The fashion industry has a staggering garbage problem.
Every year more than 100 billion apparel items are created by the industry — enough for every person on Earth to get 14 new pieces of clothing each year, and more than double the amount of clothing produced in 2000. And because of our “buy-and-return” culture, a lot of that clothing is getting sent back to retailers. Despite what many people think, most clothing returns are not restocked, repurposed, or reused — they end up in the garbage.
The problem is dire: Every day, tens of millions of garments are tossed out to make way for new ones. And every year, 101 million tons of clothing end up in landfills. And the trend toward fast fashion — cheap, mass-produced items that chase short-term fads — are only making us more wasteful. The fast-fashion brand Zara produces 450 million garments, with 20,000 new styles each year, which remain in fashion for a limited amount of time until they’re replaced by new styles the following year. If 20,000 sounds like a lot, the “new kid on the block” just asked us to hold their beer. Shein, a Chinese company which has only been around since 2008, releases 6,000 new styles … a day! And not all of those clothes are sold. Many fast-fashion companies are stuck with mountains of excess inventory that they struggle to get rid of.
The holiday season exacerbates the problem. Around Christmas, more people are buying clothes they intend to return, and more people are tossing old clothes to make space for new ones. That’s especially true this year. With the pandemic receding in the rearview mirror, people are planning to buy more winter coats and dress clothes for holiday parties and travel, according to a report from the market-research company The NPD Group. And retailers are urging people to buy, buy, buy in order to clear out the record levels of inventory they built up due to supply-chain delays. Overconsumption, however, will only lead to more clothing getting thrown out. Thirty percent of what we buy online — half of which is clothing — is returned, and according to ReturnGo, a firm I advise that helps retailers improve their return processes, 25% of returned products end up in the waste stream.
Despite the promises of eco-friendly brands to recycle their customers’ returns, old clothes rarely get refurbished. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that, globally, less than 1% of used clothing is actually recycled into new clothes. In contrast, 9% of plastic and about 70% of cardboard are recycled. In 2013, H&M became the first major retailer to initiate a global used-clothing-collection program, setting up thousands of bins in stores across 40 countries. The company encouraged customers to recycle their used clothing, offering vouchers and discount coupons to people who took advantage of the program. But according to a 2016 Fast Company report, very few of the items are recycled into new garments. A majority of the clothes H&M collects end up being donated, while the rest are turned into products like cleaning rags or wipes that only live a short time before ending up in the trash.
While these recycling campaigns are great marketing tools, the reality is that the scale and technology needed for them to work doesn’t exist. Recycling clothes is expensive, and the existing technology isn’t adequate to handle the volume needed to make a difference for the planet. And since manufacturing clothing has become incredibly cheap, it rarely makes financial sense for companies to invest in repurposing or recycling old clothes. So what can companies do to limit waste?
How can companies reduce their impact?
The fashion industry takes a heavy toll on the environment. Clothing production consumes one-tenth of all water used industrially, resulting in 20% of the world’s wastewater — much of which is too toxic to be treated and reused. The most environmentally harmful stages of clothing production are the extraction of raw materials and the manufacturing of fabric. And this impact is worsened once the clothes are finished: The transportation stage — delivering clothes from warehouses to stores or from stores to customers — also creates a huge amount of greenhouse gasses. Each product is delivered to customers’ houses one by one, only to be returned or discarded after the (very short) fashion season has ended. Some clothes live longer in secondary markets, but many go straight to the landfill, where they sit in heaps until they can decompose.
Most businesses design their products with manufacturability in mind — meaning they think about the cost implications of manufacturing a product while in the process of designing it. To reduce the harm companies cause the planet, designers should also think about the sustainability of a product when they design it.
One way to do this is to simply use more sustainable raw materials. According to a Swedish study, the use of Tencel, a fabric made from sustainably sourced wood, significantly reduces the amount of water needed to manufacture a clothing item. A 2021 study found that silk has the highest environmental impact among various fibers at the extraction stage. In general, natural fabrics such as wool and cotton are more sustainable than synthetic ones. It takes a cotton shirt six months to decompose and a wool sock can break down in five years. By comparison, synthetic fabrics like lycra and polyester — materials used in spandex shorts and other athletic gear — can take centuries to break down.
