Fashion and sustainability: Can they go together?
Since consumers began to realize the shocking environmental impacts behind the fashion industry, an ever-growing number of sustainable fashion brands and initiatives to drive materials recycling and other circular strategies have proliferated — offering hope for reducing the billions of pounds of clothing sent to landfill every year; as well as the staggering amounts of water, land and energy used to make clothes.
And yet, tried-and-true techniques can have a huge impact, too — buying secondhand is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to extend an item’s useful life and reduce the need to make something new.
Sustainable Brands caught up with Tony Shumpert, VP of Recycling and ReUse at Savers/Value Village, to learn more about the company’s work to reduce the amount of clothing, accessories and furniture sent to landfill.
Savers is one of the largest thrift store chains in North America. Can you give us an overview of the company and its purpose?
Tony Shumpert: For over 60 years, the Savers® family of thrift stores — Savers, Value Village™, Unique™ and Village des Valeurs™ — has provided consumers a wide selection of secondhand clothing, accessories and household goods at an affordable price. But moreover, we want to help consumers build a closet and home with sustainability top of mind. At Savers, we want to change the way people think about reuse.
An alarming 26 billion pounds of clothing and household goods go into our landfills each year, 95 percent of which can be reused or recycled. We recognize the importance of ensuring every item we touch has an opportunity to realize its full potential — whether purchased at one of our retail locations, or given a second chance at life though our partnerships with reuse and recycling partners at home and around the globe.
Many consumers don’t immediately connect secondhand shopping to sustainable fashion, but in fact it is the most sustainable way to shop. What role do thrift stores play in the circular economy?
TS: We know that the most sustainable item is the one that already exists. Thrift stores extend the life of clothing, accessories and household items, ensuring we move from the traditional linear model of taking, making and disposing to a circular model of reducing, reusing and recycling. Last year alone, we diverted more than 700 million pounds of goods from landfills. And each year, we ensure that 95 percent of the clothing and textiles that come through our doors are either reused or responsibly recycled. By giving up unwanted or unneeded goods for reuse and buying goods secondhand, consumers can participate in a circular model, as well.
The UN Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 Celsius was a real call to action. Much of the coverage hasn’t focused on the environmental impacts of our clothing industry, which has become one of the top polluters. What are the environmental benefits of wearing pre-owned clothing?
TS: By 2030, the apparel industry’s impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is expected to increase by 49 percent, nearly equaling today’s total annual GHG emissions in the U.S. The number of fashion cycles for clothing production has increased from two a year to as many as 50-100. As a result, brands are producing, and consumers are purchasing and tossing, goods at a record pace — sending more and more items to our landfills. But it’s not just about the items going to landfills; it’s also about the natural resources we use up to produce the items. It takes about 700 gallons of water to make a cotton t-shirt and approximately 1,800 gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans.
Tell us about Savers’ Rethink Reuse program. What positive impacts is it having?
TS: As a company, we’re focused on getting people to recognize the massive impact their clothing habits have on the environment and offering them a solution. To the general public, it’s about highlighting a problem they might not even know to think about and showing them that they can make a difference through reuse. We’ve done several interactive art installations across Seattle, and Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, to educate consumers about the issue of textile waste and show them that sustainable fashion doesn’t have to be a pipe dream. It just requires us all to think a little differently about how we consume and dispose of our clothing.
What action would you like to see from consumers and brands?
TS: I would love to see more consumers and brands work together to find a solution for our apparel waste crisis by embracing the three Rs: Reduce, reuse and recycle. And before we revert to throwing away or destroying items, it’s vital we all do everything in our power to get them into a cycle of reuse.
For consumers, a simple start can mean purchasing less and taking a moment to decide if they really need to buy that new item. If they do need a new piece for their wardrobe or home, I encourage consumers to consider buying secondhand.
For brands, I hope to see continued advocacy for sustainability in the fashion industry — the kind of innovation we’ve already seen from companies like Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, IKEA, adidas, Nike and H&M. From looking for ways to use materials that already exist or buying back used goods from customers to make new items, to using their platforms to educate and advocate for smarter shopping, brands can make a big impact.
In the end, each of us has a role to play in solving the issue, but it’s not about what one person or company can do — it’s about what we can accomplish together.