March 8, 2012 8

Fashion disposal

By in Ethics/sustainability, Theory/research


Image: models tear their paper dresses up at the Jum Nakao show, São Paulo Fashion Week 2004. Source.

(This post is Part 2 of a series on “GETTIN RID OF UR SHIT”. Part 1 is here.)

It is surely the case that almost everyone with even a passing interest in their wardrobe must accumulate enough stuff in said wardrobe that, at some stage, sooner or later, no matter how cautious they’ve been with their choices and purchasing, they’ll need to get rid of some of it. If even the circumspect consumer has things to get rid of, imagine how much a lover of fast fashion might need to dispose of – according to a case study of Zara, fast fashion garments are generally designed to only last around 10 wears (any more than that is down to luck, really) and then – it’s usually disposal time.

In the years between 2003 and 2008, when the fast fashion model was arguably hitting its stride, textile waste at council refuse collection points in the UK increased from 7% to 30% by weight, according to Environment Select Committee. That’s a 330% increase. As the paper I’m reading about fashion disposal says, “the exceptional growth of fast-fashion retailers can be attributed to high impulse buying, an increase in sourcing from low-cost countries and a change in consumer attitudes, with the removal of stigma attached to buying from value retailers”. (I’m assuming that last part – the removal of stigma – was helped hugely by all those designer collaborations over the years, which were probably about nothing as noble as the democratisation of fashion, surely, but more about lending false legitimacy and a higher profile to retailers producing ridiculously cheap and usually poorly made clothes.) Purchasing fast fashion is a behaviour that has been increasingly engaged in over the past decade, and it’s worrying to consider to what extent the fast fashion model is responsible for that massive increase in textile waste.

But how do people actually dispose of their unwanted garments? In particular, how do young, middle-class people – the demographic most likely to engage in fast fashion purchasing to the greatest extent – get rid of their unwanted clothes?

The paper I mentioned, “An investigation of young fashion consumers’ disposal habits”, conducted focus group discussions with 71 young women, aged 17-25, in the UK. The majority of these women reported that they kept the garments they had purchased until they became unwearable, which was usually because of three main reasons: the quality was low, the women preferred a newer trend, or the item was only purchased for a one-off occasion. The vast majority of fast fashion items were simply thrown in the bin, unsurprisingly. Only 7.1% of participants reported selling their unwanted items via methods such as eBay or garage sales. 36% of items were donated to charity, and only 7.4% were put into recycling bins, which is concerning when you consider the extent to which recycling could play a role in reducing the negative impact of clothing disposal (more about that later). In summary, the authors had this to say:

The findings of this study reveal that young female consumers are unaware of the need for clothing recycling. However, they agree that there is a general lack of knowledge of how and where clothing is disposed of, or even how it is made, such as the environmental consequences of artificial fibres and intensive cotton production. This lack of awareness is thought to be a result of lack of media coverage. If the environmental impact of clothing manufacturing and disposal was more widely publicized, participants indicated that clothing retailers would soon have to adapt their collections and sales strategies. Participants also stated that they might consider modifying their clothing consumption and disposal behaviour if they were more aware of the social and environmental consequences.

And when you consider the total amount of what does get thrown out, it becomes incredibly obvious how crucial it is to increase general awareness of the consequences of clothing consumption and disposal behaviour. In the UK, about a billion kilograms of textiles are relegated to landfill every year. In Australia, 4% of landfill content is textiles (see this PDF). Even if you yourself aren’t throwing the garments directly into the bin but rather you’re donating them to charity, there’s a reasonable chance they might end up as landfill all the same: the UK-based Recycling Association says that 25% of garments donated to charity are useless and have to be sent directly to landfill. The percentage is pretty much the same in Australia, with 12.5 million kilograms of clothing being sent to landfill out of the roughly 50 million kilograms that are donated to charity per year. Of the donated clothes that are useable, the UK Council For Textile Recycling says that 61% of those clothes are exported to overseas markets, not sold through UK second-hand shops as most people donating would assume. Australia exports huge amounts of “post-consumer textile waste” overseas too, amounting to about the equivalent of 2500 forty-foot shipping containers distributed to 44 countries, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

So, basically, the UK, Australia and a whole heap of other “first world” countries are generating enormous amounts of textile waste, some of which goes into landfill (where it might then produce toxic ammonia, greenhouse gases, and leachate that can contaminate groundwater sources), some of which is sold in charity shops (but not as much as you might think), and some of which is exported, primarily to third world nations. The latter option seems like it could be a potentially beneficial one, providing clothing to disadvantaged people in poverty-stricken regions. Ah, if only it was that simple.

There are various problems associated with the distribution of cast-off textiles to developing nations. Surprisingly, the charities that collect your donated garments don’t necessarily distribute them to these nations for free. What is often the case is that they tie the garments up into huge bundles which they sell on to companies for export to the third world, and the companies then sell them on to dealers who mark the bundles up drastically in price before selling them on to locals in the disadvantaged countries. An example reported in Lucy Siegle’s book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World?, involved an African woman taking a gamble on a clothing bundle that was offered for sale – she was not allowed to inspect the bundle and she bought the bundle hoping that it contained enough decent garments that she could resell and hopefully make a small profit on overall. Her livelihood and that of her family depended on the somewhat random chance that the bundle had been sorted well and that the true junk had been sifted out. Is it really that charitable of us to donate unwanted clothes only to have them form such a precarious basis for someone’s livelihood?

