Shein​, Zara Fast Fashion Environmental Impact Piles up at Holidays

The garbage problem in the fashion industry is terrible.

Over 100 billion apparel items are created by the industry each year. That’s enough for every person on the planet to have 14 new pieces of clothing each year, more than double his clothing production in 2000. Many clothing items are sent back to retailers due to the “return” culture. It ends up being garbage.

The problem is serious. Every day, tens of millions of garments are thrown away and new garments are made. And 101 million tons of clothing goes to landfill each year. And the trend towards fast fashion, cheap mass-produced goods that follow short-term fads, only makes us more wasteful. 20,000 new styles are born and stay in fashion for a limited time before being replaced by new styles the following year. If 20,000 sounds too much, it’s just that the “new kid on the block” asked us to have a beer. Shein is her new Chinese company founded in 2008, releasing 6,000 new styles every day. And not all of those clothes are for sale. Many fast fashion companies have a large amount of excess inventory and struggle to get rid of it.

The holiday season exacerbates the problem. Around Christmas, more people buy clothes with the intention of returning them, and more people throw out their old clothes to make room for new ones. As the pandemic subsides in his rear-view mirror, people are planning to buy more winter coats and dresswear for his holiday parties and trips, according to a report from his NPD Group, a market research firm. And retailers are urging people to buy, buy, and buy in order to wipe out the record levels of inventory they’ve built up due to supply chain delays. Clothing is just thrown away. His 30% (half clothing) of online purchases are returned. According to ReturnGo, a company that helps retailers improve their return processes, 25% of returned items end up in the waste stream.

Even though eco-friendly brands promise to recycle customer returns, used clothes are rarely refurbished. Globally, less than 1% of used clothes are actually recycled into new clothes, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In contrast, his 9% of plastic and about 70% of cardboard are recycled. In 2013, H&M became the first major retailer to launch a global clothing collection program, installing thousands of bins in stores in 40 countries. The company encouraged customers to recycle old clothes and offered vouchers and discount coupons to those who used the program. But according to a 2016 Fast Company report, very few items are recycled into new clothing. Most of the clothing H&M collects ends up donated, but the rest ends up in products like rags and wipes that have a short lifespan and end up in the trash.

A pile of used clothes in the desert hills of Chile

Clothing that cannot be recycled ends up in landfills around the world, such as the Chilean desert.

Antonio Cosio/Getty Images

These recycling campaigns are great marketing tools, but the reality is that the scale and technology required to make them work just don’t exist. Recycling clothing is expensive and existing technology is insufficient to handle the volume needed to make a difference to the planet.And because clothing has become incredibly cheap to manufacture, it makes little financial sense for businesses to invest in reusing or recycling used clothing. can What do businesses do to limit waste?

How can fast fashion companies mitigate the impact?

The fashion industry puts a lot of strain on the environment. Garment production consumes one-tenth of the water used industrially, resulting in 20% of the world’s wastewater. Many of them are too toxic to be processed and reused. The most environmentally harmful stages in garment production are the extraction of raw materials and the manufacture of fabrics. And when the garment is finished, this effect is even worse. The transportation stage of delivering clothes from warehouses to stores, or from stores to customers, also generates large amounts of greenhouse gases. Each product is delivered to her customer’s home one by one and is returned or discarded only after the (very short) fashion season is over. Some garments live longer in the secondary market, but many are sent straight to landfills, where they pile up before being broken down.

Most companies design their products with manufacturability in mindIn other words, in the process of designing a product, think about the cost implications of manufacturing the product. To reduce the harm companies do to the planet, designers should also consider sustainability when designing products.

One way to do this is simply by using more sustainable raw materials. A Swedish study found that using Tencel, a fabric made from sustainably sourced wood, significantly reduces the amount of water needed to make clothing. A 2021 study found that silk has the highest environmental impact of all the different fibers during the extraction stage. Natural fibers such as wool and cotton are generally more sustainable than synthetics. A cotton shirt takes six months to decompose, and a woolen sock he can decompose in five years. By comparison, synthetic fabrics like Lycra and polyester (the materials used in spandex shorts and other exercise equipment) can take centuries to break down.

