Fast fashion brands like Zara, Shein create mountains of waste from holiday shopping, returns | Popgen Tech


The fashion industry has a staggering waste problem.

Industry produces more than 100 billion items of clothing each year—enough for every person on Earth to purchase 14 new items of clothing each year and more than twice the amount of clothing produced in the year 2000. -return” culture, many of these clothes are sent back to retailers. Despite what many think, most returned clothes are not replenished, repurposed or reused – they end up in the trash.

The problem is serious: every day, tens of millions of items of clothing are thrown away to make room 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-lived fads—only makes us more wasteful. Fast fashion brand Zara produces 450 million pieces of clothing with 20,000 new designs each year, which stay in fashion for a limited time until they are replaced by new styles the following year. If 20,000 sounds like a lot, the “new guy” just asked us to hold their beer. Shein, a Chinese company that has only been around since 2008, releases 6,000 new models … a day! And not all of these clothes are for sale. Many fast fashion companies are stuck with mountains of excess inventory that they struggle to get rid of.

The holiday season makes the problem worse. At Christmas, more people are buying clothes that they intend to return, and more people are throwing out old clothes to make room for new ones. This is especially true this year. With the pandemic in the rearview mirror, people plan to buy more winter coats and clothes for holiday parties and travel, according to a report by market research firm The NPD Group. And retailers are urging people to buy, buy and buy to get rid of the record inventories they’ve built up due to supply chain delays. Excessive consumption, however, will only result in more clothing being thrown away. 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 returns process, 25% of returned goods end up in the trash stream.

Despite the promises of eco-friendly brands to recycle their customers’ returns, old clothes are rarely repaired. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that worldwide less than 1% of used clothing is recycled into new clothing. In contrast, 9% of plastic and about 70% of cardboard are recycled. In 2013, H&M became the first major retailer to initiate a global program to collect used clothing, installing thousands of bins in stores in 40 countries. The company encouraged customers to recycle used clothing by offering vouchers and discount coupons to people who took advantage of the program. But according to a 2016 Fast Company report, very few things are recycled into new clothing. Most of the clothes that H&M collects end up being donated, while the rest are turned into products like washcloths or napkins, which have a short life before ending up in the trash.

A mountain of used clothes in the desert hills of Chile

If clothes can’t be recycled, they end up in landfills around the world, like the desert in Chile.

Antonio Cosio/Getty Images

While these recycling companies are great marketing tools, there really isn’t the scale and technology needed to make them work. Recycling clothing is expensive, and existing technologies are insufficient to process the volume needed to change the planet. And because the production of clothes has become incredibly cheap, it rarely makes financial sense for companies to invest in repurposing or recycling old clothes. And what it is possible are companies doing to limit waste?

How can companies reduce their impact?

The fashion industry is very damaging to the environment. Apparel production consumes one-tenth of all water used in industry, producing 20% ​​of the world’s wastewater, much of which is too toxic to clean and reuse. The most environmentally harmful stages of clothing production are the extraction of raw materials and the production of fabric. And this impact is compounded once the garment is finished: the transportation stage—getting the garment from warehouses to stores or from stores to customers—also generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases. Each product is delivered to the customer’s home one at a time and returned or thrown away after the (very short) fashion season is over. Some clothes live longer in the aftermarket, but many end up in landfills, where they sit in piles until they decompose.

Most of the enterprises develop their products taking into account technological feasibilitythis means that they think about the costs of manufacturing a product during the process of developing it. To reduce the damage that companies do to the planet, designers must also think about product sustainability when designing it.

One way to do this is simply to use more sustainable raw materials. Using Tencel, a fabric made from sustainably sourced wood, significantly reduces the amount of water needed to make a garment, according to a Swedish study. A 2021 study found that silk has the highest environmental impact of any fiber at the extraction stage. In general, natural fabrics such as wool and cotton are more durable than synthetics. A cotton shirt will decompose in six months, and a wool sock will spoil in five years. By comparison, synthetic fabrics such as lycra and polyester—materials used in spandex shorts and other athletic gear—can take centuries to break down.

