Author: Meg O’Connell
ABSTRACT: The Fashion Industry is one of the most wasteful and polluting industries in the world. Due to issues such as fast fashion and overconsumption consumers now buy more clothing than ever before and wear that clothing less before they discard it. Fashion waste can come from a variety of different sources; however, the biggest contributors are manufacturing and production, water waste, the destruction of unsold inventory, and end-of-life waste. Although fashion waste is a complex and multifaceted issue there are many solutions which include textile recycling, slow fashion, zero waste design, and government regulation.
Fashion Waste is a major problem affecting landfills, waterways, and clothing donation centers globally. The rise in fashion and textile waste can be attributed to fast fashion and over-consumption habits that have become popular among most consumers. Today more than half of all clothing that is produced is discarded or thrown away within a year and people wear their clothing 36% less than they did only 15 years ago (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). Fast fashion brands such as H&M and ZARA produce up to 24 collections per year as opposed to the traditional fashion cycle of 1-2 collections per season (McFall-Johnsen). In the current fast fashion model runway trends are now quickly copied by mass-market and fast-fashion retailers and produced using cheaply made synthetic fabrics like polyester and new stock is often designed and produced every 2 weeks (Moorhouse). In 2015 it was estimated that 150 million garments are produced each year in our current fashion system, with the global population being only 7.9 billion that amounts to over 18 new garments per year for every person (Conca). Keeping up with the increasing production of new clothing, people are also consuming more. People bought 60% more new garments in 2014 than they did in 2000 and people on average now only keep their clothing for half as long (McFall-Johnsen).
Fashion Waste is generated through multiple sources which include manufacturing and production, waste from dyeing and finishing, the destruction of unsold merchandise, and end-of-life waste. During the manufacturing process between 10-25% of the fabric is wasted in the pattern cutting process (Textile Value Chain). The amount of waste depends on the garment type, size and shape of the patterns, and the cutting techniques used. Around 10% of the fabric is typically wasted when cutting a pair of pants and that amount is usually higher for blouses and outwear and garments with more detail (Textile Value Chain). In traditional garment-making processes, it’s impossible for 100% of all fabric to be utilized; however , fabric waste needs to be considered from the beginning stages of the design and production process in order to eliminate excess waste (Textile Value Chain). The fashion industry is also a major contributor to industrial water waste due to the dyeing and finishing processes used to manufacture clothing. Textile dyeing is the second leading cause of water pollution globally, water from dyeing is often dumped into streams, rivers, and oceans. Textile
dyeing is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution (McFall-Johnsen). And textile production uses 93 billion cubic meters of water annually (Ellen McArthur Foundation). The production of new textiles also amounts to massive amounts of waste and emissions. In 2015 the impact of textile production amounted to 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions- more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined (Ellen McArthur Foundation). 70 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce polyester (Conca)
One of the biggest causes of fashion waste is the destruction of unsold merchandise from major fashion brands. Often so much clothing is produced that demand cannot keep up with production and fashion retailers are left with the unsold inventory at the end of the season. Rather than discount or donate unsold merchandise many brands destroy merchandise by burning or sending it to landfills in order to maintain the exclusivity of their brand (Dalton). In 2018 the fashion company Burberry faced controversy after revealing that they destroyed $37.3 million USD worth of stock the previous year (Dalton). In 2020 France passed a law banning the destruction of unsold or unusable clothing and textiles. The EU has also proposed a similar ban. The new French law requires that retailers recycle or donate unsold items and enforces a fine if companies are found destroying inventory (Dalton). Although burning and discarding clothing is now illegal in France it is still common in other parts of the world. By far the biggest contributor to fashion waste is the post-life disposal of clothing. With so much new clothing being produced many consumers throw away clothing after only a few uses. Globally people discard 460 billion USD per year of perfectly usable clothing (Ellen McArthur Foundation). Western countries such as The UK, EU, Canada, Australia, and the US are the biggest contributors to fashion waste. The UK spends 82 million GBP on sending clothing to landfills each year (Ellen McArthur Foundation) Americans throw away 70 pounds of clothing each year per person (Conca).
In order to solve the issue of fashion waste action must be taken by both consumers, fashion businesses and by governments. One solution for the fashion waste problem is to implement zero waste design principles in the process of designing and manufacturing clothing. Zero waste can be defined as the process of discarding nothing in the creation of fashion (Tokens). Although zero waste is not possible for every garment or desired design it is possible to consider zero waste or low waste techniques
throughout the design process in order to cut back on excess textile waste. Education and awareness on slow fashion and conscious consumption is another way to combat the fashion waste crisis. Slow fashion encompasses conscious consumption and awareness of the processes, materials and approaches to the production of fashion as well as advocates for investing in higher quality longer garments and reducing consumption (Hill). Textile recycling can be another solution however it is often difficult because of the increase in synthetic and blended fibers. Textile recycling has many benefits such as that it decreases the amount of textiles in landfills and avoids the use of virgin fibers. Another solution to the fashion waste crisis would be for local and federal governments to pass legislation to combat this issue. Governments have the power to ban fashion brands from burning and destroying unsold clothing and to ban consumers from throwing unwanted clothing and textiles into landfills. Governments can also increase access to textile recycling and increase awareness for environmental issues such as fashion waste.
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Meg O’Connell is currently in her fourth year of studying Fashion Communications at Ryerson University with a focus on sustainability and ethical design and an ambassador for the nonprofit Fashion Takes Action.