Some brands are leading the way in sustainability, including the up-and-coming brand Garcia Bello, which was conceived of in Argentina by Juliana Garcia Bello. Garcia Bello upcycles returned clothes — taking outdated clothing and mixing it with raw cotton to generate new items, allowing the designer to extend the life of the garment or fabric. The practice also favors clothes that are handmade, ensuring better durability, fit, and lower carbon impact.
Another way to limit impact is to focus on the waste caused by returns. Since the pandemic, online shopping — and returns — has surged. In 2022, consumers are expected to return $279.03 billion worth of merchandise, or about 26.5% of the amount they spent — an increase from 2019 when returned items accounted for 19.8% of commercial spending. Brick-and-mortar stores can be used not only as return centers to create more efficiency in the return process, but as they were originally intended: places to try and find the most suitable products in person. David Bell, Santiago Gallino, and Toni Moreno studied data from Warby Parker about the effect of having physical locations where customers can view and try products. They found that these showrooms improved the company’s overall operational efficiency by decreasing returns.
In addition to limiting returns, companies can also limit waste by recycling. While recycling clothing can be expensive, there are some companies that have figured out a way to limit waste by recycling. Patagonia has said it recycles 100% of the gear customers return through its “Worn Wear”program. But in 2019, the company acknowledged that some products are “too well-loved during use,” and the technology to repurpose that gear isn’t available yet. Patagonia sometimes holds on to these products until — maybe, one day — there’s a solution, but other products are sent to landfills or the incinerator. In 2015, in the US alone, Patagonia generated 262 million tons of solid waste. Only 91 million tons, or 35%, of that was recycled and composted. According to Patagonia, the rest ended up in landfills or were converted into energy in a process called combustion-energy recovery. While recycling did help limit Patagonia’s waste, the ability to recycle used clothing is still a long way from being a viable option for companies.
Whether these different approaches can work at scale is a different question, but starting small may allow firms to test these methods’ viability and appeal to consumers. And there’s good news for companies trying to step things up: A June McKinsey survey found that more young people are actively seeking out sustainable brands, indicating that as young people start buying more clothes, there will be more of a market for eco-friendly clothing.
Time to be honest
In order to fix fast fashion, companies need to start being more transparent about their sustainability practices. Being honest forces companies to acknowledge that sustainability is a work in progress and puts pressure on the overall system to improve. It also ensures that the waste companies produce is out in the open. Most consumers that care about sustainability are aware that not every practice a company uses is perfect. But misleading consumers who are looking to buy from ethical companies makes matters worse and invites even more criticism.
Unfortunately, not a lot of companies are successful at being transparent about their environmental impact. H&M was once thought of as a sustainable company, only to be criticized later for greenwashing. It used scorecards to describe how environmentally friendly each clothing item was, but a Quartz investigation found that these claims were often overblown or completely false.
Everlane is another brand that paints an eco-friendly image while not doing enough to limit its impact. A 2020 report from Remake, an advocacy organization focused on the environmental impact of the fashion industry, found that Everlane was one of the lowest-scoring brands for transparency, only earning a point more than the fast-fashion giant Forever 21. “There’s a lot this brand is hiding,” Remake wrote of H&M in its report.
As more countries like Ghana begin banning the import of clothes that just get dumped in landfills, companies will have to find solutions to clothing waste. For a solution to be viable, though, it will have to be both sustainable and cost efficient, which means that companies need to have sufficient scale to ensure the cost of recycling is low enough and the fabrics used can be recycled efficiently.
But because we can’t always leave things up to firms, there’s something we can do as consumers to reduce wasted clothes. The biggest positive impacts come from elongating the life of a garment, reducing transportation, and focusing on sustainable materials. So, this holiday season, try buying local, natural fibers, and items that are likely to remain in fashion longer than Fashion Week 2022.
Gad Allon is the faculty director of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology and a professor of operations, information, and decisions at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.