For some years now, Bangladesh has been the second largest apparel producer in the world after China. Despite a slow growth rate in the latest fiscal year, the RMG sector exported apparels worth $28.15 billion in the just-concluded fiscal year. Despite international backlashes following safety and work hazards, the industry has continued to churn out clothes in massive amounts, being exported to and worn by people all across the western world, which begs us to think, where do these clothes ultimately end up at the demise of their life cycle?
The Wasteful West: A Culture of Squandering Clothes
The western world’s ever-growing desire for fast and disposable fashion which is fuelled by the ready supply of affordable manufactured products from countries such as China, Bangladesh, and India, means the global population is consuming and disposing of an ever more significant quantity of garments annually.
This growth surprisingly is also being fueled by charities and recycling companies, who channel these old clothes to new owners for reuse.
The Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap), a UK government and EU-backed agency tasked with reducing waste, estimates that almost half of the garments people in the west now throw out end up going to a new home rather than ending up in a landfill or at an incineration plant.
Most would believe that diverting old clothes away from landfills and giving it a new purpose is a responsible practice. However, Dr. Andrew Brooks, a lecturer in development geography at King’s College London, argues that most donors do not realize that the majority of the clothing they are giving away to charity will be traded abroad for profit.
Wrap estimates that more than 70% of all the UK’s reused clothing heads overseas – joining a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year.
According to the latest available UN figures, the UK is the second largest exporter of used clothing after the US. It exported more than $600 million, or 351,000 tons, worth of discarded fashion overseas in 2013. Top destinations were Poland, Ghana, Pakistan, and Ukraine, whereas the US’s key trade partners were Canada, Chile, Guatemala, and India.
According to another recent report from Wrap, the average piece of clothing in the UK lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded. Other research puts the lifespan of UK garments at 2.2 years, which can probably be halved for younger demographics. But as fashion companies tell their buyers to remember that a dress will stay in their wardrobe for only five weeks, it can be expected that this discarding phenomenon will only grow further, with ever-changing consumer behaviors.
The way people get dressed now has virtually nothing in common with the behavior of previous generations, for whom 1 garment could be worn for decades. Wrap estimates that people in the UK purchased 1.13 million tons of new clothing last year. Another survey commissioned by Sainsbury’s found that 235 million clothing items ended up in landfill sites as people readied their wardrobes for summer.
Ever-changing Apparel: In One Season, Dismissed the Next
The global fashion industry has developed a pretty controversial reputation for its exploitation of human capital and outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies, i.e., the South-Asian nations. The 1,133 garment workers who were killed in Dhaka, half a decade back, worried global manufacturers about what was next.
For those in and around the fashion and apparel industry, the control of garment waste has long been considered to be the next big scandal. Globally, levels of production and consumption are forecasted to increase as fashion waste becomes the next environmental crisis, rivaling plastic pollution in oceans. This trend is the consequence of over-production and supply, powered by the relentless “fast fashion” system of production that over the past three decades has revolutionized both the way we dress and the way clothing is produced.
Much of the waste surrounding the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain and does not consider the negative externalities being generated and make it into the environmental accounting that underpins a Wrap report. Perhaps the worst of it comes in the form of readymade garments, assembled and sewn but discarded because of an order mistake or an issue with the color. According to industry insiders, this waste represents 3-5% of every factory’s inventory, and a large factory in Dhaka can produce around 240 million pieces a year.
There is no verified figure for the amount of clothing produced each year globally, predominantly in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka, which has little to no waste management systems. Mostly, the waste is nowhere to be seen, where it becomes highly visible is on the outskirts of large production areas, such as the garment districts of Dhaka. This is where the production waste leaves the factories and is absorbed by the air and earth in the local community. Waste from the cutting rooms, called jhut, often ends up in so-called go-downs. These makeshift sorting operations are the stuff of legend in Dhaka, with fires often being a regular occurrence.
Is Fast Fashion the Problem?
As the global fast-fashion booms, a YouGov report found that 75% of adults in Australia alone have thrown clothes away in the past year, with 30% having tossed more than 10 garments. This throwaway culture is creating a severe environmental problem, with 24% saying they threw out a garment after one wear. 1 in 6 people binned at least 3 garments they had worn only once.
The report also showed a generational divide in attitudes towards clothing. Millennials enjoy buying new clothes, with almost 1 in 4 saying they had purchased at least half the clothes they own in the past year. They are also more likely to throw out their clothes within 2 years.
Online fashion shopping is also part of the problem. An Australia Post report showed 22% of online purchases were fashion items, with significant growth for 3 years running. Australian households received an average of 3.2 parcels of fashion items in 2016. So, this greater convenience in purchasing is also speeding up the binning process. The increasingly disposable nature of fashion is causing enormous problems for the environment, with more than 500,000 tons of textiles and leather sent to landfill in Australia alone.
But there are ways to fix the problem as well. Retailers could do better, such as offering more take-back schemes. The Swedish fashion brand H&M encourages customers to return all unwanted garments, which can be sold on as secondhand items, converted into other products or turned into textile fibers. Similarly, the outdoor wear company Patagonia offers free repairs and recycling to all customers. Hence, there is a role for brands to recognize that their responsibility does not stop at the till.
One Man’s Waste Another Man’s Treasure: The Potential $4 Billion Industry
Despite growing consumptions leading to greater castoffs, garment waste management exemplifies the idea of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. The local garments industry itself produces recyclable scraps, which if tapped correctly, can generate a further $4 billion annually.
The idea is to turn the accumulated scraps into materials which are greatly demanded in the fashion world. By doing this, both business growth and addressing of climate change – can be harmoniously intersected in each other’s paths.
In a recent study, Reverse Resources, an Estonia-based software company trying to develop an online marketplace for garment waste for ensuring its maximum utilization and better value, showed that the total volume of annual leftovers from the county’s garment units is around 400,000 tons. Whereas, if these leftovers are recycled for making new yarns and used in re-manufacturing garments, it has the potential to generate business of more than $4 billion.
As per the findings of the study, more than 25% of resources are discarded in fabric and garment factories, which can go up to 47% in some cases. Even if the country’s 4,500 active garment units gain efficiency and ensure optimum use of fabrics, there will be an unavoidable amount of waste at different stages of production. Using waste from one cycle of production in the next through remanufacturing involves practical challenges but recycling it surely has a business potential within the country’s garment sector.
While dreams of $4 billion industry can be taken with a grain of salt, the environmental concerns surrounding apparel waste is not something to be overlooked. Fast-fashion, being fuelled by changing consumer behaviors, is undoubtedly here to stay. Nevertheless, both producers and consumers need to find sustainable ways to reduce the environmental impacts. Finally, shoppers must also consider whether to snap up the next best deal or wait it out, so that the hardly worn piece of clothing lying in their wardrobe, doesn’t meet an early demise at a local landfill.