Value Village/Savers art installation as part of Rethink Reuse, a campaign to get people thinking about their fashion footprints.
Value Village/Savers art installation as part of Rethink Reuse, a campaign to get people thinking about their fashion footprints.

Fashion’s Dirty Secret – The Full Story

Kelly Drennan

Where does it really go??  Away is not where you think.

From CBC, January 29, 2018     – Kelly Drennan reports

For more than 40 years, CBC Marketplace has acted as Canada’s consumer watchdog, protecting the public “from slick scams and misleading marketing claims, exposing the truth on stories that matter to you and your family.” One recent exposition on the textile recycling industry however, missed the mark. While it did a great job of raising awareness for overconsumption (we buy 400% more today than we did in the 1980’s) and the fact that the textile industry is the second largest polluter after oil, it did a poor job at presenting a balanced bigger picture perspective. Granted, it is an extremely complex problem and fitting the entire story into 22 minutes is no small feat.

Since “Clothing Waste: Fashion’s Dirty Secret” aired I have had several people contact me about how confused they are. Confused because they thought (and I would have to agree) that the Marketplace episode completely contradicted everything I have been saying for months, if not years (read my previous article Textile Trash: Just What Goes in the Bin?).

In the typical antagonistic fashion of this type of journalism, it focused on the “bad actors”, or in this case, one bad actor – H&M. Putting aside (but not altogether ignoring) the current heavy criticism over their “monkey hoodie scandal”, you might be surprised to learn that H&M is not actually the devil incarnate when it comes to textile waste. In fact, they are on the cusp of a major breakthrough that will radically change textile recycling.

Thought leaders and change makers, who are often fighting an uphill battle to be heard, rely on the support of the good media to get their message across to the general public. Be it climate change, water pollution, food security, or unsafe labour conditions. But it is quite frustrating when the media either gets it wrong, or they don’t get the full story. The Marketplace expose unfortunately did the latter, and as a result has left people feeling generally perplexed and frustrated. Where does one donate their used clothes now? How do we know it won’t be burned in landfills in Kenya? And where am I going to find the time to research this? This feels like a big regression. For those of us who have been trying to help consumers navigate through this murky landscape, stressing the fact that all of our used and damaged textiles can be donated, this episode has undone some important work.

The real problem is indeed over consumption.

Reduce is still the most important of the R’s. At Fashion Takes Action we actually abide by the 7 R’s of Fashion (reduce, reuse, recycle, research, repurpose, rent, repair). We absolutely need to reduce our consumption, but simply telling people to buy less and to stop donating their used clothes is not the solution.

This past fall, I convened a cross-sector collaborative, to address the issue of textile diversion and recycling in Ontario. One of the first challenges for our group of 35 stakeholders (brands, retailers, civil society, NGOs, academia, collectors and charities) was to come to an agreement on the various terms and definitions being used, and to form a common language from which to work. This helped us immensely in navigating around all the nuances, and hopefully it will provide some clarity for you as well on these widely used terms. If you are interested in learning who the stakeholders are, and our progress to date, check out the Textile Diversion Lab.

Reuse is next best to reduce. And by our group’s definition, reuse can also be called re-wear. It is “when a garment is worn by a secondary owner without changing the style or function of the product”. For example, a T-shirt remains a T-shirt and is not restyled into a tank top. We should make more of an effort to keep garments in reuse because it means we are not buying something new, we are keeping it out of landfill and giving it a second or third life. The majority of what is shipped overseas is for reuse.

Recycling, as defined by our stakeholder group is “a process of recovering resources by converting waste into usable materials”. The technology to turn our discarded textiles into new clothes, does exist. However, it is in its infancy and is not yet to scale. A few companies, such as Evrnu, have actually figured this out but only a small portion of our used clothing is transformed in this way. The process involves taking old t-shirts, liquefying them, and then turning them into new clothes. It is very exciting, however it will be years before this practice is widely used. Industry must invest heavily in this in order for it to scale. And guess who is one of the biggest investors? H&M.

