Textile Tuesday: The 7 R's of Sustainable Fashion

recycling
waste-reduction
behaviour-change

(Kelly Drennan) #1

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.


(Thea Silver) #2

Thank you for this post @fashiontakesaction and welcome to the Knowledge Centre. So much amazing information here - and the issue of textile waste is something I grapple with a lot at home, particularly with three teenagers! We’re pretty good about applying the Rs - but there are great tips here.

You’ll love to know that, quite serendipitously, the tote bags given to participants at the meeting I’m currently attending were hand-made from old t-shirts! Thought that was a great idea!

What other cool ideas have folks come across? Please share!!

And click here for more information and resources courtesy of Waste Reduction Week in Canada!


(Kelly Drennan) #3

Great tote bags! We actually upcycle old t-shirts into bags with our youth education program My Clothes My World!! Its a very popular activity the students just love!!


(MDuiker) #4

@fashiontakesaction, I’m intrigued by the Fashion rental market you’ve mentioned in the RENT section. It’s an amazing idea with a few practical barriers to overcome such as the second-hand market, sizing, cleaning, status attached to ownership, and convenience.

Is this fashion rental market flourishing?


(Jennifer Roynon) #5

Kelly - thanks so much for all the great information. I was wondering what to do with all daughter’s clothes that have holes!! One clarifying question - will H&M and Levi’s accept clothes that have holes for recycling?


(Kelly Drennan) #6

Yes it is definitely growing! Check out Rent Frock Repeat Boro and Fresh Rents.

Some brands are even starting a monthly rental subscription box where you shop online for a few key pieces each month for a fee.


(Kelly Drennan) #7

Yes they will take it all. They have to take the bad with the good and then responsibly sort it out and make sure it doesn’t end up in landfill or incineration!


(Steffi Black) #8

Great article and we need to know this information. I will print it out and use as a resource. Appreciate all the work and energy of FashionTakes Action.


(Stacey McDonald) #9

Great info here! Patagonia also recycles their clothing and uses it to make new garments. They’ve also started using recycled down in their coats.


(Sultan Mahmood) #10

This is very interesting to 7 R’s concept for sustainable fashion. Thank you for new discussion.
I usually knew 6 R’s concept (Reduce, Return, Reuse, Repair, Recycle, and Replenish), but the new concept also logical to rethink and redefine the action of the wastage management. We might consider the two fold of resources i.e. before use and after use. We should be aware on efficient use of our natural resources. We have to develop our mind-set how can we return something to nature. Knowledge creation, co-creation and sharing can build the awareness system, and a good governance can implement the proper monitoring system on sustainable consumption from individual to mass level.

Regards
Sultan mahmood
Doctoral Research Fellow on Sustainable Fashion & Manufacturing


(Kelly Drennan) #11

We also just learned that Hugo Boss is looking at recycled padding in their coats! It is great to see more and more brands engaging in these solutions!


(Kelly Drennan) #12

Yes we need to focus on both pre and post consumer waste. So apparel brands and retailers with damaged and unsellable items need solutions too! There is a great company in the US called The Renewal Workshop who renew clothes for brands like the North Face and several others.


(Chantale Gagnon) #13

Until a couple of years ago I worked in the textile waste industry. The pollution from textile waste is one of the least discussed pollution problem in our society today. For all the plastic banning news you hear, you barely get any on textile. That is wrong.

Not only is textile waste a problem of massive proportion but textile production is extremely polluting. The land textile fibers are grown on are full of pesticides and herbicides and these lands are lost forever to food production in communities already suffering from food shortages. The water needed to grow cotton, for example, is mind-boggling. Estimates are 2,700 litres of water for each cotton t-shirt. Let’s not forget that most countries who grow cotton also have problems with water shortages. Don’t get me started on the work conditions in sweat shops all over East Asia…

The only way for fibers to be recycled at this point is if they are “pure”, so e.g. 100% cotton or 100% polyester. When I worked in the business, there was only one company in the US which had some sort of capacity to take on more, so you had to move trailers of fiber waste (at a loss of money for your company) and pollute with your big tractor trailers all the way there. Any blend – and most everything is a blend nowadays – is not fully recyclable. Some of it can be shredded for insulation for example, but there is a limited market for the product. Therefore recycling is not a true option.

We really need to drastically reduce our consumption of cheap clothes that gets ripped in weeks. Buyer beware of the fast fashion companies who tell you that they have a conscience and therefore invest tons of energy and money in the recycling cycle. That is a farce! Investigate their claims carefully. When you start to look into it, you quickly realize that it is a fraction of a percent of all they produce. This is green washing at it’s best! The same organizations who taunt their recycling to improve their “brand”, will garbage tons of new clothes they haven’t sold weekly instead of giving them to charities, simply because they don’t want to devalue their “brand” by having poorer people wearing them for little. They knowingly overproduce to make fully stocked shelves look better (remember H&M which had billions worth of stock they couldn’t sell). Their conscience is not in the right place.

Most of what is re-useable is sent to Africa after a stint on second hand stores’ shelves in our country. You might think “great, they might be able to use the clothes there”, and yes many Africans buy and sell these second-hand clothes. The problem is that North America and Europe was shipping so much of it (and now China apparently), than the majority of what we shipped there ended up in their landfills. We exported (and still exports) containers after containers of second hand clothes which end up in landfills all over Africa. This causes the collapse of local production and some African countries have banned the import of second hand clothes because they could no longer deal with it.

I strongly believe that our governments should intervene as soon as possible and we need a solution at the international level. A “Paris Accord” for textile to move the problem to a solution, amongst other recommendations: a- strong promotion of the problems related to fast-fashion and conscience building of the public to reduce consumption and increase awareness of reusing, b- as for other pollutants, designers, producers and sellers must be held accountable by forcing them to invest in research and open facilities to rapidly and incrementally move the design and production of clothes to a full recycling and reuse of the fibers by a set date, c- force the same producers to convert cotton and other textile fiber production areas in developing countries to food production (this means that they’d need to pay to decontaminate the soil and water that they polluted over years), d- taxes should be used as a deterrent to curb the purchase and quick disposal of textiles.

Most of what I wear is hand me downs now. I do swaps with my family and friends and use it down for one purpose then another until it’s in threads. It’s not pretty by the time I give it to the recycler. Unfortunately, there is not much else that one can do at this point if one wants to reduce their textile footprint.


(Kelly Drennan) #14

Thank you for your comment Chantale! We agree with everything and we do a ton of awareness building around all the issues related to fashion - it is the second largest polluter after oil. And in my article you will see that REDUCE is the most important of our 7 R’s. We consume 400% more clothing today than we did 20 years ago.

However the technology to truly recycle our clothes does exist, and it also exists with blended fabrics. It is an exciting time. As mentioned in my post, this tech is not yet to scale and is currently being developed by a number of big brands. Tens of millions of dollars are being invested into R&D and scaling this, so that eventually it will be widely practiced.

Our group is excited about this, but we know it is a number of years away before we will see it on the scale it needs to be. This is why we are focusing on other end markets for the current textile waste challenge we are facing. If you want to know more about the path of our donated clothing (ie to developing countries) please read the article i wrote in response to a CBC Marketplace episode: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/fashions-dirty-secret-full-story-kelly-drennan/

Thanks again for your thoughts and please look for our province wide ad campaign in April that will help educate consumers about consumption, reuse, etc.