Mountains of Clothing Waste

Clothing Waste Season 45, Episode 14 Marketplace
from “Clothing Waste”
Season 45, Episode 14
Marketplace CBC

Living in Canada, you may be familiar with the CBC show Marketplace. Marketplace investigates wrongdoings in the marketplace, much like a consumer watchdog. There’s an eye opening episode entitled “Clothing Waste”, episode 14 of season 45. This show investigates the clothing recycling programs at fast fashion chains, and reveals that their marketing may not live up to what they promise consumers and what they are claiming to do for the environment. Here is some of the information I learned from this program.

The Problem of Fast Fashion is The Business Model

The major problem creating sustainability challenges for the western world is the business model of fast fashion retailers, such as H & M, Zara, and Top Shop. Fast fashion retailers make too much, new items appear in the stores weekly or in some cases daily. There was a time when designers produced only two or three collections per year. In order to pump out this high volume of clothing, the products are made too cheap, using synthetic fabrications and low quality construction methods. We have lost the appreciation for the quality and longevity of our clothing, leading to another characteristic of fast fashion – disposable. Most of this clothing does not last very long. Some of these retailers have implemented recycling campaigns. However, it appears to be greenwashing, because there’s still the incentive to purchase new items. H & M has a drop box for all used clothing and accessories, and for using this service, gives you a discount on new purchases. To give H & M credit, they increased their transparency score since 2017 according to Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index for 2019. They’ve also designed a “conscious collection” using sustainable fabrications. I noticed a lot of recycled polyester, polyester that is produced from recycled sources, plastic containers, industrial polyester waste, and even fabrics. Recycled polyester production may reduce CO2  emissions, but there is still too much clothing being made.

The Clothing Deficit Myth

It feels good to give unwanted clothing in your closet to charity, but the reality is that there are far more unwanted clothes than people in need.

Most of the unwanted clothing given to charity is bailed and sold overseas to third world countries. Kenya purchases approximately 22 million dollars worth of used clothes. In turn, these clothes are sold in local markets. What doesn’t sell is dumped or burned, the cheapest options. West Africa now bans second hand clothing, because these items hurt their textile manufacturing industry, an industry with a long history and essential to the economy.

What about using new technology?

Only 1% of unwanted garments can be broken down successfully to make new fibers and clothes. The technology required to break down fabric is still in its early stages. There are a handful of companies accomplishing this worldwide; it’s a costly venture and can only be used with 100% natural fibers such as cotton denim. There are so many blended fabrics, that scientists still can’t figure out how to break down these types of fabrics.


“Zero waste production” is nearly impossible at this point in time, although there are some designers trying to achieve this daunting task. There is no perfect solution. At this point in time, each of us has to take responsibility to alleviate fashion waste. The average person purchases 70 new items per year! So what can I do:

  • Don’t Buy So Much. This is one of the best practices each of us can do.
  • Swap Clothes. There are community swap meets happening on a regular basis in many cities. You can even have your own swap party.
  • Consignment Stores. Check these out carefully, because items that don’t sell still go to charity. A reputable store will curate their collections, so the turnover is high.
  • Donate To Reputable Charities. Do your research to find out their processes in dealing with unwanted clothing.

Unfortunately, technology is not at the point where they can recycle all types of fabric. All segments of the fashion distribution chain, including designers, retailers, and consumers must change the way we make and consume clothing. The best practice the consumer can do right now is to not buy so much!