London - The fashion industry problem with waste caught the public’s attention this week, as leading fashion companies H&M and Bestseller were accused of incinerating tonnes of unwanted, yet usable clothing. While H&M denies these claims, stating they only destroy clothing which fails to fulfil their strict safety regulations, and Bestseller counters that it only incinerates items that are damaged, the idea that high street fashion brands incinerate potentially valuable resources shines a light on one of the main problems currently residing in the industry.
The global fashion industry produces approximately 100 billion garments per year, feeding consumers insatiable appetite for new clothes. But as clothing consumption rates increase, as does the end result - textile, leather and apparel waste. The fashion industry is said to produce 92 million tons of solid waste each year, according to data from Greenpeace, but most never think to ask what are brands and retailers doing with this waste? High street retailers such as H&M and Bestseller, the parent company behind Jack & Jones, Vero Moda and Vila, use a number of marketing tactics to encourage consumers to recycle their unwanted clothing in an effort to become more sustainable. However, at the same time, they are incinerating and shredding unwanted, damaged or potentially harmful clothing behind closed doors according to new media reports, sending out a very mixed message.
“We are just looking at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to waste”
Unfortunately, when it comes to disposing of unwanted, unsafe or excess garments, aka waste, incineration is a common industry practice. “We are just looking at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to waste,” says Orsola de Castro, Founder and Creative Director of Fashion Revolution to FashionUnited over the phone. “Waste is the next big issue that fashion industry must overcome. It really is shocking how much factories and brands waste.” Also known as the Queen of Upcycling, de Castro is no stranger to the fashion industry and the challenges it faces when it comes to waste. She has spent the past 20 years of her career trying to navigate the industry problems with waste as a designer, consultant and creative director.
“The issues of incineration when it comes to fashion waste is nothing new. It is something that brands and factories alike have been doing for years,” she points out. “Behind the scenes, factories are quite open about it, brands are open about it, but on the consumer side, there is zero transparency concerning how, when, where and what they are incinerating. Consumers are just unaware that this is something that has been going on for a long time.” Dr Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based NGO Redress, author and co-founder of luxury upcycle label BYT, has also witnessed first hand the industry's problems managing waste. Having spent the majority of her career fighting against waste in the fashion industry, she strongly agrees with de Castro. “Really the report is not a shock,” she says to FashionUnited. “It is yesterday's news as it happening everywhere in the industry, across the entire board. The only difference is that H&M and Bestseller got caught. I know many companies are doing it.”
“[Operation X report] is yesterday's news, it’s happening everywhere in the industry”
This lack of transparency concerning waste disposal explains why consumers around the globe were shocked when Danish TV show 'Operation X' from TV2 aired its expose on H&M and Bestseller incinerating what they deemed to be usable clothing. Since the show aired, H&M has shared its own internal reports which highlight unsafe levels of lead were found in one item destroyed and suspicious signs of mould in the other, which is why they were incinerated. Bestseller has published its own ‘waste agenda’ online, stressing that damaged products are ‘disposed in the most economically and environmentally suitable way: down-cycling’ and are incinerated to create energy.
While the majority of the public is against the destruction of usable clothing, in some cases it is the only way to safely dispose of textiles containing hazardous materials or chemicals. “When it comes to air pollution, water pollution and chemical pollution, the best environmental approach is to remove them from system,” continues Dr Dean, who adds: “I am by no means a chemical expert, but I believe removing any harmful toxins from the environment is beneficial to the overall health of the planet. Any company would not want to knowingly recycle or reuse known toxins.” One may wonder why clothing or textiles containing harmful chemicals are made in the first place. In part, this is linked to the emergence of the fast-fashion business model, which sees high street fashion retailers launching new collections each day. In order to produce more clothes at a lower price, many brands produce apparel overseas, operating massive supply chains across numerous developing countries, making it hard to ensure every product is up to standard when it comes to health and safety regulations.
"Any company would not want to knowingly recycle or reuse known toxins”
Interestingly enough, around the same time that 'Operation X' aired its investigation, H&M announced that it had invested in Swedish company re:newcell, a firm which uses new techniques to recycle used cotton, viscose, and other cellulosic fibres and turn them into a new, sustainable dissolving pulp which can be used to make new textile fibres. "Honestly, what happened in this case of these brands and their claims around mould damage sound like a real tall order, as you can recycle nearly everything, especially virgin fibres which are the holy grail of recycling,” points out Dean. “Burning unwanted clothing seems like a huge contradiction to H&M's marketing tactics and it is disappointing to hear they do so.”
