21 Feb

Everything You Need to Know About Waste in the Fashion Industry

Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. Waste is prevalent in every part of the fashion industry, as a result of overproduction, over consumption and problematic end-of-life solutions.

Every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truck load of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. This statistic, revealed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is scary.

Waste in the fashion industry is an increasing concern for many, and for good reason. How widespread is waste in the fashion industry exactly? Why is there so much waste in the first place? What’s the solution? Who is paving the way for a new system? And what can we do as consumers and citizens?

In this article we tell you everything you need to know about waste in the fashion industry.

How widespread is waste in the fashion industry?

The short answer is: extremely.

The long, and more detailed answer is: it’s estimated that 92 million tons of textile waste is created annually by the fashion industry. It’s also said that textile waste is to increase by around 60% between 2015 and 2030, with an additional 57 million tons of waste being generated annually, reaching an annual total of 148 million tons.

Producing too much

A lot of this waste comes from manufacturers and retailers themselves, who generate around 13 million tons of textile waste every year. Why so much? Largely because they overproduce: every season about 30% of the clothes produced are never sold.

With the advent of fast fashion, retailers started producing clothes at breakneck speed, with the goal to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, so shoppers can snap them up while they are still at the height of their popularity and then, sadly, discard them after a few wears. It’s this toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters. Fashion Revolution revealed that the number of garments produced annually has doubled since 2000 and exceeded 100 billion for the first time in 2014. The unsold garments are often burned: in 2017, it was revealed that H&M had been burning 12 tons of unsold clothing every year since 2013. Textile overproduction, and the resulting waste, are harming our planet.

Buying more than ever before

Manufacturers produce a lot of clothes, but we, consumers, also tend to buy more as the years go by. Around 56 million tonnes of clothing are bought each year, and this is expected to rise to 93 million tonnes by 2030 and 160 million tonnes by 2050.

We buy more clothes, and we wear them less: the average piece of clothing is worn 36% fewer times now than it was 15 years ago. And what do we do with the stuff we don’t wear? We throw it away: in the US alone, 85% of textiles thrown away are dumped into landfills or burned. The average American is said to throw away about 37kg/81 pounds of clothes every year.

Problematic end-of-life solutions

Contrary to popular belief, a lot of our clothes aren’t recyclable. It’s said that only 13.6% of clothes and shoes thrown away in the US end up being recycled and that just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled. This 12% will likely end up being shredded and used as furniture stuffing, or made into insulation or cleaning cloths. Less than 1% of what is collected will be used to make new clothing.

A lot of clothing these days is made out of plastic, which, as we know, can take hundreds of years to decompose. Even if clothes made out of natural fibres end up in landfills, they don’t break down as well surrounded by plastic and other household waste. Landfills are said to be the third-largest source of methane emissions in the US, which contributes to the pressing issue of global warming.

A note on donating clothes

Even if we decide to donate our clothes to thrift stores or charities, in some cases, charities are forced to spend money sorting and disposing of this material, of which an estimated 25% goes directly to landfill. An additional 40-50% is exported into the problematic global second hand clothing trade, which swamps the local textile market of countries such as Ghana and Chile, and ends up in landfills.

Luxury fashion brands aren’t blameless

H&M is not the only retailer burning its unsold stock. In the middle of 2018, a wave of outrage spread across the internet when it was revealed that Burberry, one of the world’s most recognisable luxury brands, had burned a big pile of unsold stock. £28.6 million (US$37 million) worth of clothes, accessories, and perfumes went up in flames. It was shocking. Burberry was the brand that sparked a big brouhaha, but waste in the luxury fashion sector is thought to be commonplace. Big names rumoured to have destroyed stock include Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, and Juicy Couture. So why do they do it?

Luxury brand excuse #1: exclusivity

Beyond the design and materials, the allure of luxury fashion is that not everyone can afford to wear it. It’s a status symbol. Burning excess stock, as opposed to selling it as a discount, maintains the brand’s value and sense of exclusivity.

Then there’s the “grey market” where genuine designer goods are bought cheaply and resold by others. Some brands even offer discounts to staff and industry insiders to reduce the amount of unsold stock out there, and prevent it falling into the hands of resellers.

