Not so long ago, keeping apace with the latest styles would have required being handy with a needle or having deep pockets. In the 1950s, the average American household spent more than 12% of its income on apparel, while today that figure has dropped to less than 3%, its lowest point ever. Not that we’re becoming less fashion-conscious, mind you. Having “abandoned our sewing machines and deserted our dressmakers”, consumers in the US and other developed nations are stuffing their closets full of ever-cheaper garments in pursuit of fashions that change season to season, says Elizabeth Cline, author of ‘Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion’. One consequence is a staggering amount of excess and waste that all too often flows from drawers to the dustbin. However, a growing number of initiatives are diverting this stream, and giving new life to items that are outworn, outgrown or out of fashion.
These days Americans buy just over one garment per week, spending $1,700 per household each year on apparel, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. And each year, the average American discards of 68 pounds of clothing, contributing 4% to the volume of municipal waste, reports the Environmental Protection Agency. In the UK, about 3.5 million tonnes of clothes end up in landfills every year, which according to WRAP represents £140 million in wasted goods. Even though textile and garment recycling has become more mainstream, a significant amount still ends up as trash. The Council for Textile Recycling estimates that the 2.5 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste (which includes anything made of fabric) collected for reuse and repurposing annually comprises only about 15% of the clothing purged from the closet.
But with a mind toward limiting the amount that ends up in landfill and putting textiles toward better use, efforts on both sides of the Atlantic are encouraging consumers to recycle their wardrobe. The UK retailer Marks and Spencer (M&S) is attempting to incorporate an ethos of exchange and reuse into commercial shopping. Its ‘shwopping’ campaign urges consumers to drop off unwanted items at the store before buying new ones. The clothing is donated to the non-profit organisation Oxfam, which subsequently resells, reuses or recycles them.
The fashion retailer H&M has similarly partnered with I:CO, a clothing and accessories recycling company that aims to ensure that “old textiles enter a closed-loop production cycle and remain there”. I:CO, which stands for ‘I collect’, is based on the idea that items can be returned to the point of purchase for recycling and reuse. According to I:CO, the company processes 500 tonnes of clothes per day across 74 countries. In 2011 the government of New York City in partnership with Housing Works, a non-profit that assists homeless people living with HIV, launched one of the largest consumer textile recycling programmes in the country. With the aim of reducing the landfill toll from the 200,000 tonnes of apparel and other textiles that New Yorkers dispose of each year, the initiative collects garments that could be reused directly from apartment buildings.
The second-hand clothing industry is a booming business
With fast and cheap fashion keeping wardrobes full to bursting, the second-hand clothing industry is a booming business. Between 1980 and 2001, the worldwide trade of second-hand apparel increased more than sevenfold, from $207 million to over a billion-dollar market, according to data from the US Department of Commerce. While some of the clothing donated through schemes like the M&S shwopping campaign and the New York City programme winds up in thrift stores, run by both commercial operations and charities, a significant portion is exported to developing countries.
The New York City apparel recycling programme works with Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) an international non-profit association whose member companies purchase excess textiles from charities and commercial businesses. The SMART companies then sort and grade the goods and assign them to new ends. Representing 200 small and medium-sized companies, SMART in cooperation with its charitable partners, diverts more than 3.8 billion pounds of post-consumer textile waste from landfills and rubbish piles every year. According to SMART, member companies are able to recycle and reuse 95% of what they collect, repurposing garments and textiles as wiping and polishing clothes, reprocessing then into fibres for upholstery, insulation, sound proofing and carpet padding, as well as exporting almost half as second-hand items bound for developing country markets.
Some observers have expressed concern that this practice could undermine local markets, especially as the volume of worn goods continues to increase. In 2001, the last year for which there is data, worn clothing was the largest US export to Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Trade Commission. A report issued by the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University suggested that the trade in second-hand clothes inhibits the development of local apparel businesses. A study by Oxfam, which collects second hand clothes for resale in its stores and shipment to West Africa and elsewhere, drew a different conclusion: it found that the used clothes trade is not the central obstacle to local business creation, and moreover, that it creates tens of thousands of jobs.
But what happens to that favourite item, loved to such a frayed and diaphanous state that it’s not fit for a second life? They can still be worn again, or ‘born again’ in another role, thanks to new schemes working to divert these items from landfills by turning them back into raw materials. Cotton Incorporated, an association of growers, manufacturers and retailers, has rerouted more than 600 tonnes of worn-out denim from landfills in the US. The idea behind their denim-recycling programme crystalised in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when in the midst of conducting a broad college marketing campaign, they saw an opportunity to capitalize on many of the persistent interests and concerns that young people were expressing – namely the desire for greater environmental sustainability and to give back to their communities.
Today, the Cotton Incorporated ‘From Blue to Green’ programme works with retailers and individuals to gather used blue jeans to make denim-based insulation. Bonded Logic, an Arizona-based cotton fibre insulation manufacturer, processes the donations into UltraTouch denim insulation, which is in turn donated to Habitat for Humanity and other charitable organisations. According to Andrea Samber, national spokesperson for the programme, From Blue to Green will receive its millionth piece of denim this year, and has already used more than 2 million square feet of insulation in constructing homes for those in need. The programme coordinators are currently working with developers in the New York-New Jersey area to use UltraTouch in homes for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. “It’s the little engine that could”, says Samber, noting that while this effort is but a drop in the bucket, it has successfully found a new home for more than 600 tonnes of fabric that would otherwise go to waste.
Katherine Rowland is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on health and the environment has appeared in Nature and the Financial Times.
Photo credit: monap/iStockphoto; levent konuk/shutterstock; onesmallsquare/shutterstock