Worn Out: The Fashion Industry's Giant Waste Problem

Spring is here, and I’ve been thinking a lot more about my wardrobe—and how sick I am of it. Even though I cleaned out my closet fairly recently, I still counted at least 25 clothing items that I don’t wear regularly anymore. But what should I do with all my tired sweaters and dresses?

I know I shouldn’t throw all that stuff away. If I do, chances are it will end up in an incinerator or landfill, both of which are environmentally devastating. Both methods release toxic and planet-heating pollutants into the atmosphere, and both kinds of facilities tend to be constructed in poor communities of color, creating an environmentally unjust public health burden.

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I figured donating them to my local Goodwill would be a better option, and it is to an extent. But according to journalist Adam Minter, who wrote the book Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, thrift stores only sell roughly a third of the items that end upon their shelves.

The other two-thirds doesn’t necessarily get trashed, but rather enters a maze of global trade. Some of that excess clothing–though there’s no data on exactly how much—ends up in vast, global re-use markets. Traders from around the world collect garments, grade their condition, and send them along to be recycled, worn again, or turned into cleaning rags and mattress stuffing.

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There’s a problem, though. Currently, the fashion industry is producing so much stuff that this global network is getting overwhelmed. Clothing production has doubled since 2000, and the fashion industry now produces 150 billion items a year. Society keeps up with all the new clothes in production by buying more: The average person today purchases 60% more clothing than they did 20 years ago.

More new clothes also means older clothes are being tossed aside more quickly. Since 2002, the average number of times a garment is worn before it’s discarded has dropped by more than a third, which means we’re producing way more waste. Minter said one way to deal with this is to force companies to build clothing to last rather than the current breakneck pace of fast fashion.

“There’s no question that clothing is made purposely made less durable,” he said.

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To combat this, governments could implement durability standards for clothing and outlaw planned obsolescence—sort of like what France has done for electronics—to ensure they’re created to last.

But discarded garments aren’t the industry’s only waste problem. The industry also throws out a ton of unused fabric in the clothing production process. That problem inspired nonprofits like Fabscrap to collect unused material from brands like Marc Jacobs, Oscar de la Renta, and Eileen Fisher. The organization then sorts the fabrics and resells or donates them to artists and burgeoning brands.

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But this shouldn’t be a nonprofit’s responsibility—the government should step in to help handle all this material and regulate companies, for instance by clamping down on the use of fabrics that are hard to reuse or recycle, like polyester blends.

If you’re looking for ideas to lower your clothing waste individually, you could think about repairing torn clothes instead of replacing them, which is also a great way to save money. And if you’re like me and you’ve got a bunch of stuff you’re simply sick of wearing, consider having a clothing swap with your homies. We can’t take on problem on the individual level, but cutting down on personal clothing waste is never a bad idea.

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Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.

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Today’s regulatory affairs review: Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, aka “P2"

https://www.epa.gov/p2/pollution-prevention-act-1990

The policy:

The Congress hereby declares it to be the national policy of the United States that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source whenever feasible; pollution that cannot be prevented should be recycled in an environmentally safe manner, whenever feasible; pollution that cannot be prevented or recycled should be treated in an environmentally safe manner whenever feasible; and disposal or other release into the environment should be employed only as a last resort and should be conducted in an environmentally safe manner.

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