Major fashion stores, including H&M, Zara, C&A, Primark, Nike, The North Face, Uniqlo, and M&S, are falling short in their promises of reusing or recycling donated clothing, as revealed by the largest tracking investigation of its kind. The study conducted by the Changing Markets Foundation, using Apple AirTags to monitor 21 items, found that three-quarters of the donated clothing suffered a dismal fate. Items that were in perfect condition were often destroyed, left in warehouses, or shipped to African countries, facing an uncertain future.
For instance, a pair of trousers donated to M&S was scrapped within a week, while a pair of jogging trousers donated to C&A were incinerated in a cement kiln. Additionally, a skirt donated to H&M traveled 24,800 kilometers from London to waste ground in Mali, where it was seemingly dumped. Only five items, a quarter of the initial 21, were actually reused in Europe or ended up in resale shops.
Despite the schemes' slogans promising to give clothing a second life or close the loop, the investigation revealed that these claims often amounted to greenwashing tactics, with companies passing donated items to third-party entities specializing in reuse, recycling, or disposal. Remarkably, none of the named brands maintain public records of the donated clothing's fate.
Greenwashing is rampant
Changing Markets' campaign manager, Urska Trunk, expressed disappointment in the brands' misleading promises and called for stronger measures to combat the wasteful practices of the fast fashion industry. “The promises made by H&M, C&A and Primark are yet another greenwashing trick on customers,” Trunk said in a statement. "Our investigation suggests that items in perfect condition are mostly destroyed, stuck in the system or shipped across the world to countries that are least able to deal with the vast torrent of used clothing from Europe. The schemes add insult to injury by offering customers vouchers, discounts or points to buy more clothing, amplifying the fast fashion model that is overflowing with waste.”
The EU is currently strengthening its waste rules, but without additional measures, the mistreatment of used clothing may persist.
Changing Markets' investigation did not extend beyond Belgium, France, Germany, and the UK, but the low value of most fast fashion clothing suggests similar outcomes are likely in other European countries. To address this issue effectively, regulations must be improved to ensure the proper handling and sustainable management of used clothing throughout the continent. France and the Netherlands have already set legally binding reuse and recycling targets for used clothing, and many fashion brands have expressed support for such initiatives.