Several brands are leading the way in sustainability, including Garcia Bello, an up-and-coming brand conceived in Argentina by Juliana Garcia Bello. Garcia Bello upcycles salvaged clothing. It mixes outdated clothing with raw cotton to generate new items, allowing designers to extend the life of clothing and fabrics. This practice also favors handcrafted clothing, resulting in better durability, better fit and less carbon impact.

Another way to limit impact is to focus on return waste. Since the pandemic, online shopping and returns have surged. In 2022, consumers are expected to return goods worth $279.03 billion. This corresponds to approximately 26.5% of the amount spent. He’s up from 2019, when returns accounted for 19.8% of his commercial spending. A brick and mortar store can be used not only as a return center to streamline the return process, but also as a place to try and find the best fit, which is what it was designed for. David Bell, Santiago Gallino, and Toni Moreno examined data from Warby Parker on the effect of having a physical location where customers can see and try products. They found that these showrooms improved the company’s overall operational efficiency by reducing returns.

In addition to limiting returns, businesses can also limit waste through recycling. Recycling clothing can be expensive, but some companies have figured out ways to limit waste through recycling: Patagonia recycles his 100% of customer-returned gear through its “Worn Out” program. says that But in 2019, the company admitted that some of its products are “too much loved in use,” and the technology to reuse its gear isn’t yet available. of our products, while others are sent to landfills or incinerators. In 2015, in the United States alone, Patagonia generated 262 million tons of solid waste. Of that he was 91 million tons, or he was only 35% recycled and composted. The rest ended up in landfills or converted to energy in a process called combustion energy recovery, according to Patagonia. Recycling has helped Patagonia reduce its waste, but the ability to recycle used clothing is far from a viable option for businesses.

Textile recycling factory in Taiwan.
Annabelchie/Getty Images

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Garment recycling is still not practical for most businesses.
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Whether these different approaches work at scale is another question, but starting small may allow companies to test the viability and consumer appeal of these methods. Yes, a June McKinsey survey found that more young people are actively seeking out sustainable brands. This points to a growing market for eco-friendly clothes as young people start buying more clothes. .

time to be honest

To put fast fashion right, companies need to be more transparent about their sustainability practices. Honesty forces companies to acknowledge that sustainability is a work in progress and puts pressure on the whole system to improve. It also ensures that the waste produced by the company is publicly disclosed. Most sustainability-minded consumers recognize that not all practices used by businesses are perfect. But misleading consumers looking to buy from ethical companies only make things worse and invite even more criticism.

Unfortunately, many companies do not succeed in being transparent about their environmental impact. H&M was once considered a sustainable company, but was later criticized for greenwashing. Scorecards were used to describe how eco-friendly each clothing item was, but Quartz research found that these claims were often exaggerated or outright false.

A basket full of clothes. Behind it is a pile of unorganized clothes.

As clothing waste piles up, businesses need to find solutions.

Annabelchie/Getty Images

Everlane is another brand that paints an eco-friendly image but doesn’t do enough to limit its impact. According to his 2020 report in Remake, an advocacy group focused on the environmental impact of the fashion industry, Everlane is one of the lowest-scoring brands for transparency, and the fast-fashion giant It was only one point more than a certain Forever 21. This brand hides a lot,” Remake wrote of H&M in a report.

As more countries, like Ghana, ban the import of clothing that ends up in landfills, businesses will have to find solutions to their clothing waste. However, in order for the solution to be viable, it must be sustainable and cost-effective. This means companies need to ensure that the cost of recycling is low enough and that they are large enough to efficiently recycle the fabrics used.

However, it is not always possible to leave things up to companies, so we, as consumers, can reduce the amount of wasted clothes. The biggest positive impact will come from extending the life of your clothes, reducing transportation and focusing on sustainable materials. Try to buy local natural fibers and items.

Gad Allon is Professor of Operations, Information and Decision Making in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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