The clothes we wear come with their own environmental baggage.
Consider that a cotton T-shirt requires roughly 700 gallons of water to produce. Each year, the production of polyester emits roughly 1.5 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases.
As the fashion industry faces more scrutiny for the environmental impact of its operations, some fashion brands are trying to be more sustainable — and are advertising that to their customers.
Chief among them is global fast-fashion giant H&M, which is aggressively positioning itself as a leader in sustainability.
This is part an Across Women's Lives project: Wear and Tear series: The women who make our clothes.
The world’s largest fashion retailer touts itself as a leading buyer of sustainable cotton and recycled polyester. It promotes its use of renewable energy on billboards. Its “Conscious” and “Conscious Exclusive” lines highlight the recycled and sustainable materials they use.
The Swedish company’s most visible nod to the environment is its garment-recycling initiative, which offers customers a discount if they drop unwanted clothing off at any of the company’s 4,500 stores worldwide.
H&M markets it as a way to help customers “close the loop” in the fashion industry. But is it?
What happens to your clothes when you drop them at H&M?
H&M works with a global recycling company called I:CO, which picks up donated clothes from H&M stores and takes them to sorting plants around the world.
Garments collected in the US land in California. In Europe, they go to a plant near Leipzig, Germany, that’s as big as roughly 16 football fields.
At the German plant, clothing is moved around the factory in bags suspended from the ceiling and sorted into roughly 400 different categories.
“Around 60 percent goes to re-wear, so secondhand and vintage,” said Catarina Midby, sustainability manager at H&M UK and Ireland.
“What cannot be re-worn will be reused and repurposed for things like cleaning cloths, insulation for houses and cars and other products.”
But only 5 to 10 percent of collected clothing is recycled into fibers that ultimately make new clothes. The rest is “downcycled” into lower-value products like insulation.
And across H&M’s brands, only .7 percent of the materials used in new clothing has been recycled, according to the company’s 2016 sustainability report.
That’s partly because textiles are mechanically shredded when they’re recycled, which shortens and weakens the fibers. Textile makers generally mix recycled fibers with lots of virgin material to make fabric strong enough to use in clothing.
H&M investing in new technologies
As global clothing consumption rises, the fashion industry is looking for ways to more effectively recycle clothing and recover raw materials.
The H&M Foundation is donating roughly $7 million over four years to the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to develop advanced textile recycling methods.
“What we are exploring is alternative ways of breaking things down,” said the institute’s CEO Edwin Keh, “and looking at methods to self-separate the various components that make up the apparel in the first place.”
Working in gleaming white research labs, Keh’s team has developed a way to separate cotton and polyester fibers in blended fabrics, a separation that can’t be done with traditional mechanical shredding methods.
The hydrothermal method uses water, heat, pressure and some chemicals to separate the two materials while doing less damage to the original fibers.
“Because we haven’t done anything mechanical [to the polyester],” Keh said, “all we have to do is respin it, and we can make fibers out of this right away.”
Keh’s team isn’t the first to prove similar techniques work in a lab setting.
The challenge is scaling the technology up so it can be used on an industrial scale. But Keh is optimistic and is building a factory nearby in Hong Kong to test the technology on a larger scale.
“We hope to be able to start manufacturing in bulk the recycled material by the end of 2018, if possible,” Keh said.
Mountain of clothes
Still, even if recycling methods for ubiquitous cotton-polyester blends are scaled up, it would be hard for any recycling program to make a dent in the giant pile of cast-offs H&M creates.
Since launching its garment recycling program in the spring of 2013, the company said it has collected 56,000 tons of textiles globally, the equivalent of roughly 260 million T-shirts.
H&M doesn’t release its production figures, but an estimate by University of Delaware fashion industry expert Sheng Lu suggests the company may have sold as many as 1.3 billion pieces of clothing last year alone.
“It’s nothing. It’s nothing, whatever it is that they’ve collected is nothing,” said Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a nonprofit that pushes for transparency and sustainability in the fashion industry.
“This is where the problem lies,” de Castro said. “Because they’re working on the technology to recycle, but they haven’t got the way to collect effectively.”
De Castro gives H&M credit for making environmental sustainability a priority.
“The intention is there. They’ve realized the scale of the problem, and the investment is there; they are putting money where their mouths is,” de Castro said.
But in inviting customers to help “close the loop,” H&M is hinting at a waste-free fashion industry that’s not possible with today’s technologies.
Still, H&M’s Catarina Midby argues there’s no inherent clash between the tenants of sustainability and fast fashion.
“You could always argue that, of course, in order to be really sustainable, you should cut down on your consumption, but at the same time we are a fashion company and we don’t really want to compromise fashion for sustainability,” Midby said. “But I don’t think you have to these days.”
De Castro disagrees.
As long as producing fabric has such a big environmental impact and the technology for recycling textiles is so limited, brands will face trade-offs between sustainability and fashion.
“They have to compromise; they absolutely must compromise,” de Castro said.
What can consumers do?
Textile recycling is no blank check allowing consumers to buy clothing indiscriminately and erase the environmental impact of its creation.
So, what can shoppers do?
"I think the very first question should be, 'Do I need to buy this, and does it need to be new?'" says Kate Black, author of the sustainable fashion blog and book, "Magnifeco."
Can you get what you’re looking for at a thrift store? What about organizing a clothing swap?
“We can get together with a bunch of friends, put on a pot of tea or open a bottle of wine and actually swap the clothing, swap the stories,” Black said. “A clothing swap is maybe the new shopping.”
When you’re ready to buy a piece, do your research and buy from brands whose environmental record you trust. And look more at the quality of the clothing than its price tag.
In the US, the average price of consumer goods has gone up roughly 55 percent in the last 20 years, but the price of clothing has actually dropped slightly, according to McKinsey & Company.
And clothing consumption has gone way up. According to McKinsey, global production of clothing doubled from 2000 to 2014.
Rather than giving in to the allure of a cheap price, Black suggests thinking about clothing in terms of “cost per wear.”
“If you’re spending, let’s say, $10 on something that’s only going to last you one wash, what if you paid $40 and it was something that lasted you a whole year and 52 wears?” Black said.
When you get something home, treat it nicely. Washing in cold water and letting garments air dry saves energy and makes them last longer.
And finally, when you’re done with your clothing, don’t throw it out.
Even if most of our clothing can’t currently be recycled into new garments, it can be turned into rags or shredded for insulation.
“Even though it might not seem to you like it has a second use as clothing, there still is an additional life,” Black said.