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OM in the News: Why Used Clothes Head for the Dump and Not the Recycling Center

October 5, 2019

Shoppers are buying more clothes and discarding them faster than ever, sending an increasing amount of textiles to the dump and propelling the fashion industry to search for new technology to recycle used garments, reports The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 4, 2019). The growth of fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Gap–each vying to deliver quicker and cheaper style–has flooded the world with affordable clothing that is worn just a few times.

The number of garments purchased annually by the average consumer jumped 60% from 2000 to 2014, while the number of times an item is worn before it is discarded dropped 36%. Despite the buildup of used clothes, the technology to recycle old textiles into fiber to make new ones has remained embryonic, meaning clothes eventually end up in the dump or incinerator. Textiles in American landfills jumped 68% from 2000 to 2015.

So far, companies have focused on improving collection of used clothes. H&M and Zara have in-store bins to collect garments which are then sold as secondhand clothing, largely to emerging markets. But there has been little regulatory pressure on clothing makers to take responsibility for the waste generated by their products, unlike the crackdown seen in other areas, such as single-use plastics. Garments that are recycled are mostly turned into lower-value products like wiping cloths and insulation, which ultimately hit the landfill. Less than 1% of the fiber used to produce clothes is recycled into new garments.

The growing popularity of synthetic clothing like fleece jackets and gym leggings is also releasing more tiny plastic particles into the ocean when the garments are washed. The good news is that Americans are increasingly shopping for secondhand clothing, driven by desire to save money, help the environment and avoid appearing in the same clothes twice on social media platforms.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. How can clothing manufacturers design and produce for sustainability? (See p.197-202 for ideas).
  2.  How many students in your class are buying used clothing, and why?


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