a surprise Indian cities have the worse AQI globally?). McKinsey reported that shorter production lead time, enabled by technology enables brands to introduce new lines more frequently. Zara offers 24 new clothing collections each year; H&M offers 12 to 16 and refreshes them weekly. Zara, pumped 120,992 tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere during 2020.
Recycling is thrown around a lot these days as a sustainable solution which is hardly true. A deeper examination into the fast-fashion industry and textile recycling will tell you a different story. Globally, less than 1 percent of clothing material is recycled into new clothes and only 13 percent is recycled into other products. Recycling clothing is complex as a single garment is a combination of fibre, dyes, natural yarns, metal, wood, even plastic. Sorting and separating textile and different material is a slow and high skill labor intensive job. Most textiles are recycled using a process known as mechanical recycling that tears apart the fabric and creates “an amalgamation of all different yarns and properties. These can’t be used for new clothes as the resulting fibers are shorter and produce fabrics of lower quality and is downcyling than recycle. Wool sweaters, for example can be turned into carpets, cashmere can be recycled into suits but most other textile recycle ends up being shredded and used to stuff mattresses, or made into insulation or cleaning cloths.
Even when a garment is recycled into a new one, the data does not show any real impact. A recent life cycle analysis (LCA) on cotton jeans revealed that the climate change impact of buying and disposing a pair of jeans is almost the same as upcycling the jeans into a new pair. Recycling limps in at number 42 on a list of 82 possible actions to mitigate climate change, according to Project Drawdown.
A recycling innovation often touted is the recycled polyester from PET bottles used by the fashion industry in making t-shirts, swimwear, and yoga pants amongst others. Turning plastic waste into clothing is a bad idea! According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s report on circular economy, half a million tons (equivalent to 50 billion plastic bottles) of microplastics from plastic garments end up in the seas every year.
While recycling does solve some of the issues, it’s by no means the only solution. Brands are preaching sustainability but encouraging consumers to shop more will be their DNA and promoting recycling is their way to let consumers shop more without feeling guilty. The real question is – “how can we eliminate the need for recycling altogether? The biggest concern lies with the volume of unwanted garments that ends up in landfills. The simplest answer is buying less, wearing what you have more. Invest in handmade, well tailored, good quality fabric which is sustainable – price-wise, yes, you will pay more for sustainable clothing than in a fast fashion store but it will last you longer. Them being classic pieces won’t go out of style and you can restyle and rewear them.
Take the 30 Wears Campaign challenge, where you ask yourself the question “will I wear this 30 times?” before making a new purchase. Instead of buying one-time use clothes for a special occasion, borrow them from a friend or try clothing rentals. Swap clothes you are bored of with your friends for a new sustainable wardrobe! As a kid, I always got hand-me-down clothing from my cousins but somewhere between growing up that practice got lost. We need to bring that culture back.
I suggest repairing and mending your clothes more often. Refurbish or customize your garment for a new look. In April 2021 Nike came up with Nike Refurbished – once a shopper returns a pair of shoes, Nike Refurbished cleans them up and then makes them a great value for Nike shoppers. Nike Refurbished enhances the life cycle of three types of footwear: like new (sneakers worn for 1 or 2 days before being returned), gently worn (worn a little longer than 2 days) and cosmetically flawed (a small glitch that might have happened during manufacturing).
Buy second hand garment or go thrift shopping, upcycle – make doormats of old saris/ towels, bags out of dresses, there is so much you can create when you start looking at it differently. Donate your old clothes, but in good condition, to charities. Most importantly, read and be aware of the impact of your clothing on the environment. Lastly, I’d like to say that be aware of your consumption pattern, you don’t need that much. If you consume less, there won’t be the need to recycle it. You as a consumer are a major part of the solution! Make the change, be the change!