But it is not just clothing that is being incinerated and it not just high street retailers like H&M who are destroying their unwanted or harmful products this way, stresses de Castro. “It is leather too! Luxury brands burn unwanted clothing and leather goods as well. Luxury brands are the worst when it comes to incineration, as they would rather burn unwanted or damaged leather products then sell them as it may damage their reputation. Fashion Revolution is now trying to bring this issue to the surface and make a change.” In Fashion Revolution new Fanzine, ‘Loved Clothes Last’, the global movement aims to make consumers more aware of this well-kept hidden secret and is encouraging consumers to speak out against this practice.
“This revelation of burning clothes is likely to sting consumers the most”
“This is our biggest weapon in the fight against fashion waste - when consumers hear high street retailers like H&M are burning usable clothing it makes them feel resentful,” adds de Castro. She maintains that it is easier for consumers to wrap their head around the idea that high street retailers like H&M and Primark burn unwanted clothing rather than recycle them because their garments are cheaper and often seen as less valuable and disposable in comparison to those from luxury fashion brands. But the fact remains - all areas of the fashion industry use the same practices to dispose of unwanted products. “Imagine if we were telling consumers that a luxury brand burned 4 containers of clothing because they changed their head of design? Or because the fabric used to make the collection had a tiny fault? 4 containers of clothing that they could have still bought and worn and never known the difference.”
Which is why both Dr Dean and de Castro believe it is unfair to solely point the finger of blame at H&M or Bestseller. “We cannot demonise high street retailers when every area of the industry is involved in such practices,” notes the founder of Fashion Revolution. “Of course H&M is currently being scrutinized now, but I am just pointing out that the luxury fashion industry is just as culpable as them, if not worse.” Dr Dean, who has collaborated with H&M in the past, argues that many industry and media members are using the report from 'Operation X' to paint H&M black when it is consciously making an effort to improve its practices and be more sustainable. “I am still fond of H&M and know many people, truly ethical and responsible people who want to make the world a better place who work there. In this case, H&M has been made a scapegoat for something for something that everyone does. Even though their business model is not sustainable, H&M is trying to change - it is pointless to beat them with a stick when they are down.”
“Brands should take responsibility for their unwanted clothes"
Nevertheless, both fashion veterans believe the fashion industry needs to change its ways when it comes to managing waste. Brands and retailers are in this situation because burning unwanted textiles is still the cheapest option for most companies to dispose of them and this mentality needs to change in order to bring systematic change. “We need to slow down and look at different business models to bring about real change,” says de Castro. “There needs to be a big shift in the industry in how we look at waste and how we view high street retailers like Primark and H&M. First of all, we need to stop calling it waste and start seeing it for what is it - a resource.”
By changing attitudes towards fashion waste and seeing it in a new light, more brands and retailers as well as consumers will be encouraged to recycle their clothes rather than dispose of them. In addition, designers and buyers should be retrained to see textile waste as a vital part of their designs by embracing upcycling techniques, adds de Castro, something which most graduate and emerging designers are already doing. “Did you see Graduate Fashion Week this season? Almost every designer incorporated some type of upcycling or zero waste technique in the their collections,” she notes. “Upcycling fits their aesthetics and their creativity while offering a viable solution for the fashion industry’s problem with waste.”
Fashion brands need to take responsibility for their waste and find sustainable solutions
Both believe it is time for fashion brands and retailers to take full responsibility for their excess products and find solutions which do not include destroying materials which can still be used. By producing less garments and make more responsible orders, retailers and brands will have less excess products to handle at the end of each season. And rather than destroying them to make room for more, de Castro believes brands and retailers should take responsibility for them by passing them along to other designers and brands could use them to make new items. “I would more than happily take one of H&M 4,500 stores and use it as a base to store faulty, unwanted fabrics and textiles and pass them along to young brands and designers who want to use them.”
Although most brands and retailers rather make new fabrics and materials to make new collections to entice consumers, de Castro argues that upcycling is one of the most viable solutions to the fashion industry problem with waste. “Fashion brands embrace of upcycling is slow, but it is the only creative solution in between the current state of the fashion industry and the advancement of technological solutions, as technology will offer us the solution in the end. But we are not there yet and until we get there we have to find solutions for what we are doing now with textile waste, what we are doing with the products that are being burned.”
Homepage Photo by: William Farr, an installation artist and image maker
Photos: Lance Lee, courtesy of the Greenpeace Detox Campaign