Textile and clothing recycling has always lagged behind the sustainable disposal of other household products such as glass, aluminum and even plastic. The numbers, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, are disturbing. In 2010, 13.1 million tons of textiles were sent to landfills in the U.S., about five percent of the country’s total municipal waste stream. The total recovery rate for all textiles that year was a paltry 15 percent. And new garments keep arriving faster than old ones can go into thrift shops or landfills: according to The Observer’s Lucy Siegle, 80 billion new articles of clothing worldwide roll out of factories annually.
All the cotton, wool, silk and petroleum that ends up in apparel worldwide is consumed at an unsustainable rate. Add the amount of water, energy and chemicals required to grow natural fibers or process artificial ones and the ecological and social impacts grow exponentially. Fortunately, some of the world’s most recognizable brands have recently begun taking action.
Last year British retailer Marks & Spencer (M&S) rolled out its Shwopping initiative. Through this partnership with Oxfam, M&S customers can drop in unwanted items of clothing — from any store or any brand. Sometimes consumers can score a coupon for a discount on their purchase; usually each store has a drawing for a gift card. Those clothes are then sent to thrift shops or exported abroad. M&S staffers then gather unusable textiles and send them to a factory where the fabric is reprocessed into a new textile for a line of women’s coats. According to M&S, it is actually cheaper for the company to use fibers spun from recycled old clothing instead of virgin material.
In February H&M launched a pilot clothing recycling program at dozens of stores across the world. The Swedish fast fashion company partners with the German textile recycling firm I:CO to resell, reuse or recycle unwanted clothing. The program varies by region: In the United Kingdom, consumers receive a £5 voucher to spend on a purchase of £30 or more.
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A few companies stateside are embracing the opportunity: Levi’s is including more recycled fibers within its jeans — lines such as Waste<Less and EKOCYCLE contain up to 29 percent recycled content; and designer Eileen Fisher recently announced her new Green Eileen initiative which, beginning April 19, will collect and resell used Eileen Fisher clothing to help reduce environmental impact and support programs that enhance the lives of women and girls. But for the most part, leading U.S. brands and retailers are doing nothing when it comes to the actual recycling of clothing, even though the evidence suggests better stewardship of recycled textiles can improve the bottom line and mitigate the industry’s harmful effects on the environment. None of the retailers contacted for this article, including Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, GAP and Sears Holdings, responded to an inquiry about current or future textile recycling initiatives. In turn these companies and brands are missing huge opportunities to educate their customers, inspire them to tackle the challenges resulting from one of the world’s most polluting industries and change consumer behavior for the better. Furthermore, the scaling up of textile and clothing recycling could actually save these firms money, as in the case of Marks & Spencer.
One brand that recently incorporated textile recycling into its business model is The North Face, a subsidiary of apparel giant VF Corporation. In February the outdoor clothing and gear company launched “Clothes the Loop,” a pilot clothing and footwear take-back program that for now is underway at 10 stores. The program accepts used clothing and footwear from any brand in any condition — from t-shirts to beanies to hiking boots.
North Face diverts the unwanted items to an I:CO recycling center: Garments and gear in better condition are distributed and then resold at thrift shops, and textiles in poor condition end up as carpet padding, insulation or fill for toys and other products. The Conservation Alliance, an alliance of outdoor industry companies, benefits from all proceeds and passes those funds onto local community environmental organizations. Customers who drop off clothes can receive a $10 voucher daily for each bag of clothing left at one of the participating North Face stores.
The North Face’s recycling program is an opportunity for the company and its employees to work with customers to instill an understanding of the larger benefits improved textile recycling can have on the environment. And from a business perspective, demonstrating action on such an issue can build trust and affinity between apparel brands and their customers — not to mention more revenues from loyal shoppers. The program is a natural fit for The North Face’s consumer base, which loves the outdoors and is concerned about environmental stewardship. Similar programs, however, have got to scale to address the problems caused by textile waste, and the largest U.S. brands have an opportunity to make a huge difference.
In an era where consumers are demanding that companies do more, textile and recycling programs prove retailers and brands are taking part in this conversation — and not just passing responsibility for dealing with the billions of pounds of landfilled clothing on to others.