While significant progress has been made in recycling materials like food, plastic and aluminum, reusing textiles and preventing clothing from piling up in landfills remains another story.
Some fashion brands have embraced sustainability as a core tenet, or at least pushed to include more environmentally friendly practices, but few have been able to successfully make an impact when it comes to recycling apparel. Brands like Madewell have integrated practices like trading in old denim for a discount on in-store purchases, and H&M and Zara have erected donation bins in select stores. However, it can be difficult to divorce these efforts from prevailing issues in the way these companies produce, including the excessive amount of water it takes to manufacture denim and the billions of dollars of unsold clothing that results.
Still, some fashion companies are slowly moving the needle. Eileen Fisher has implemented recycling as a significant component of its business, and it now operates two Renew stores that sell lightly worn or redesigned clothing from its “take-back” recycling program, similar to Patagonia’s popular recycled jacket effort. Yet, as a recent report from the thrift company Savers points out, negative perception around thrift and recycling is hindering progress in preventing waste in retail.
Savers cited several reasons for the lack of clothing reuse among consumers, largely related to disparities in education regarding sustainable practices and differing perspectives on recycling. For example, when asked what respondents think they should be doing now to save the environment, 28 percent of people said donating used clothing, while just 7 percent said buying secondhand clothing. Further, 60 percent said they shop at secondhand clothing stores, but not more than once a year.
Ultimately, the report argues that meaningful change in retail will come only after better consumer education on sustainability and thrift. Here’s a breakdown from the report of recycling in retail as it stands, by the numbers:
Number of new clothing items purchased around the world in a given year: 80 billion
Pounds of clothing sent to landfill each year: 26 billion
Amount of clothing thrown away each year, with the potential to be recycled into new products: 95 percent
Percentage of people who report feeling they have “way too much stuff”: 46 percent
Gallons of water it takes to produce one shirt: 700
Gallons of water it takes to produce one pair of jeans: 1,800
Percentage of people who thrift more than once a year: 40 percent
Percentage increase in clothing purchases by a single person per year, compared to 15 years ago: 60 percent (and clothing is now kept for half as long)
Percentage of people throwing away clothing, rather than donating or recycling: 20 percent
Percentage of people who falsely think their clothing is sorted out of trash for donation: 31 percent
Pounds of clothing thrown away in North America by an average individual: 81 pounds