Author: Not mentioned
Posted on: The Guardian | March 25th, 2018
When you walk into a high-street shop, you’re probably looking to snap up a bargain, not get rid of an old jumper. But clothing retailers and brands are increasingly asking shoppers to dump their cast-offs in store.
Britain alone is expected to send 235m items of clothing to landfill this spring, the majority of which could have been re-worn, reused or recycled. Major retailers are coming under pressure to tackle the waste.
In response, brands including H&M and Zara are stepping up in-store recycling initiatives, which allow customers to drop off unwanted items in fashion “bins” in high-street shops. While companies such as Adidas and luxury group Kering – the owner of brands including Alexander McQueen and Gucci – agreed at this month’s Copenhagen Fashion Summit to set 2020 targets for garment collection.
The idea is to boost textile collection and recycling rates, and reduce needless waste to landfill. But if the same companies continue to drive high levels of consumption – some are launching up to 24 new clothing collections every year– can in-store recycling be more than a tokenistic gesture?
H&M says it has collected about 40,000 tonnes of garments since launching its scheme in 2013, which it passes on to its partner recycling plant in Berlin. What can’t be reused is downcycled into products like cleaning cloths or insulation fibres.
Nike too has a long-running collection scheme, Reuse-A-Shoe, which sees 1.5m worn out trainers per year collected in store or by post and sent to facilities in Tennessee and Belgium to be ground up into material for sports and playground surfaces.
But corporate enthusiasm for such schemes appears to be growing: H&M wants to increase collection to 25,000 tonnes a year by 2020, says Catarina Midby, its UK and Ireland sustainability manager. Tactics include advertising campaigns, vouchers and educating employees who can inform customers about the scheme.
Zara, which started installing collection bins during 2016 in stores across Europe, says it will soon have completed installation in all of its stores across China. The Inditex brand is donating the collected clothing to charities including the Red Cross.
Bad habits are hard to change
Despite growing investment, however, consumer behaviour is proving hard to change – a recent survey by Sainsbury’s suggested three quarters of householders in Britain chuck old clothes out with their household waste.
Cyndi Rhoades, founder of recycling technology company Worn Again, hopes the growing prevalence of high-street collection schemes will kickstart behaviour change around textiles much in the way that it’s now widely understood paper and plastic can be recycled. “It’s part of the wider communication campaign to consumers to say – whether it’s rewearable or not, whether it’s returned in store, to charity shops or textile banks – clothing can be recycled.”
Some observers, however, question the ability of in-store recycling to effect real change. As part of a wider strategy to increase resource-efficiency, such schemes can be valuable, says Dilys Williams, director of sustainable fashion at the London College of Fashion. But in isolation, she warns they could “encourage a guilt-free consumption attitude where customers think it’s a good idea to buy and wear (or not) in ever increasing amounts without thought for clothing’s inherent precious value in terms of people and resources.”
What happens to recycled clothes?
Collecting clothes is only half the battle, says Rhoades; what happens after they are collected is just as important. Current mechanical recycling of natural fibres like cotton and wool results in shorter, lower quality textile fibres that can’t be used again in clothes. Instead, they are used to make lower value products like cleaning cloths, which may eventually end up incinerated or in landfill.
Rhoades would like to see more brands investing directly in the tech companies pioneering a more circular model, where raw materials in clothes are recaptured and returned into the fashion supply chain at a competitive price. “There is very little venture capital for research and development [and] without brands playing an active role in financing, these solutions will not make it to market,” she says.
Jade Wilting, project coordinator of the Circle Textiles Programme at social enterprise, Circle Economy, agrees that brands have responsibility to fund the infrastructure and technology needed for more efficient solutions, but says a cultural shift is also needed. Even if the solution to recycle clothes into new clothes appeared overnight, Wilting says we would still have to question why we consume at the rate which we do.
Buying fewer clothes would not only help the environment, but also enhance our wellbeing, says Williams. “After the initial ‘thrill of the till’ at bagging a bargain, our satisfaction quickly fades to feelings of guilt,” she says. “The expectation is to keep up with the ever-changing trends, refreshing our wardrobe every few weeks, but studies have proven that far from bringing us happiness it can actually make us feel empty.”