Another issue is that, given that first world countries produce such a phenomenal amount of textile cast-offs, it doesn’t take much time to completely flood a country with more garments than it could possibly want or use. The sheer abundance means cheap prices for these second-hand Western clothes, which drastically undercuts any local garment production markets in the developing countries to which the clothes are distributed. People who were producing garments locally are put out of work, and traditional methods of garment production and decoration and their associated skills are lost due to almost total lack of demand. Countries and economies become helplessly dependent on the flow of Western cast-offs that diminish the richness of their cultures and don’t ever offer them the chance to grow or become self-sufficient again. Something rather serious to think about next time you’re considering hefting a bag of unwanted clothes into a Salvation Army charity bin.

(If you’re interested, the issues I’ve outlined above about the export of second-hand garments to developing countries are covered in much more detail – and much more compellingly – in the documentary T-Shirt Travels, available in full on YouTube here, which follows filmmaker and international aid worker Shantha Bloemen as she examines the impact of the second-hand clothing trade in Zambia.)

So, as usual, it’s a pretty complex situation, and as such I guess there’s no overall clear and convenient solution. However, as always, there definitely are steps that an individual can take to diminish the impact of fashion disposal on the environment and on disadvantaged, developing nations. And it doesn’t take that much effort, really – maybe just a little reprioritisation of attitudes and behaviours. Such as…

  • Always try to buy the best quality clothes you can afford. Although the price tag isn’t always a guarantee of quality, buying something for extra-cheap at H&M or Primark or Supré or wherever greatly increases the overall chance that you’re going to have a garment that just isn’t going to last, and when it does fall apart, it won’t be worth mending. Try not to buy things impulsively and flippantly, and certainly not for cheap thrills (seriously, a bargain isn’t necessarily an achievement, like some people seem to think). Try to learn about what makes a good garment (seam allowances, stitch lengths, fabric quality, interfacing, etc.), so you can inspect potential purchases and figure out how likely they are to stand the test of time – this Wall Street Journal article is a good place to start. Aim to buy things that seem like they will last and would be worth repairing if they ever broke. Be willing spend that bit of extra money in the long-term to maintain and repair a garment instead of giving up on it (and find a good clothes mender who can repair your garments before a problem is too far gone).
  • Make the effort where possible to support artisans and manufacturers in countries where they have to compete with the flood of Western cast-offs. For example, Lucy Siegle recommended Choolips, a brand that works with batikers and tailors in Ghana to produce beautiful garments.
  • Research which textiles are potentially recyclable and how. There might be a local recycling scheme that accommodates garments and can reclaim and reuse the raw materials.
  • And finally: redistributing your unwanted clothes seems to be the best option for disposal, rather than donating them to charity or chucking them in the bin. Try to give them away to people you know who might appreciate them, get rid of them via garage sales or market stalls, or try to sell them on eBay or some other online alternative. Even if it doesn’t seem worth the effort and you only sell some of your items for a pretty paltry price, it’s still the lowest impact, most sustainable option. If you’ve been wise with your purchasing and have bought a good-quality garment that lasts, but you simply no longer want it, its quality means it should retain some value and therefore it shouldn’t be too hard to extend its life by selling it to someone else who will hopefully make good use of it.

Next in the GETTIN RID OF UR SHIT series: some research that figures out a few guidelines for selling on eBay that improve your listings and sales returns, since you should probably be eBayin’ ur shit if you want to be sustainable, u guyz.

8 Responses to “Fashion disposal”

  1. The Waves says:

    Another great post! I wonder what it is about the way we spend money to buy things that makes us feel like we need media coverage in order to figure out that we are simply being wasteful with the way we buy stuff? Has buying stuff simply become so far removed from our basic needs that we no longer connect to why we actually even do it? (The same goes with food: so many of us choose to eat mass-produced bad, cheap food that makes us sick.) Just from the psychological standpoint, I wonder where we went wrong? At what point did we stop acquiring things because there was an actual honest need for them? Surely we have always spent money on “frivolous” things too… but how strange is it that so few of us truly enjoy being shopaholics. We might get a quick fix after a shopping spree, then engage in buyer’s remorse, and we tell ourselves that we deserve to spend the money on ourselves… and then we struggle with our wardrobes, with the clothes that fall apart, but we don’t learn our lessons, and none of it makes us any happier. I don’t know. The whole thing is very confusing.

    By the way, the Wall Street Journal article comes at a good time for me – I just started reading a men’s classic style guide a few days ago. I’ve been thinking for a while that there seems to be something about the way men’s clothing is manufactured, marketed, bought and worn – something more sustainable, more timeless, and I’m glad to see that I was onto something.