Some brands are leading the way in sustainability, including the forward-thinking brand Garcia Bello, which was conceived in Argentina by Juliana Garcia Bello. Garcia Bello upcycles returned clothing — taking outdated clothing and mixing it with raw cotton to create new items, allowing the designer to extend the life of the garment or fabric. The practice also favors hand-made clothing, which offers better durability, shape and a lower carbon impact.

Another way to limit exposure is to focus on the spend caused by returns. Since the pandemic, online shopping — and returns — have soared. In 2022, consumers are expected to return $279.03 billion worth of merchandise, or about 26.5% of what they spent, up from 2019 when returned merchandise accounted for 19.8% of commerce spending. Brick-and-mortar stores can be used not only as return centers to improve the efficiency of the returns process, but also in the way they were originally intended: places where you can personally try and find the most suitable products. David Bell, Santiago Gallino, and Tony Moreno examined Warby Parker’s data on the impact of having physical locations where customers can view and try products. They found that these showrooms improved the company’s overall operating efficiency at the expense of reduced profits.

In addition to limiting returns, companies can also limit waste through recycling. Although recycling clothing can be expensive, some companies have found a way to limit waste by recycling. Patagonia said it recycles 100% of the gear customers return through its Worn Wear program. But in 2019, the company admitted that some products “love too much during use” and the technology to repurpose this gear is not yet available. Patagonia sometimes keeps these products until, perhaps one day, a solution is found, but other products are sent to landfills or incinerators. In 2015, Patagonia generated 262 million tons of solid waste in the US alone. Only 91 million tons, or 35%, of that was recycled and composted. The rest ended up in landfills or were converted into energy in a process called combustion energy recovery, according to Patagonia. While recycling has indeed helped limit waste in Patagonia, the ability to recycle used clothing is still far from a viable option for companies.

A textile processing factory in Taiwan.
Annabelle Chi/Getty Images

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Garment recycling is still far from viable for most companies.
Annabelle Chi/Getty Images

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Whether these different approaches can work at scale is another question, but starting small can allow firms to test the viability of these methods and their appeal to consumers. And there’s good news for companies trying to improve the situation: A June McKinsey survey found that more young people are actively looking for sustainable brands, suggesting that as younger people start buying more clothes, there will be more of a market for eco-friendly clothes.

Time to be honest

In order to fix fast fashion, companies need to start being more transparent about their sustainability practices. Honesty forces companies to recognize that sustainability is a work in progress and forces the overall system to improve. It also ensures that the waste that companies produce is in the public domain. Most sustainability-conscious consumers know that not every practice a company uses is perfect. But misleading consumers who want to buy from ethical companies makes matters worse and invites even more criticism.

Unfortunately, not many companies manage to be transparent about their environmental impact. H&M was once considered a sustainable company, which later began to be criticized for environmental laundering. It used scorecards to describe how eco-friendly each garment was, but a Quartz investigation found those claims were often exaggerated or completely false.

Baskets of clothes fill the room.  Behind them is a mountain of unsorted clothes.

As clothing waste accumulates, companies need to find solutions.

Annabelle Chi/Getty Images

Everlane is another brand that projects a green image but doesn’t do enough to limit its impact. A 2020 report by Remake, an advocacy organization that focuses on the environmental impact of the fashion industry, found that Everlane had one of the lowest transparency scores, earning just one point more than fast fashion giant Forever 21. “There are many what this brand is hiding,” Remake writes about H&M in its report.

As more countries like Ghana begin to ban the importation of clothes that simply end up in landfills, companies will have to look for solutions to clothing waste. However, for a solution to be viable, it needs to be both sustainable and cost-effective, which means that companies need to have sufficient scale to ensure that the cost of recycling is low enough and the fabrics used can be effectively recycled.

But since we can’t always trust companies, there are things we can do as consumers to reduce clothing waste. The biggest positive impact comes from extending the life of clothes, reducing transport and focusing on sustainable materials. So, this holiday season, try to buy local, natural fabrics and items that will probably stay in style longer than Fashion Week 2022.

Ged Allon is faculty director of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology and Professor of Operations, Information, and Decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.


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