'Can fast fashion be sustainable?'

Answers to reader questions about the environmental impact of clothing.

Toro cartoon

 

Hello Sara,

I just read “What should I do with my old clothes?

I did not know that H&M has a sustainability program. I think that H&M is a “fast fashion” manufacturer and probably generates a lot of environmental waste making their new garments. I know firsthand that their clothing is not built to last (one reason why I won’t buy it anymore) and in the past they have manufactured far too many garments.

I am skeptically wondering if the sustainability practice even comes close to off-setting the manufacturing process, not just for H&M but for other clothing makers, too. How does a consumer sort this out?

I appreciated your post. It confirmed my suspicion that the best thing I can do for the environment is to not buy certain things in the first place, not until it becomes a necessity instead of just a want.

Thank you for the information,
Jeannine

Hi Jeannine,

The core question here is whether there are worthwhile environmental benefits to clothing take-back programs, which allow consumers to return old garments to the companies that manufactured them. To answer that question, let’s take a spin through the peer-reviewed literature on the topic, shall we?

But first, for readers who aren’t familiar: “Fast fashion” refers to cheap clothing that is produced and delivered to consumers quickly and that is intended to be worn only a few times. The garments are often shoddily constructed and fall apart easily. As a result, consumers tend to buy new clothes frequently. In 2018, the average U.S. resident purchased 68 garments, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association. Critics of fast fashion worry about the global warming impact of manufacturing vast quantities of clothing, among other environmental and social problems.

On take-back programs, I’ll give you the good news first: Research suggests that, in theory, take-back programs could lessen the environmental impact of clothing.

For example, a 2015 paper focused on Sweden found that reusing textiles would save energy and reduce global warming pollution. The same paper also examined the impact of recycling old clothes, which could be done by breaking them down with chemicals and spinning them into new yarn. The researchers found that recycling the textiles would also reduce energy use and global warming pollution, though to a lesser degree than reusing them.

But a 2018 paper focused on France offers a sobering look at what can happen in practice when clothing is “reused.” Under French law, clothing brands are responsible for post-consumer recycling or disposal of clothing, linens, and shoes. As a result, only 6% of post-consumer textiles in that country are landfilled or incinerated.

Instead, a small fraction (6%) is resold locally. About a third are downcycled into insulation material or rags. But more than half of used French textiles are exported to other countries. Forty percent of post-consumer textiles go to Africa alone. Though the paper did not specify where on the continent the clothes are sent, the flow of poor-quality clothing from the West has grown so enormous that leaders of several East African countries have called for a ban on importing second-hand clothing.

This dynamic is common outside of France, too. Rather than being reused locally or recycled into new clothing, used apparel collected in take-back programs is often sent overseas to countries that may have little use for it, according to CBC Canada. That strains the definition of “sustainable.”

So what can a consumer do? A first step could be to train your brain to think differently about the number of clothes you actually require. You might try a “wardrobe diet,” in which you limit yourself to six items of clothing for 30 days – an assignment that college students found shocking and illuminating, according to a 2019 paper.

When you do need to buy, consider shopping in second-hand stores.

At home or in the laundromat, launder your clothes in cold water. Doing so gets your clothes clean while saving energy and helping your garments last longer. And when clothing tears or loses a button, try fixing it – either yourself or with help from a tailor – instead of disposing of it.

If you can afford to spend more money upfront, you may also wish to seek out “slow fashion” brands. Such companies create clothing that is meant to last a long time, often with attention to fair wages, little waste, and a reduced impact on the climate.

Dear Sara,

I wear clothes until they are full of holes and unwearable. Then they become cleaning rags, which help me reduce dependency upon paper towels and sponges to a huge extent. Then, when they are completely tattered, I put them in the donation bin thinking the rags will be used as recycled cloth content in products such as paper. Is this wrong? Should I just throw the tatters out at this point?

Thanks again.
Dick H.

Hi Dick,

No one wants wet, mildewed, or contaminated rags, but assuming your tattered cloth is clean and dry, the answer to your question depends on where you live. Clothing donation programs vary by location, so it will take some sleuthing on your part to find out what is available.

In San Francisco, which is working to become a zero-waste city, residents can dispose of rags, ripped T-shirts, and other scrap fabric by placing them in plastic bags in their regular recycling bins. In other places, thrift stores collect unwanted fabric and sell it to textile recyclers. See the next letter.

Hi Sara,

Our Goodwill store in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, welcomes worn-out clothing! If it is in good enough shape, they employ people who need job training to make rags that they then sell for cleaning rags. If the old clothing is not good enough for rags, they then sell bags of it to companies that then shred it to make insulation.

So in our area, YES, donate your clothes in ANY condition to the Goodwill!

Jane Winn, Executive Director, Berkshire Environmental Action Team

Hi Jane,

Thank you for sharing. I stand corrected on my previous advice against dumping your rags at the thrift store. Instead, as Jane suggests, try checking with your local Goodwill or other used-clothing shop to find out whether they accept clothes that are in poor condition.

One caution: According to HuffPo, old clothing donated to Goodwill sometimes winds up overseas, just as in the take-back programs that I described above.

Got a question about climate change? Send it to sara@yaleclimateconnections.org. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

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