In one high-profile case, Richemont, the parent company of fine watch brands such as Cartier and Montblanc, was caught up in controversy after it destroyed more than £400 million worth of designer timepieces in a bid to stop them being sold by unauthorised vendors. In response, Richemont also said it had bought back some unsold stock and recycled some of the precious metals and stones.

Luxury brand excuse #2: tax breaks

Luxury brands may also have a financial incentive to destroy unsold stock. For example, brands have to pay all sorts of taxes and charges to import goods into the USA. But if the goods are unsold, and the brand exports them again or destroys them under US customs supervision, they can recover up to 99% of the taxes and charges they paid in a process known as “drawback”.

Luxury brand excuse #3: stopping the fakes

Some brands have argued that destroying stock protects them against counterfeiting. Counterfeiting is an enormous, illegal industry worth US$450 billion. It’s also unethical in multiple ways, with vulnerable people often exploited for low-cost labour by the criminal gangs that profit from the counterfeiting. But it’s hard to see how burning unsold stock by itself is an effective response to counterfeiting.

Towards a new system

After its own stock-burning blow up, Burberry had a rapid change of heart and vowed to not to burn stock again. It has also been taking steps to address its climate impacts, and was witness to the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change in December 2018. This ambitious plan has a vision for net 0% carbon emissions from fashion by 2050.

 

There are other brands taking some measures to reduce waste. Design samples are commonly wasted in fashion, but luxury suit giant Hugo Boss has said it will stop producing physical samples. Instead, it will use large touchscreens to showcase its latest designs, eliminating all resources needed in the production and saving time and money. Gucci has also implemented a Scrap-Less program where its tanneries reduce the quantity of leather treated. Gucci then saves on waste, water, energy and chemical use in its leather supply chain.

 

We know waste is a design flaw, and so for fashion designers at the top of their game, reducing waste should be a top priority. There needs to be a shift from a linear model to a more circular system that gives value to recycled and reclaimed goods, and focus is on the longevity and life cycle of our possessions.

Waste and Good On You’s brand ratings

Good On You rates brands across the three key pillars of people, planet, and animals. When it comes to environmental impact, brands are awarded points for taking concrete action and incorporating efforts and commitments to circular economy principles. Examples of measures brands can take to demonstrate a commitment to a circular economy and reducing waste include:

  • using recycled materials or deadstock fabrics
  • taking back and reselling second hand products
  • minimising blends of fibres to ensure that clothes can be more easily recycled at the ends of their useful lives
  • using low-waste cutting techniques in their cut and sew processes
  • collecting and re-using offcuts from their cut and sew processes
  • offering a rental scheme

What you can do to help

Consumers play a key role in reducing waste in the fashion industry. From increased  support for more sustainable models, we are seeing circularity seeping into supply chains, manufacturing, and at the final stage; after a consumer has finished with an item.

Some key actions you can take to align with circular fashion and reduce waste in the industry:

Brands leading the way in environmental action

A lot needs to be done. But we have hope that those brands that are forward-thinking and environmentally sustainable will lead the way.

MUD Jeans

Rated: Great
A man wears navy jeans and a blue top

Dutch denim brand MUD Jeans is all about sustainability. Not only does it offer a repair service, but it also provides a rental service where you can lease a pair of jeans for up to a year. MUD Jeans uses a combination of GOTS certified organic cotton and post-consumer recycled cotton. MUD Jeans are available in a range of sizes, usually from W25 L30-W33 L32 for women and W28 L34-W36 L34 for men.

See the rating.

Shop MUD Jeans.

Shop MUD Jeans @ Labell-D.

Swedish Stockings

Rated: Great

Swedish Stockings creates the best quality eco-friendly black and patterned stockings, knee highs, tights, socks, and pantyhose. The brand also offers a recycling program to help clean up the hosiery industry—if you send in three or more pairs of synthetic pantyhose from any brand, you will receive a 10% discount code to use next time you purchase Swedish Stockings! Find the perfect pair in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Swedish Stockings.