Repurpose is an important R in this conversation, and one that is not fully understood. It should really be inserted between Reuse & Recycle in terms of importance. Our group defines Repurpose as “using a product for a purpose other than originally intended”. For example, turning torn socks into cleaning rags, or stained jeans into insulation, stuffing etc. This is the R that is most exciting – right now. And one where we could see a number of jobs created, and a shift toward a cleaner, greener local economy.

Since it will be years before true recycling is widely available, repurpose is the most viable solution for the short term. Engaging other sectors like building, furniture, automotive, carpet, insulation and paper to name a few, will be key to keeping our textile waste out of landfill, and out of the over flooded overseas markets.

The infrastructure doesn’t exist (yet) here in Ontario, so our stakeholder group is focused on some strategies to address this. We are not only focusing on how to increase collection (because currently 85% of our used textiles go to landfill) but also what to do with these used textiles once we are successful in collecting more. The consensus among our group is that long-term, we cannot continue to export it, particularly when borders are closing.

Now that you have (I hope) a better understanding of the terminology, let’s consider how this industry – one of the oldest and most established recycling industries in the world – was portrayed in this episode.

Elizabeth Cline, author of bestseller Overdressed, spoke to the CBC about the fact that only 1% of our used clothing is truly recycled. That industry-wide statistic is indeed correct. As I mentioned earlier, the technology is simply not there yet to recycle more than 1% at this time. But the CBC misleadingly cut from Cline’s quote to a mountain of textiles in Kenya, where clothes bearing the H&M label can be seen burning. The way this is framed could lead the viewer to believe that only 1% of H&M collected garments are recycled, while the other 99% are burning in flooded markets in East Africa. But is this the truth?

While there is indeed some dumping that occurs, it only represents about 5% of the total amount of textiles being exported. The scale of the problem has been completely overlooked. According to Aaron Curran of Bag2School, a for profit organization that helps schools fundraise through clothing drives, about 95% of exported clothing is re-worn as second hand, or repurposed into new products (the latter taking place in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh).

When we donate our clothes, it is mainly through charitable organizations like Diabetes Canada, Kidney Foundation or Salvation Army, or through various shelters and community groups. We assume that what we donate is being given directly to those in need. This is typically not the case. Hence Cline’s reference to the Clothing Deficit Myth in her Marketplace interview.

The charities you donate your used clothing to (unless it is a local shelter), sell those unwanted textiles to for profit companies like Value Village, who in turn pays the charities for what is collected. The charities then use the funds for various social programs. Diabetes Canada, for example, receives more than $10 million each year to help fund their programs.

From this point on, the entire chain is for profit, which means the absolute last resort is dumping. When containers of clothes leave Canada, they are sent to a central grading house or distributor, what the CBC Marketplace calls the “middle man” with football field sized warehouses. Here the garments are sorted, and items that can be sold in overseas markets are on-sold. Those that are not saleable are typically sent on to east Asia to be made into rags or repurposed into other products.

“While a portion of these non-saleable items end up in market stalls”, explains Curran, “the actual amount, as a portion of the overall load, is very small at around 5%”. Because everyone involved is for profit, there is very strong motivation to get it as accurate as possible. This drives profitability.

If a distributor sold a bale of rags to a market stall owner when he was expecting wearable clothing, the market stall owner would probably end up burning the rags, but then they would never buy from that distributor again. And they would in turn tell other stall owners, and the market would eventually correct itself.

Like any economy, free markets drive efficiency. If stall owners in Africa are burning a sizeable amount of the clothing they receive, it would be a massive problem and one that is highly visible given how much of our used clothing is being exported.

To demonstrate the scale, consider this image from Marketplace. Canadian textile waste can fill the Rogers Centre 3 times over – in just one year. Powerful image indeed and one that makes us realize just how big this problem is.

