The Issues: Waste

Despite the well-aired public mantra of ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’, it’s estimated that the fashion industry creates around 13 kilograms of fashion waste for every person on the planet every year. That waste is equivalent to a landmass larger than the size of France. To combat this, the industry must adopt a ‘circular economy’1 approach, rethinking and redesigning the way products are made, used and disposed of.

The average consumer now buys 400 per cent more clothing than 20 years ago. Fewer than one per cent of garments are recycled into new clothing each year, and only 20 per cent of textiles are recycled at all. A huge amount of waste also occurs further upstream in the production process. 

Fewer than one per cent of garments are recycled into new clothing each year, and only 20 per cent of textiles are recycled at all.

Research in a 2017 white paper claimed that more than a quarter of resources are “spilled out of industry supply chains”2. Fashion industry insiders estimate that between 3 and 5 per cent of factory inventories are lost because of ordering mistakes, changes to specifications or issues with colour.

The majority of textile waste ends up in landfill or is incinerated. Where there are no effective waste management systems, especially in low-wage textile hotspots like Dhaka in Bangladesh, huge amounts of fashion waste are created.

Some key facts:

  • The average piece of clothing lasts for 3.3 years before being discarded3.
  • Use of synthetic fabrics releases thousands of kilograms of microfibres into fresh and oceanic waterways every day, anything from 240,000 to 3 million plastic bags per day. 
  • It’s estimated that extending the life of a garment by an extra nine months reduces its environmental impact by 20 to 30 per cent4.
  • Every tonne of discarded textiles that is reused stops 20 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere5. 
  • Fewer than one per cent of garments are recycled into new clothing each year, and only 20 per cent of textiles are recycled at all.

What are ‘closed loop’ systems?

A closed loop system is one in which products are designed, manufactured, used and handled so as to circulate within society for as long as possible, with maximum usability, minimum adverse environmental impacts, minimum waste generation, and with the most efficient use of water, energy and other resources throughout their lifecycles. This includes recycling of waste back into production systems, as well as making products reusable or repairable. 

The tide of waste may be turning. There is a strong business case for closing the loop on fashion waste. China banned imports of textile waste at the end of 2017, and possible textile landfill bans may emerge in Europe. Where companies can collect waste garments and regenerate fibres to be used in new garments there is a clear economic, social and environmental gain. Seven full-time jobs and 15 indirect jobs are thought to be created for every 1,000 tonnes of used textiles collected. 

More than 80 fashion companies in the UK have signed up to the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, including targets to reduce waste going to landfill by 15 per cent and total product lifecycle waste by 3.5 per cent by 2020. In the Netherlands, 55 companies signed up to a government-sponsored Sustainable Garment and Textile sector agreement, along with NGOs and trade unions, with the aim of reaching 80 per cent of the Dutch garment and textile sector by 2021.

As brands and fashion designers respond to new ethical and sustainability trends, and shoppers engage increasingly in clothing exchanges, upcycling and ‘pre-loved’ fashion (ie. second hand), the prospect of ‘zero waste fashion’ could start to materialise. 

Take Action

Businesses can reduce waste in their supply chains by:

  • adopting a whole lifecycle or ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach to product design, production and marketing of products, identifying where waste can be reduced, and textiles can be recycled or re-used;
  • improving accurate forecasting and specifications with suppliers to reduce errors leading to waste during production;
  • promoting consumer recycling of garments and textiles – from garment collection points, textile recycling directions, fashion exchanges and upcycling programmes.

For more information:

WRAP Sustainable Clothing Action Plan

Worn Again – works with fashion brands to address major barriers in textile-to-textile recycling

Fibre2Fashion, How to Stop Waste in a Garment Factory 

Cradle to Cradle product system 

SOEX/European Recycling Centre (world’s largest textile and recycling group)


1. See Ellen Macarthur Foundation for more information on circular economy approaches

2. Reverse Resources (2017) The Undiscovered Business Potential of Production Leftovers within Global Fashion Supply Chains: Creating a Digitally Enhanced Circular Economy

3. WRAP (2017) Valuing Our Clothes: the cost of UK fashion

4. Ibid

5. Fletcher, Kate. (2008), Sustainable Fashion and Textiles

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