Shop Swedish Stockings @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Swedish Stockings @ thegreenlabels.

Shop Swedish Stockings @ Urbankissed.

A.BCH

Rated: Great
Asian woman wearing red sleeveless skivvy dress by A.BCH.

A.BCH is a Melbourne-based, Australian-made fashion label for individuals who care about garment provenance. It utilises renewable, organic, and recycled materials. Find the range in sizes XS-XL, or customise to fit you.

See the rating.

Shop A.BCH.

BEEN London

Rated: Great

BEEN London is a London-based brand turning waste into timeless accessories you’d want to use every day. All their products are made of materials that have been something else in a previous life, including recycled leather offcuts and plastic bottles.

See the rating.

Shop BEEN London.

Shop BEEN London @ Staiy.

Shop BEEN London @ Cerqular.

OhSevenDays

Rated: Good

OhSevenDays was started by Australian-Canadian Megan Mummery to promote slow fashion and the "power of circularity". Based in Istanbul, the brand reclaims end-of-roll fabrics from the city’s garment factories and creates sharp, everyday womenswear that’s as wearable as it is ethical. Essentially, it makes slow fashion from fast fashion's leftovers. OhSevenDays' garments are available in sizes XS-XL or custom sizing.

See the rating.

Shop OhSevenDays.

Shop OhSevenDays @ SlowCo.

Deadwood

Rated: Good

Celebrating ageless rebellion and free-spiritedness, Stockholm-based Deadwood creates recycled leather clothes, aiming to reinvent how we think about fashion. It recycles cut-offs created during the manufacturing process and traces suppliers in all of its supply chain. Find the garments in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Deadwood @ Labell-D.

Shop Deadwood.

Funky Kalakar

Rated: Good
Someone holding an eco-friendly Funky Kalakar handbag in front of a mint green car.

Funky Kalakar is an Indian brand that brings alive the stories of ancient craft in the form of contemporary vegan shoe and handbag designs by handcrafting them using natural materials. Find its range of shoes in EU sizes 36-41.

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Shop Funky Kalakar.

Malaika New York

Rated: Good

Malaika New York is a minimalistic sustainable clothing brand with a focus on zero waste clothing and accessories. The US-based brand aims to eliminate fashion’s harmful environmental effects by utilizing minimal or zero waste patterns, while maximizing wearability by producing luxe-quality, contemporary garments that make a statement now and into the future. Find most garments in S-XL with some items going up to 2XL.

See the rating.

Shop Mailaika New York.

The R Collective

Rated: Great

The R Collective's womenswear collections are made by reusing rescued excess materials from leading luxury brands and reputable manufacturers. The brand uses a high-proportion of eco-friendly materials, which limits the amount of chemicals, water, and wastewater used in production. It also ensures the payment of a living wage in its supply chain. The garments are offered in two sizes: XS-S and M-L.

See the rating.

Shop The R Collective.

Girlfriend Collective

Rated: Great
Two women wearing sports leggings and crop tops in burgundy and green

Girlfriend Collective creates minimal, luxury clothes made with certified fair labour, certified by the Social Accountability Standard International SA8000. The brand uses eco-friendly materials like recycled polyester as well as low-impact non-toxic dyes and is fully Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified. Inclusively sized Girlfriend Collective offers products from 2XS-6XL.

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Shop Girlfriend Collective @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Girlfriend Collective @ thegreenlabels.

Shop Girlfriend Collective.

Patagonia

Rated: Good

Patagonia is a brand that truly lives and breathes the great outdoors. It makes clothing for trail running, climbing, mountain biking, surfing, skiing, and snowboarding. Patagonia has strong labour rights and uses recycled, rather than virgin, polyester. It has also committed to reducing its energy use and emissions, and stocks sizes XS-3XL.

See the rating.

Shop Patagonia @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Patagonia @ Labell-D.

Shop Patagonia.

Shop Patagonia Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Shop Patagonia Kids Pre-Owned @ Retykle.

Reformation

Rated: Good

LA-based Reformation creates killer clothes that don’t kill the environment. The brand also ensures that a large proportion of its suppliers pay a living wage. Go Reformation!

