In the fast(-fashion) lane towards textile waste

It’s the late ’80s, early 90’s. Fashion retailers pop up all over the Western world. Zara, H&M, Mango, Topshop, Forver21, Primark, you name it! They all offer the same concept: incredibly trendy and low-priced apparel. Fashion became accessible and affordable for most of us. Now, nearly 3 decades later, the garment industry has grown to huge proportions and continuously delivers fashionable and cheap clothing.

Too good to be true?


Yep, it sure is. The previous century had four predominant fashion seasons a year, as you would expect. Nowadays, 52 ‘mico-seasons’ per year lead to almost daily addition of new fashion items to our stores. All of this does not happen without any consequence. We may not notice it but the mass-production of garments puts tremendous pressure on textile workers in developing countries, our environment and it keeps the textile waste pile expanding. In the end, we all pay a huge price for our ever-changing wardrobes.


The brilliant concept of fast-fashion

The concept of fast-fashion is quite simple. Step 1: provide low-quality and low-cost clothing to customers. Step 2: create fast trends due to fast-changing stocks.

As a result, customers are likely to return to replace their items since they’re damaged or just no longer stylish. And with that recipe, we consume 400% times more clothing than in the ’80s! The creator of this concept is thought to be Amancio Ortega, better known as the founder of the fashion chain Zara. He has a net worth of $60 billion and can call himself the sixth wealthiest person in the world.


zara textile waste earthlyiris
Image via Emile Bruckner –

Never out of stock due to overproduction!

How many times have you spotted a completely sold-out fashion store? The chances are pretty slim since the stores are in stock pretty much every day of the year. Last year, the fashion retailer H&M even confessed they had a shocking unsold stock worth of $4.3 billion! They even supplied a power-plant based in Våsterås (Sweden) meaning that 15 tonnes of unsold items were used as fuel. According to research, an approximate 30% of collections from fashion retailers does not get sold, not even after a clearance sale. That’s why we never have to worry to find an empty store.

Fast-fashion and the ever-growing textile waste pile

‘Throwaway’ fashion is a synonym for fast-fashion. And not without any reason. Like mentioned above, quality is not one of the top priorities since these items aren’t meant to last. We keep most of our clothes approximately 3 years before we discard them. Some of these items linger in our closets 2 years before that: I’m guilty too! The options are limited after we cleared out our closets. We can either donate clothes to either a charity foundation our back to the fashion retailer itself. Deep down inside, we all hope that our (sometimes bearly worn) clothes get a good second life.

Yes, some of these items do! After your donation, some clothes make it to a thrift shop if the quality is acceptable. Second-hand clothes in bulk even get sold to developing countries. But not everyone is happy with our worn-out, low-quality clothes in Africa. Those countries are literally drowning in them. In the end, most of it still ends up in a landfill. So, African countries actually paid for our garbage. Back in 2016, some developing countries even threatened with a ban on second-hand clothing.

What about recycling?

Fashion stores started offering bins where you can drop your unwanted clothes in exchange for a discount on your next purchase. The retailers claim they will use your old clothes for recycling purposes. But deep-dive into the numbers and you’ll find that it’s a pretty misleading signal. The H&M sustainability report (page 35) shows only 0.5% of the received clothes where recycled into new apparel in 2017! It’s more likely that insulation material or rags are made from a portion of our old clothes. Why is it so hard to make new clothes out of old ones? A lot of fast-fashion items consist out of blended fibers – this makes these items hard to sort and thus, hard to recycle. In short, it’s still cheaper to produce completely new clothing than to recycle our old garments.

Due to mass overproduction, mass consumption and lack of options to recycle, textile waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste! What can we, as consumers, do to minimize contribution to the growing textile waste pile? In the end, fashion is something embedded in our society and we still need clothes to wear. Next time, ask yourself before buying if you really need that fourth black dress or a new pair of shoes if you’re the owner of seven pairs. In my opinion, we can start by recognizing our own habits and behaviors!


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