    • Jess says:

      I’ll be writing a post soon-ish about some of the factors that contribute to continuing consumption even when there’s a desire to minimise it. There’s a paper that looked at Swedish consumerism, and given that the Swedes are one of the most progressive nationalities when it comes to efforts and attitudes regarding sustainability, it’s interesting to investigate the reasons Swedish individuals give for the fact that they often individually hadn’t succeeded in down-shifting and minimising their consumption despite clearly identifying that they wanted to and understood the environmental and psychological benefits of doing so.

      I think the other factor is that people in general just aren’t good at being critical of their own behaviour. It’s seriously difficult for some people to even be critical of the world around them, never mind of themselves. As a scientist it’s just become second nature for me to be skeptical and to seek out evidence and to evaluate things as objectively as possible, but possibly the majority of people don’t even realise that there’s a need to be like that in order to make informed, discerning choices in day-to-day life. That’s why I’ve written posts about cognitive biases – to try to get people to realise that their thinking and reasoning is probably incredibly flawed at best, and they at least need to make some effort to negotiate those flaws, even if it’s not possible to avoid them completely.

      And as I’ve mentioned before, there’s an attitude-behaviour gap when it comes to consumption – even when you tell people about the potential negative impact of their consumption, and they acknowledge that their behaviour has potentially negative consequences, they’ll still go out and engage in that behaviour all the same. The ability to ignore or falsely rationalise one’s cognitive dissonance certainly goes some way to explaining so much of consumption, even if it doesn’t make it any less frustrating to think about.

  2. Eileen says:

    Enjoyed reading this!

    Visiting your blog is like looking into the mirror. I see my impulses spelled out in words…haha And thank you for all the great reading material you are sharing here.

    I agree that the key is to buy less and buy only what you need.

    • Jess says:

      Thanks for your comments, Eileen. :) I have to say, one of the reasons why I started this blog was precisely because I knew that if I was forced to write about all the ways in which I was predictably behaving as a typical consumer (according to all the consumer research out there) then I would be kind of freaked out by how predictable my behaviour was and I would then want to make the effort to adjust it. So yeah, it’s like looking in the mirror – and at least for me I feel like it has been successful in making me pay more attention to my behaviour and to be more critical of it, and I’ve managed to start changing it into something hopefully more constructive and sustainable.

  3. Amanda says:

    I’m still going through all your other posts — they are heavy reading :-) But I’m trying to figure out why I haven’t discovered your blog sooner?! Since I’ve some other financial priorities over the last few months, I’ve significantly cut down on my clothing expenditure. I’ve come to the realization that I have so many things in my closet that I wear all the time anyway and they look as good today as they did 4 years ago. Not to sound snobbish/elitist but I think the reason for this is that (a)I chose those garments very carefully and actually paid full-price for most of them (b) Because they were so costly, I tend to take better care of them.

    Anyway, thank you for such a lovely and informative blog!

    • Jess says:

      I think I’ve just managed to be a particularly prolific blogger since starting this blog, so it makes the blog seem older than it is – it’s only been around for 5 weeks now, haha. And I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it since I was initially a bit unsure of whether it was a good concept for a blog or not, so I guess that’s why you haven’t come across it before. :)

      I think people have just gotten so complacent about the quality and lifespan of their clothes that it doesn’t even occur to them that choosing garments carefully and looking after them is a good idea. So many people seem to think that getting the cheapest thing possible is an achievement, even when they could easily afford better, and if it actually lasts beyond a few wears then that’s just a bonus. I don’t want to be snobbish or judgemental about it either, but from the point of view of sustainability and environmental impact and ethical problems – the cheap stuff is simply more likely to be worse than the more expensive stuff. Sure, price tag means increasingly little these days in terms of quality, but as a general rule, cheaper items are more likely to have sustainability/ethical/environmental issues attached. So I don’t want to seem like I’m lecturing people (which is why I’ve tried to emphasise the fact that I’m often just reporting the objective results of research on this blog, not telling people what they should do based on my personal opinion) and I hope that what I write about at least increases people’s awareness of the issues associated with fashion consumption, and then it’s up to them to make the decision about whether they personally want to do anything about it!

  4. Abby says:

    I am really loving your blog (I’m working my way through your posts backwards). I have been thinking a lot about these issues and it’s great to read some really well thought out writing on these topics.

    I struggle a lot with what to do with clothing I don’t want. Somebody in my family (I’m being internet-vague!) runs a charity shop, so I try to save all my good quality donations for there. The junk I use as rags, since we don’t buy paper towels.

    But now I live very far away from home, and saving up donations has become less feasible. I’ve been researching where to donate locally and it seems like most places process and sell the clothing as you described above.

    Re-selling is difficult as post is very very expensive here. Now I’m looking at consignment and local ex-pat forums. Consignment is tricky because people seem to expect a much fancier brand level than I can sell.

    I think that because I’ve been so close to the charity side of this, I have a real appreciation for a) not donating junk to charities and making them waste resources sorting it, and b) donating my clothes somewhere worthwhile. Even though I’m frustrated with not finding good resources here yet, I’m okay with letting things collect until I do.

  5. [...] patches have holes I think it’s time to say goodbye. Which made it quite interesting reading this post about disposing of clothing, which points out that a lot of clothing given to charity shops is recycled / sent to landfill / [...]

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