Most of us take it for granted that when we’re done with something we’ve bought we have to choose between throwing it away, recycling it, or in some cases, like old clotheing, we can donate it. When it comes to clothes these options all have some drawbacks and as a consumer it can be hard to figure out which is the best choice, or how to go about making sure our old clothes get to where they should go. As consumers we’re the ones that make decisions about what we buy so in some ways it makes sense that we’re responsible for managing the waste that comes from buying stuff. But this system may not be the best way. In the past some companies were much more involved in managing the waste from their products. And if we want to start reducing the mountains of garbage we produce every year we’ll probably need companies in the present and in the future to start being part of the process at the end of their products’ lives.
Drinks used to be sold in re-usable bottles. Customers paid a deposit on the glass bottles when they bought beverages and the bottles would be returned to the bottling plant where they would be cleaned and refilled. Then in the mid 1900’s companies began consolidating their bottling operations and selling drinks in cheaper disposable containers. Instead of returning the bottles to the company when done, people would throw them away, or throw them on the ground. The beverage companies had shifted the burden of dealing with empty bottles away from their business and onto consumers because it improved their profit margin.
The litter caused by this change became a huge problem, but rather than taking responsibility, drink companies and other business whose products produced a lot of trash promoted use of the term “litter bug” and continued to push the idea that the waste from their product was the problem of customers and the cities and towns they lived in. Eventually some places in the U.S. pushed back and mandated recyclable drink containers with deposit fees again. This system of incentivizing companies and consumers to responsibly manage the waste from products doesn’t get the same results as mandatory recycling, which they have in many countries throughout Europe, but it leads to much more recycling than in U.S. states with no deposit fees.
Currently the fashion industry is in the middle of a similar change regarding how much waste it generates. And the industry also may be at the very beginning of a change in who should deal with that waste and how it’s managed. Clothes have traditionally been items that were purchased for long-term use; at least a few years if not longer. But now, fast fashion and subscription clothing models mean that for a lot of customers clothes are essentially disposable. Today a lot of clothes either wear out after a few months because they aren’t made to last, or go out of style because they’re too trendy. With subscription shopping and fast fashion, even if the clothes do last, people are getting more and more new clothes each month so they have to get rid of the old ones anyway by either trashing them, recycling them, donating, or reselling them.
When it’s time to say goodbye to our old clothes the vast majority of the clothing companies that made the clothes are no help at all. But a few businesses that make money selling us new clothes have now decided to get involved in what we do with our old clothes as well. Outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia accepts all their products for recycling either at their retail stores or through the mail. They also encourage customers to donate any items that are still usable. Fashion company the Reformation also offers recycling, and customers can get free shipping labels in their stores or online, to send in any clothes for recycling, not just their brand. Some companies have gone a step further and offer incentives. H&M, Levi’s, The North Face, and others offer discounts when you bring in clothes for donation or recycling (depending on the retailer).
Other clothing companies are using recycled materials to make their clothes. Subscription active wear company Fabletics mentions using recycled fabrics for their swimwear, but they don’t seem to use it for other products. Surf company Quiksilver uses recycled plastic bottles to make some of the board shorts they sell. And other companies are using polyester that comes from recycled plastic to make clothes. While it’s good that companies are embracing recycling this may not be as beneficial as it seems. If Quiksilver uses those plastic bottles to make shorts and then the customer who buys those shorts wears them for a year a then throws them away, then the plastic was just delayed from entering the waste stream, not prevented.
These companies are all starting to make good choices but there needs to be a much bigger and more comprehensive effort. What the clothing industry, and all industries that manufacture disposable items need, is a system where products are made from sustainable resources, and can become a sustainable resource when we’re finished with them. Trying to manage waste and resources separately just won’t work.
As consumers, our first line of defence against being part of the problem of fashion waste is to choose clothes that are made to last. Purchasing well made clothes in styles that have stood the test of time may cost a little more, and looking after our clothes so that we don’t have to buy a whole new wardrobe each season may take a little extra care. But the pay off is looking classic instead of trendy and knowing that what’s in your closet today isn’t going to be in the garbage in a month. However, even the best clothes don’t last forever, and expecting individual consumers to find responsible solutions for clothing waste management won’t work if the multibillion-dollar international fashion industry is not on board. We need a system that enables and incentivizes clothing customers and clothing businesses to work together to make sure that the material in our old clothes gets reused, or recycled and stays in the clothing industry rather than making it’s way to the landfill.