See the rating.

Shop Reformation Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Shop Reformation @ Farfetch.

Shop Reformation.

Etiko

Rated: Great
person wearing blue and white ethical sneakers by Etiko

Etiko is an Australian designer of organic, eco-friendly, and fair trade clothing and shoes. The brand constantly sets the bar for upholding and campaigning the human rights of people working in traditionally exploitative industry supply chains. Find the clothes in AU sizes 8-20, and the shoes in UK sizes 3-13.

See the rating.

Shop Etiko.

O My Bag

Rated: Good

O My Bag merges style and a responsible approach, creating vintage inspired, rugged-chic bags made from eco-friendly, high quality materials. The Dutch label also uses low impact and non-toxic dyes in its products.

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Shop O My Bag.

Shop O My Bag @ thegreenlabels.

Rifò

Rated: Good

Rifò is an Italian brand that combines circular economy, craftsmanship and sustainable fashion. The brand name is a Tuscan inflection from the verb "rifare" and it represents the way of speaking of the artisans who invented "Cenciaioli", a method of recycling old clothes more than a hundred years ago. Find most pieces in sizes XS to 2 XL.

See the rating.

Shop Rifò.

KENT

Rated: Great

Offers

two images of underwear sets from KENT Sand & Sky range in black and nude

KENT – sand & sky

Inspired by where land meets air, these blue and cream made-to-order, naturally dyed briefs celebrate the contrasting hues found in nature. Exclusive 10% off pre-order with code GOODONYOU. (Ends: 30 APR)

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KENT is a US-based brand that creates timeless organic underwear for women, ensuring a quality fit and feel no matter what. It produces the first verified compostable underwear, made from organic cotton and designed to return to nature in 90 days when composted or planted, feeding the soil and growing new plants (or future pants). Find most pants in sizes XS to 2XL.

See the rating.

Shop KENT.

Elvis & Kresse

Rated: Good
orange elvis and kresse bag

Elvis & Kresse is a small luxury brand doing great things. It began in 2005 using reclaimed fire hoses, and now uses materials such as parachute silks, coffee sacks amid other reclaimed materials. After the Burberry saga, Elvis & Kresse and Burberry formed a working partnership that has been transforming 120 tonnes of leather offcuts from Burberry into new products over the past five years. These are then sold by Elvis & Kresse. Burberry is rated as “It’s A Start” and Elvis & Kresse as “Great”.

See the rating.

Shop Elvis & Kresse.

Stella McCartney

Rated: Good

Stella McCartney is the brand on everyone’s lips when mentioning luxury sustainable fashion, and with good reason. It uses recycled ocean plastic as part of its collaboration with innovator Parley for the Oceans and is part of the Make Fashion Circular initiative. It has partnered with Fashion For Good to produce garments using the Colorfix dyeing system to reduce wastewater and pollution. Stella McCartney also partners with The RealReal—an upmarket online consignment store with locations throughout the United States. Its strong response to waste and other environmental issues is one reason we rate Stella McCartney “Good”.

A member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Stella McCartney has set some excellent environmental standards across the luxury fashion industry. Stella uses some eco-friendly materials, including recycled polyester and organic cotton, and has a strategy in place to reduce waste across its entire supply chain. It has also adopted the ETI Code of Conduct that includes a living wage definition.

See the rating.

Shop Stella McCartney @ LVR Sustainable.

Shop Stella McCartney @ Labell-D.

Shop Stella McCartney Kids Pre-Owned @ Retykle.

Shop Stella McCartney Pre-Owned @ Vestiaire Collective.

Shop Stella McCartney.

Editor's note

This article was originally written by Charlotte Brown in 2019, and was updated by Solene Rauturier in 2022.

Feature image via Unsplash, all other images via Pexels and brands mentioned. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet, and animals. We love to recommend some of the best sustainable brands, rated "Good" or "Great". We also encourage shopping pre-owned as another great way to reduce the impact of our fashion choices. Use our directory to search thousands of rated brands. We may earn a commission on sales with top-rated partners made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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