How Our Clothes End Up in Landfills

Millions of tonnes of textile waste end up in landfills or incinerators each year (BBC 2020, Fixing Fashion 2019). There is no recent or reliable data on exact global numbers, but NBCLX (2020) talks about ten million tons of clothes for the US alone in 2015 and CBC News (2018) mentions three times a baseball stadium a year in Canada. I can’t even grasp the amount of clothes we’re talking about. Almost all of these garments are chemically treated and a big part is made of plastic-based materials. Needless to say that they cause a big threat to our environment. These enormous numbers got me wondering though. How do so many clothes end up in landfills? When I can’t resell or swap garments, I usually bring them to charity shops and almost everybody I know does the same thing. How is it possible, then, that so many clothes end up in landfills?

Foto door Karolina Grabowska op

The Clothing Myth Deficit
Now, I’ve thought about this before. Ever since seeing The True Cost (2015) the images of the Haiti landfills stuffed with clothes have been stuck in my head. Even so, donating clothes that I didn’t manage to sell or swap still felt like a good thing. I guess I just really wanted to believe that I don’t have to worry about this one extra thing in my life that might AGAIN be destroying the planet. This is probably how the Clothing Myth Deficit prevails: the belief that when we donate our clothes, they will go to someone in need in our local community. Unfortunately, this is just not true. Fast fashion has been overflowing the markets for more than a decade. So what actually happens to our donated clothes?

Clothes that are donated to charities are sorted in their distribution centers. Somewhere between 1-8% of donated clothes are resold in their shops (Common Objective 2018, BBC 2020). Another small part is sold to companies that re- or downcycle them. Our clothing is notoriously hard to recycle, as it often consists of multiple materials. Instead of making new textiles, most of them are therefore shredded and are, for example, used as filling for furniture. However, the largest part of our donated clothes is actually sold to traders that can sell it with profit to countries in, mostly, South America, Africa and Asia. The traders sell stocks to merchants, sometimes through multiple middle men, who eventually try to sell it on local markets.

The clothes that are not sold at the market are typically thrown away or burned in the market’s vicinity. Our secondhand clothes overflowing these markets do not only affect the environment, but also local textile produce. For this reason, East-African countries tried to ban secondhand clothes from their markets in 2015, which was cancelled after tariff-threats by the Trump administration in 2018 (Green America 2019, NBCLX 2020).

Unsold Retail and Returns
Aside from our donations, the clothes we don’t buy or return are a big part of the problem. The Pulse of Fashion, a yearly report on the state of the fashion industry, claimed in 2017 that on average, 35% of all materials in the fashion supply chain ends up as waste before it reaches the consumer. This is a compilation of cutting waste from production, un-useable stock, excess stock or spoilage. That is an amazing quantity. In many cases, these textiles end up in the waste system or are, again, sold to traders. There are even companies nowadays, referred to as ‘fulfillment companies’ that big brands outsource the management of their returns to (Tegenlicht 2020). It is very easy for us as consumers to order clothes online and it’s often free to return them. When this happens, clothes need to be checked and repacked, which costs both time and money. For brands it is often cheaper to cast out returned items than to resell them, which can happen to more than 25% of returns for average retailers (CNBC 2019). Also, brands don’t want the secondhand markets to overflow with their products in order to protect their brand. In 2018, several brands, among which Burberry, Nike and H&M, were called out for burning their stocks that didn’t sell (BBC 2018, NY Times 2018, VOX 2018).

How is the industry dealing?
In short, there is a big waste problem in the fashion industry. Fast fashion is produced in countries with cheap labor, then shipped to Europe, the US and Australia, after which 60% ends up in landfills or incinerators within the year. Often in ‘poor’ countries (Fixing Fashion 2019, NY Times 2018, EPRS 2019). Only now, the first countries are coming with regulations for this problem. In France, for example, manufacturers are obliged to donate, reuse or recycle their unsold retail by 2023 (CNBC 2019). Some work is being done in trying to recycle old clothes into new textiles, but as I mentioned before, this is hard. There are some local initiatives that sort out garments for recycling into new textiles, which can be done either mechanically or technically. Recycle Wool is one such initiatives in Pakistan that sorts 100% wool garments for recycling.

At first, I was also pleasantly surprised to learn that customers can now donate their clothes to big brands like H&M and Nike so they can recycle it. It turns out, however, that these clothes end up in the same secondhand cycle as clothes donated to charity shops. CBC News (2018) reports that in order for the fast fashion outlets to recycle what they make, it would take twelve years to recycle what they sell in 48 hours. On top of that, the brands often give customers an incentive in the form of a voucher, to buy even more.

It is clear that there needs to be more regulation for waste in the fashion industry. Making brands accountable for the whole lifespan of their products may be a beginning.

What can we do?
As far as I was able to find out, there’s no ideal place to bring your clothes that you can’t sell or swap. They will go through the treadmill and likely end up in a landfill. We should simply all buy less, buy secondhand and give our clothes a longer life. Organize a swap party, give clothes to friends who might wear it, or upcycle garments that you would otherwise throw away.

The fact that a big part of our returned clothes (and other products for that matter) are not resold, was another eyeopener for me. Don’t buy clothes online and rethink returning them. If you do decide to shop online; some apps are being developed, like this one by True Fit, that measure your exact sizes and use artificial intelligence to make sure that you fit what you buy online. This reduces the chances of you having to return your items. I couldn’t find any operating ones so far though.

Tegenlicht ‘Op volle retouren‘, 2020 (Dutch).
CBC News ‘Marketplace‘, 2018


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