Now, let’s consider H&M’s case more closely. The CBC picked apart the latest H&M video campaign (link in below image) that is aimed at helping consumers understand what they can donate (everything) and what happens to it after its dropped in the bin (reworn, repurposed, recycled).

I’ve watched it a few times, and I don’t see any claims that 100% of what is collected is recycled into new clothing. “Bring your rags and we will deal with them”. They go on to show exactly what this means – shipped overseas to be worn by someone else (sure a higher percentage than we would like); turned into rags and insulation, and in some cases “stitched into new clothes”.

The episode was also quick to point out that H&M has collected 55,000 tonnes of used clothing, and then goes on to say (very quickly) that H&M donates their profits from their garment collection program to Unicef. However, what they aren’t telling you is that the 55,000 tonnes collected is a global figure. Of that, only 600 tonnes has been collected by H&M Canada. And so to be fair and balanced, they really should have disclosed what H&M global is doing with the profits.

The H&M Foundation, has entered a 4 year partnership with The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) to develop the required technologies to recycle blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns. This will be scaled up and made available to the global fashion industry – a major breakthrough in the journey towards a closed loop for textiles.

This partnership began in September 2016 and is backed by an estimated 5.8 million euros of funding (H&M Foundation has so far donated 2.4 million euros of this) with HKRITA conducting the research and work to commercialize the outcomes. Along with other funders, the total project investment is estimated at around 30 million euros, making it one of the biggest and most comprehensive efforts ever for textile recycling.

The H&M Foundation also hosts its annual Global Change Award, where a 1 million Euro grant is awarded to five winners to fund innovative ideas aimed at closing the loop on fashion. And a number of social programs for women, youth, homeless and refugees have been initiated around the world as a result of their garment collection program.

So you be the judge. Does this all seem like greenwashing and smoke & mirrors? Or is H&M truly invested in the circular economy?

Full disclosure: I don’t work for H&M, but they regularly partner with us, and they are a global ally in addressing the current linear take-make-waste model of the fashion industry. And I have gone to their defence in the past (read Why We Should Back off of H&M). It is because of their efforts and leadership that I choose to work with them. I believe that several Canadian apparel (fast) fashion brands can learn from both H&M’s successes and failures. If you look at any of the circular economy work being done around the world in the fashion industry, H&M is involved. A great global example is the recent Circular Fibres Initiativeled by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. H&M’s goal is to be 100% circular by 2030. And despite how I feel about fast fashion in general (slow, sustainable, quality and fairly made is ALWAYS the gold star), I believe H&M is genuinely committed to solve this – and they are further ahead than most.

I completely understand the argument from the other side. After all I was quite an activist in my early years in the sustainable fashion movement. Nearly 12 years later I still believe that fast fashion is the cause of most of what is wrong with this industry, fueling overconsumption, cheap labour and a disregard for the true cost of our clothes. Real systems change work however, must be collaborative, and this sometimes means we have to put our differences aside in order to make progress. These days, I prefer to spend my time and resources working to change the system from within, than to be on the outside pointing a finger at those on the inside.

So there are some great examples of important and meaningful work happening right here in Canada, and it is disappointing that it was left out of the Marketplace episode, despite my lengthy discussions with them. Again, I realize 22 minutes is not a lot of time to convey the full picture, so I am hopeful that there will be a follow up story in the near future. If you’re reading this CBC Marketplace producers, please seriously consider a Part Two.

Bottom line is we need to not only buy less ( REDUCE is the most important R) but also swap your unwanteds (insert shameless plug for our swap in Toronto on Feb 8th), hand them down, mend or upcycle them. Finally, please continue to donate that single sock, your stained or torn sheets and even your undergarments. Do not put them in the garbage, or in your blue bin. Give them to Value Village, Diabetes Canada, Salvation Army and yes even H&M. Because the truth is, they will not be burning in a landfill in Kenya.