It’s no secret that fashion has a waste problem.
Globally, an estimated 92 million tonnes of textile waste is created each year and, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the equivalent of one rubbish truck full of clothes ends up going to landfill every second. By 2030, we are expected as a whole to be discarding more than 134 million tonnes of textiles a year.
But increasingly, the clarion calls for change have resulted in some fairly seismic shifts and now more than ever, fashion and recycling are working in tandem. Or are they?
Irish apparel brand Primark announced last week that it will be rolling out in-store recycling schemes across all of its 190 UK stores.
“All of the clothes you donate will be reused, recycled or repurposed, with nothing going to landfill. That means we’ll aim for as many donations as possible to be worn again. But where that’s not possible, your pre-loved will be turned into insulation, mattress fillers or even toy stuffing so that nothing is wasted!” read a release from the brand.
Clothing collected from Primark’s scheme will be reused by its recycling partner Yellow Octopus, which, a Primark spokesperson told the Standard, “carries out a robust sorting process to ensure that as many clothes, shoes and bags as possible can be re-worn by others.”
When approached for an interview, Yellow Octopus said that “as a part of commercial agreement with Primark we are not authorised to talk to the media.”
The fast fashion chain isn’t alone with its corporate enthusiasm for recycling schemes; fellow high street giants H&M and Zara have also implemented in-store recycling initiatives, which allow customers to drop off unwanted items in clothing “bins.”
The idea is to boost textile collection and recycling rates and reduce waste to landfill. But if the same high street brands continue to drive high levels of consumption – some are launching up to 24 new clothing collections every year – can in-store recycling be deemed as anything more than a performative action?
H&M says it collected about 29,000 tonnes of garments last year, which it passes on to its partner recycling plant in Berlin. What can’t be reused is recycled into products like cleaning cloths or insulation fibres. Meanwhile Zara, which started installing collection bins in its European stores in 2016, donates the collected clothing to charities including the Red Cross.
Despite the investment in such schemes, consumer's attitudes are proving hard to change. Research has found that three quarters of householders in Britain bin old clothing along with their household waste.
Cally Russell, CEO of Lost Stock, the fashion initiative set up in the wake of Covid-19 to support garment workers in Bangladesh, hopes the growing prevalence of high-street recycling schemes will trigger behaviour changes in consumers. “Most consumers are not driven by sustainability yet, so you need these big brands to engage with the conversations. Moving takes a while with big businesses, but these schemes ultimately increase visibility and contribute to the conversation.”
Inevitably, there are those who question the efficacy of in-store recycling. Any fashion brand that bases its business model on volume - producing and selling as much as they can - can put out as many recycling bins as possible and still will not only have zero impact but a negative impact on the environment because of the quality of the clothes they sell, says Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.
Collecting clothes is actually only half of the battle though. Current recycling of natural fibres like cotton and wool results in lower quality textile fibres that can’t actually be used again in clothes; according to a 2017 report, less than one per cent of clothing materials are recycled into new clothing, the remaining 99 per cent finding a home in the form of insulation or mattress stuffing for example.
Girlfriend Collective is one of the pioneers attempting to recycle old clothes into new clothes. The activewear brand that crafts its garments from recycled plastic bottles, has developed an innovative programme called ReGirlfriend, which sees it collect used garments from customers and turn them into new ones. In June, the Seattle-based brand launched underwear and socks which it will also collect and recycle.
“Brands need to wake up and think, ‘Now we’ve got this product, what more can we do with it once the consumer is finished with it?' Retail is riddled with inefficiencies and it’s about getting to the heart of the inefficiencies,” Russell adds.
Recent estimates have suggested that, owing to the pandemic, Primark has £1.5billion worth of inventory in excess stockpile, which will no doubt be difficult to sell. Whether that hoard of clothes will be recycled remains to be seen.
"These recycle bins are pure show, dreamed up my marketing whizzes. A sliver of the clothes they sell are returned to be recycled," Thomas warns. "This exercise is greenwashing at its absolute worst. Any brand that plops recycle bins in its store entrances is trying to snow customers, to get them to feel better about all the overconsumption, so they’ll buy more. Simple as that."
What do the brands say?
In response to the claims made in this piece, Primark said: "We feel proud that this is a recycling scheme that really delivers and we hope our customers will agree that raising money to support UNICEF’s important work is a meaningful and real incentive to bring back their pre-loved items from any brand. We are constantly expanding our efforts to be more sustainable, and rolling out a customer recycling scheme is another important step. More needs to be done across the industry to help consumers prolong the lifecycle of their clothes, but we believe that offering customers a recycling scheme – to do good with their old clothes – is an important step to helping us, and our customers, reduce our impact on the planet.”
A spokesperson for H&M also commented: "The H&M Garment Collecting programme is a global initiative that works to prevent customers’ unwanted clothes textiles from going to landfill. H&M has been collecting unwanted clothes from any brand, in any condition, at any store, every single day of the year since 2013. We were the first brand to ever set up this initiative globally. Translating our ambition to be fully circular and climate positive into concrete actions and goals is crucial to us. Our sustainability work has never been about “greenwashing” – this categorically goes against what we stand for. Sustainability is fully embedded in our business strategy. Globally we have over 200 people working solely in sustainability roles across all aspects of our business, ensuring that sustainability is always a top priority, as it should be."
Zara failed to respond when asked to comment.