When people go to their closets for a monthly or annual clear-out the choice is usually: keep, donate, or throw away. But among these choices, we only really know what happens to the clothes if we choose option A, keep. When we donate our clothes or ‘toss’ them, the rest of the clothing lifespan remains a mystery. Where do our clothes go?

Since the growing global population significantly rose in the 1990s, the increased use of natural resources to produce a mounting textile demand resulted in dangerously high rates of clothing waste. Consequently, in 2020, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned. This means that recycling one’s clothes has become a progressively important issue, keeping fashion circular has been the top priority among industry professionals, and consumers have become more aware of the environmental costs of sending clothes straight to the landfill.

The journey clothes take

So, what is the journey that the 700,000 tonnes of clothing (Clothes Aid) of the clothing people give away in the UK take? Some make it to recycling centres, textile banks, clothes collections or to charity shops. Many are rejected and sent abroad to other localised resale markets. And within that some textiles are sourced by the increasingly interested design sector looking to re-use materials.

High street shops, like H&M, & Other Stories and Marks & Spencer offer in-store clothing drop offs to use as recycled materials in their own circular fashion initiatives. While local councils in the UK offer home collections that then take unwanted clothes to the local Household Waste and Recycling Centre (HWRC). But sadly, 350,000 tonnes (£140 million worth) of used but still wearable clothing goes to landfill (2018).

What consumers can do to help

Because of the overwhelming intake charity shops get of used clothing, the best thing you can do is hang onto your clothes as possible. The website Love Your Clothes offers a myriad of ways to care for and repair your clothes.

If the love is truly gone, try to keep your garments in the resale market. Try swapping clothes with friends, or listing your pieces on eBay, Depop, Vinted or on Vestiaire Collective for luxury pieces. Sending items directly to a new home ensure one less step before they go to waste.

Renting one’s clothes also offers opportunity for consumers to monetise their wardrobes before sending their clothes to landfills. The rise in rental platforms in the UK has meant that designer pieces can be worn affordably, and those special-occasion items sitting in your wardrobe can go to use.

Another thing to consider is the increasingly exciting options for upcycling one’s clothes. Making something old, new again by transforming it into an entirely new garment offers really exciting potential. In the UK, a recently launched program called RETURE connects customers with designers and talented fashion graduates who will upcycle your garments.

Brands Doing Right

Increasingly, major fashion players are paying attention to the waste problem and the £140 million opportunity recycling and resale could generate. For example, brands like Napapjiri have partnered with ECONYL® to source their Rengerated Nylon for their Circular Series pieces. While Trove works alongside leading brands, like Nordstrom, Patagonia and REI to “develop white-label channels that take control of the resale marketplace, which deepen new and existing customer loyalty, increase profit and help the planet by advancing the circular economy”.

Patagonia in particular, a sustainable leader in the apparel industry, launched the Worn Wear project this year. The program allows their consumer base to repair, recycle or buy used gear, understanding that “buying a used garment extends its life on average by 2.2 years, which reduces its carbon, waste and water footprint by 73%” (ThredUp, 2018).

In Europe, Ganni has spearheaded the trend-led sustainability movement using their position as a the Scandi-cool brand to love to advocate for industry change. They openly declare that they are “not a sustainable brand” but have developed over 30 sustainable initiatives including “take-back schemerental platform and introducing more certified, organic & recycled fabrics into our collections” in order to get the conversation going. While Stine Goya, also based in Denmark, released a completely sustainable range made from recycled fabrics.

In the UK, Burberry launched ReBurberry this year, a program where they donate their unused fabric to young designers and students. The Raeburn Lab in London has initiated an astounding recycled-clothing program in their East-London facility, while much smaller brands are leading the way in terms of using deadstock and recycled materials in limited-edition or made-to-order collections.

The lesson here is that there are many steps to take before tossing one’s unwanted clothes and a lot of potential for designers and consumers alike to turn the need for recycling clothes into a positive change for the fashion industry and the world.
If you want to know more about sustainability and fashion, and how we, as consumers, can protect our planet, read our article here.


Author: Isabel Mundigo-Moore