It’s confusing as hell trying to navigate all the mixed messages that exist around clothing recycling. Most people just want to do their bit but by the time you want to get rid of the clothing you no longer want, it feels like too much effort trying to decide what to do with it.
So let’s do something about it and look at the options before you reach that stage. Firstly, what is a fashion buy-back scheme? What do they do with the clothes once you’ve donated them? And, what’s really in it for those companies offering the service?
It’s hard to believe but over 85% of clothes wind up in the rubbish heap. It’s the norm to recycle plastics, glass, metal and paper but sadly clothes, shoes, and accessories have long been ignored. In fact, 10% of our landfills are textiles. That’s 81 pounds per person, per year, yet most are eligible for recycling. Makes zero sense to us, too.
With a greater focus on the need for circularity in the fashion industry, companies are thankfully catching on and experimenting with different services for customers’ unwanted clothes in order to help reduce the 300,000 tonnes sent to UK landfill alone each year. In the U.S. almost 85% of textiles end up in the landfill. It could be that the clothing is no longer your style, your size, whatever, but it still holds value irrespectively.
Up until recently there’s been virtually no connections between the buying decision and the end-of-use decision, but there are now companies trying to combat that. From offering customers a voucher or free product in return for their unwanted things to simply picking up your unwanted clothing on demand, we’ve compiled a list of the good and bad points of the services on offer.
More than 100 customers are currently testing the scheme that allows them to sell any unwanted clothing back to the department store, regardless of its condition. The app-based service links to a customer’s John Lewis account data on what they have bought from its 50 stores or website over the past five years.
Customers select the products they want to sell and are immediately shown the amount they can receive for them. Once a customer has a minimum of £50 worth of clothing to sell, a courier will collect the products within three hours. As soon as the products have been collected, the customer is emailed a John Lewis e-gift card for the value of the items they have sold. Items bought back are then either resold, mended so they can be resold or recycled into new products.
The trial, developed with social enterprise Stuffstr, which partners with retailers to buy back used items and recycle them, has seen John Lewis pay £4 for a pair of broken cashmere gloves bought in 2015, £8 for a pencil skirt bought in 2014 and £11 for a top bought in 2016. If the concept proves successful, the next stage will be to offer an option for customers to donate the money to charity.
Martyn White, sustainability manager at John Lewis, said: “We already take back used sofas, beds and large electrical items such as washing machines and either donate them to charity or reuse and recycle parts, and want to offer a service for fashion products.
This service gives customers an incentive to buy high quality, longer-lasting products, and buying such products is a win for both customers and the environment.
Also partnering with Stuffstr, since 2013 H&M has collection points in their stores worldwide for customers to drop bags of clothes in, regardless of their condition. Every time a shopper donates a bag of textiles, they receive a £5 voucher off their next £30 shop, with every item donated being recycled, reused or re-worn. The fashion giant now collects clothes or textiles in all 4,100 H&M stores worldwide, and aims to be collecting 25,000 tonnes a year by 2020.
Yet H&M has run directly into controversy because of these initiatives. While it has been among the loudest cheerleaders of consumers recycling their clothes, Greenpeace and others have pointed out that the technology doesn’t yet exist for H&M to turn most of what it collects into new garments. As it continues to churn out massive volumes of clothes, it does so using mostly virgin resources.
Kirsten Brodde, head of Greenpeace’s Detox my Fashion campaign, has previously suggested, for instance, that H&M should offer garment repair services, rather than giving out coupons to shoppers who recycle their old t-shirts so they can buy new ones.
Making reusing and recycling your clothes and shoes more convenient and easy than ever, HELPSY has over 1,700 collection containers in the Northeast US, and growing, collecting 20 million pounds of clothes last year alone. With big plans to make keeping clothes out of the trash easier, they are working on ground-breaking initiatives that incentivise people to come to the containers—think automated discounts at stores in and around your local area. A free home pickup service is currently offered in Westchester County and Bronx County in New York, and looking to roll-out further soon.
They don’t stop at collection either. They think it’s a shame more clothes aren’t made out of pre-loved materials so it is their goal to support upcycling, reuse and changing the way we and the fashion industry think of the clothing life cycle. 95% of that could be reused, upcycled or recycled but currently only 75% is reusable and 20% is recyclable.
Beyond the buy-back schemes, there are also startups such as Worn Again who are working on chemical recycling methods, but unfortunately no method is in wide use yet. That said, recycling or donating your unwanted clothes “is not a solution” for the planet, as Greenpeace says. Even donating clothes rather than recycling them doesn’t much help. Most clothing that’s donated is packaged and resold to countries in Africa, creating a glut of cheap garments that critics say has choked off local textiles and garment industries. The solution really comes down to us as consumers to do some rethinking of our own about our buying habits and ensuring we are investing in pieces we will want to hold on to for many years to come.