Recycling Won’t Fix the Fast Fashion Problem

©. Greenpeace

Because it doesn't exist in any meaningful way...

Look at any article on smart, sustainable shopping habits and you are guaranteed to see “recycle your old clothes” written somewhere. Ignore it. That’s a load of hogwash. The idea that most old textiles get recycled when you stuff them into a special clothing recycling bin is ridiculous. It just doesn’t happen because the technology does not exist — at least, not for mainstream, large-scale use.

And yet, many clothing companies (H&M;, are you listening?) love to make it sound as if it’s common industry practice, despite the fact that they continue to churn out disgusting amounts of cheap clothes made almost exclusively from virgin materials. Of course, the fast fashion giants want you to feel good about recycling because then you’ll feel less guilty about buying more of their new (crappy) clothes.

So why aren’t more clothes recycled? Quartz explains:

“Mechanical recycling of fibers such as cotton and wool, which involves chopping up the fibers, degrades the quality of the material, meaning only a limited amount can be reused in clothing. (The rest is used in things such as insulation.) Startups such as Worn Again are working on chemical recycling methods, but no method is in wide use yet.”

The widespread use of blended textiles, such as cotton with polyester, makes it difficult, because these fibers need to be separated before they can be reused. Companies don’t yet know how to do this efficiently.

Polyester is unfortunately popular, existing in 60 percent of clothing sold today, despite the fact that it generates three times as much CO2 over the course of its lifetime than cotton and pollutes marine environments with the shedding of plastic microfibers every time it’s washed. (Even Patagonia admits this is a terrible problem.)

fast fashion waste

© Greenpeace

Another huge problem is the definition of the word “recycling.” After reading the fine print on many a collection bin, I’ve realized that “recycling” actually means “shipping off to poor people.” Top destinations for the UK’s used clothing are, surprisingly, Ukraine, Poland, Pakistan, and Ghana.

Sending our ratty cast-offs to distant places where we need not think about them anymore is a multi-billion dollar industry, but one could argue it does more harm than good. In Africa, the glut of junky used clothes is ruining local textile industries, and everywhere the clothes end up, they create long-term disposal problems.

On Black Friday, Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign head, Kristen Brodde, stated in a press release:

“Our research indicates that the second hand clothing system is on the brink of collapse. Fashion brands need to urgently re-think the throwaway business model and produce clothing that’s durable, repairable and fit for re-use. As consumers, we also hold the power. Before buying our next bargain item, we can all ask ‘do I really need this?’.”

Shoppers need to stop hiding behind the comfortable misconception that stuffing your old clothes into a recycling bin is somehow going to result in garment reincarnation. That doesn’t happen. Unless something changes drastically, you might as well stuff it in the garbage.