he fashion industry has a staggering garbage problem.
Every year more than 100 billion apparel items are created by the industry — enough for every person on Earth to get 14 new pieces of clothing each year, and more than double the amount of clothing produced in 2000. And because of our “buy-and-return” culture, a lot of that clothing is getting sent back to retailers. Despite what many people think, most clothing returns are not restocked, repurposed, or reused — they end up in the garbage.
The problem is dire: Every day, tens of millions of garments are tossed out to make way for new ones. And every year, 101 million tons of clothing end up in landfills. And the trend toward fast fashion — cheap, mass-produced items that chase short-term fads — are only making us more wasteful. The fast-fashion brand Zara produces 450 million garments, with 20,000 new styles each year, which remain in fashion for a limited amount of time until they’re replaced by new styles the following year. If 20,000 sounds like a lot, the “new kid on the block” just asked us to hold their beer. Shein, a Chinese company which has only been around since 2008, releases 6,000 new styles … a day! And not all of those clothes are sold. Many fast-fashion companies are stuck with mountains of excess inventory that they struggle to get rid of.
The holiday season exacerbates the problem. Around Christmas, more people are buying clothes they intend to return, and more people are tossing old clothes to make space for new ones. That’s especially true this year. With the pandemic receding in the rearview mirror, people are planning to buy more winter coats and dress clothes for holiday parties and travel, according to a report from the market-research company The NPD Group. And retailers are urging people to buy, buy, buy in order to clear out the record levels of inventory they built up due to supply-chain delays. Overconsumption, however, will only lead to more clothing getting thrown out. Thirty percent of what we buy online — half of which is clothing — is returned, and according to ReturnGo, a firm I advise that helps retailers improve their return processes, 25% of returned products end up in the waste stream.
While these recycling campaigns are great marketing tools, the reality is that the scale and technology needed for them to work doesn’t exist. Recycling clothes is expensive, and the existing technology isn’t adequate to handle the volume needed to make a difference for the planet. And since manufacturing clothing has become incredibly cheap, it rarely makes financial sense for companies to invest in repurposing or recycling old clothes. So what can companies do to limit waste?
How can fast-fashion companies reduce their impact?
The fashion industry takes a heavy toll on the environment. Clothing production consumes one-tenth of all water used industrially, resulting in 20% of the world’s wastewater — much of which is too toxic to be treated and reused. The most environmentally harmful stages of clothing production are the extraction of raw materials and the manufacturing of fabric. And this impact is worsened once the clothes are finished: The transportation stage — delivering clothes from warehouses to stores or from stores to customers — also creates a huge amount of greenhouse gasses. Each product is delivered to customers’ houses one by one, only to be returned or discarded after the (very short) fashion season has ended. Some clothes live longer in secondary markets, but many go straight to the landfill, where they sit in heaps until they can decompose.
Most businesses design their products with manufacturability in mind — meaning they think about the cost implications of manufacturing a product while in the process of designing it. To reduce the harm companies cause the planet, designers should also think about the sustainability of a product when they design it.
One way to do this is to simply use more sustainable raw materials. According to a Swedish study, the use of Tencel, a fabric made from sustainably sourced wood, significantly reduces the amount of water needed to manufacture a clothing item. A 2021 study found that silk has the highest environmental impact among various fibers at the extraction stage. In general, natural fabrics such as wool and cotton are more sustainable than synthetic ones. It takes a cotton shirt six months to decompose and a wool sock can break down in five years. By comparison, synthetic fabrics like lycra and polyester — materials used in spandex shorts and other athletic gear — can take centuries to break down.