The fashion industry is the second largest polluter after big oil. Consider the fact that the average t-shirt travels 35,000 km before landing on your back, that fabric is manufactured with deadly carcinogens that are polluting global lakes and rivers, or that every time we wash synthetic clothing 10 million microfibers are shed into our drinking water and ecosystem.
Today we purchase 400% more clothing than we did 20 years ago, and thanks to fast fashion, we wear our clothes for half as long. As a result of over consumption, the percentage of textiles in our landfill is rising at a rapid rate. And unless we do something about it, it will only increase.
Why is this an issue? Well for every 1kg of textile waste in landfill, 4kg of CO2 is emitted. Not to mention the methane and other noxious chemicals released. And then there is the fact that synthetic fibers (polyester, acrylic, nylon) will never ever biodegrade. Each year, the average Ontario household is indirectly/directly contributing roughly 80lbs of textiles to landfill. Canada produces enough textile waste – clothing and other textiles like upholstery – to create a mountain three times the size of Toronto’s Rogers Centre stadium – in a single year!
At Fashion Takes Action, we are convening the first cross-sector collaborative with over 40 stakeholders, in an effort to increase textile waste diversion and develop a recycling industry in Ontario. Over the past year we have made great progress and are now called the Ontario Textile Diversion Collaborative.
The apparel industry is also paying attention, developing strategies to deal with their waste, because it isn’t just the post-consumer textile waste ending up in landfill, but also the damaged and unsellable products that brands and retailers are left with. Government is also engaged in this issue, with some municipalities even looking at landfill bans. And that’s exciting for those of us who want to see sustainability advanced throughout the entire fashion system. But where work really needs to be done (alongside industry & government) is with us, the consumer.
So what can we do? We have more power than you might think. Fashion Takes Action has developed the 7 R’s of Fashion to help make it easier for the average person to do their part!
REDUCE – this is by far the most important R. As stated earlier, we are simply buying too much, and our closets are bursting with items that are poorly made, trendy and disposable. We must drastically reduce the amount of clothing we buy, slowing down our consumption and investing in quality made pieces that are built to last. Capsule wardrobes have become quite popular whereby you have a few essential pieces (ie skirt, pants, dress, blouse) and you pair them with seasonal pieces. You can have as few as a dozen pieces up to thirty for it to be considered capsule.
Investing in our wardrobe has a big payoff. While up-front costs are significantly higher than the continually marked down items at big box retailers, you will wear your quality garment more often and for longer. A simple “cost-per-wear” calculation is a smart way to shop.
Consider a $15 top from a fast fashion house that is a trendy colour with some trendy accents, from a cheap synthetic fabric, made by an underpaid and unskilled labourer (or child). You might wear that top 5 times (one season) before you a) tire of the colour/fit/style b) it loses its shape c) you shrink it in the dryer or d) the seam comes undone and you can’t be bothered to fix it because it only cost you $15. That cost per wear works out to $3.00.
Compare this to a $75 top made from a reputable brand, from a heavier, better quality and natural fabric (preferably organic), where all the threads match, and there are no gaps between the seams. You might wear this for multiple seasons, and for a few years before you tire of it. Your times worn could be as high as 10x/year over 5 years, or 50 wears. That cost per wear works out to $1.50.
That being said, because a garment costs more doesn’t always mean that it is well made. So you have to be a bit of a sleuth and read labels, look at seams and zippers, hold it up to the light and give it a stretch to see if it retains its shape.
REUSE – also known as REWEAR - what we no longer want or need, which is usually given to friends, family or to a local charity. Garments that are in decent condition and still have a life should never end up in our waste stream. Some charities make it even more convenient by offering home pick-up services. Reuse is the next best to reduce because nothing has to be done to the garment. No energy expended on recycling or upcycling it, and it doesn’t end up in our landfill.
RECYCLE refers to a process of recovering resources by converting waste into usable materials. The technology to turn our discarded textiles into new clothes, does exist. However, it is in its infancy and is not yet to scale. A few companies, such as Evrnu, have actually figured this out but only a small portion of our used clothing is transformed in this way. The process involves taking old t-shirts, liquefying them, and then turning them into new clothes. However, this technology is in its infancy and is not yet to scale. It is estimated that less than 5% of what is collected is recycled in this way - turned into new fabric, and eventually made into new garments.
H&M and Levi’s are 2 brands that are doing this, and they’re even collecting used textiles in their stores. So if it isn’t convenient to donate to a charity, the next time you head to the mall, take your unwanted clothes with you and drop them in the bin!
REPURPOSE – so what about stained and torn garments and linens, or the single socks and (well used) workout clothes? While these items are not what we donate to someone in need, there is still a market for them, and they should never be tossed in your garbage. Also important to note – they should never go in your blue bin .
We can still recover, convert and create usable materials so that they become rags, wipers OR even shredded down to make new material for other sectors like insulation in buildings, underpadding for carpets, acoustic panels and liners in cars. The Ontario Textile Diversion Collaborative is working with multiple sectors in an effort to make this happen. Our goal is that in the near future we will have established a thriving local infrastructure to recycle our textile waste, creating new jobs in a low carbon economy and significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Upcycling is another form of repurposing Some of us still have sewing skills, but there are other ways to repurpose our unwanted textiles. The easiest is of course tearing an old t-shirt into household rags. But there are so many you tube DIY videos on how to upcycle or repurpose our clothes into bags, pillow cases and even other garments.
REPAIR – we need to get better at repairing the hole in the toe of our socks, or replacing a lost button. But some companies are even offering repair services, such as Patagonia. And there are repair cafes popping up in cities around the world. If we simply took the time to repair our garments, we can get a longer life out of them and keep them out of landfill.
RESEARCH – even 10-year olds own smart phones nowadays. In this age of digital information, we have the world at our fingertips. Fashion brands that are actually engaged in corporate social responsibility and sustainability initiatives, will be proudly sharing this information with you on their website. Some even go as far as calculating the impact your purchases have on the planet in the form of CO2 savings, reduction of water consumption and toxic chemicals. It takes no time to look up your favourite brand and learn whether they have any such initiatives in place. Most of the time this information can be found in the About Us section of a company’s website. Some even post their sustainability reports along with commitments to improve in the coming years. There are also an increasing number of apps emerging such as Good on You which evaluates brands based on their social and environmental performance and transparency.
RENT – the sharing economy is a big part of the circular economy. We have seen it in other industries such as hospitality with Airbnb and automotive with uber. The sharing economy is disruption at its finest, and it is also happening in fashion. Rent Frock Repeat, Boro and Fresh Rents are just a few examples of locally based fashion rental companies. Consider that designer dress you bought for a friend’s wedding, a company party or gala dinner. How many times have you worn it and what did you pay for it? Not only is renting wallet-friendly, but it also reduces the number of new garments we consume, which ultimately end up in landfill.
So, please continue to donate that single sock, your stained or torn sheets and even your undergarments. Do not put them in the garbage, or in your blue bin. Give them to Value Village, Diabetes Canada, Salvation Army, a local charity or community centre, and now even H&M and Zara. After all, we do not have a Planet B.