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The fast fashion industry has been under increased scrutiny in recent years, and rightly so. Some environmentalists claim that the clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world — trailing only oil in its impact on the environment. So can fast fashion and clothing recycling truly match up or are they destined to be forever mismatched? 

Fast fashion

When you begin digging into the statistics, it’s easy to understand why. Much of the cheap clothing sold by fast fashion retailers is manufactured overseas.

  • In 2010, China’s textile industry processed 41.3 million tons of fiber.
  • This accounted for 52-54 percent of the world’s total production and created about 3 billion tons of soot each year.
  • And the environmental impacts of this $2,560 trillion dollar a year industry are only the beginning — retailers are often accused of unsafe labor practices and human rights abuses in their factories.
  • The world consumes 80 billion pieces of new clothing each and every year — over 400% more than we did just twenty years ago.

Shortened trend cycles and increased consumer spending mean that many of these items don’t last more than a season or two before being discarded. Basically, the whole world is becoming a closet bursting with clothing no one wants to wear anymore, but we keep on shopping nonetheless.

Clothing recycling on display

 H&M - Clothing Recycling

IN 2013, THE CLOTHING GIANT BECAME THE FIRST (FAST) FASHION RETAILER TO LAUNCH A CLOTHING RECYCLING PROGRAM, DESIGNED TO REDUCE THOSE STAGGERING CLOTHING WASTE STATISTICS. IMAGE CREDIT: J. LEKAVICIUS / SHUTTERSTOCK

H&M, one of the retailers often blamed in the fight against fast fashion, seems to have taken this mounting criticism to heart and is attempting to swing their business model to a more sustainable one. In 2013, the clothing giant became the first (fast) fashion retailer to launch a clothing recyclingprogram, designed to reduce those staggering clothing waste statistics.

Simply bring old clothing of any brand or condition to an H&M location near you — old tee shirts, odd socks, even underwear. What happens next? H&M explains that each of your dilapidated duds will be sorted into one of three streams:

  • Rewear – clothing that can be worn again will be sold as second hand clothes
  • Reuse – old clothes and textiles will be turned into other products, such as cleaning cloths.
  • Recycle – everything else is turned into textile fibres, or other use such as insulation.

Any money made from this service is invested into social projects, as well as research and innovation projects on how old textiles can be turned into new fibres, with the ultimate goal of being able to recycle all clothing waste and achieve a closed loop for fashion.

Greenwashed?

It’s a huge step, and an admirable one, for a large-scale fashion retailer to acknowledge the horrific environmental impact of their business practices, especially when they could so easily ignore the call for sustainability and simply continue doing business as usual, as others do. Their approach seems to be being met with success, since the clothing recycling program launched in 2013, H&M says they’ve collected over 22,000 tons of used clothing.

Yet the initiative has also come under fire from some critics who accuse the retailer of greenwashing their practices and misleading their customers, while also failing to address the real issue at hand.

In an article for the Guardian, Lucy Siegle takes a critical look at how H&M’s clothing recyclingprogram truly stacks up.

Crunch the numbers and H&M’s claims seem fanciful. Technical issues with commercial fibre recycling mean that only a small percentage of recycled yarn is used in new garments. Using publicly available figures and average clothing weights, it appears it would take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste. Meanwhile if 1,000 tons is recycled, that roughly equates to the same amount of clothes a brand of this size pumps out into the world in 48 hours. Then there are the voucher schemes, which often fuel more purchasing.

The real incentive

How (And Why) H&M Is Trying On Clothing Recycling

SUPPORTERS OF THE CLOTHING RECYCLING PROGRAM ARGUE THAT SHOPPERS WOULD LIKELY HAVE CONTINUED TO SHOP ANYWAY AND AT LEAST H&M’S CLOTHING RECYCLING PROGRAM HELPS RAISE AWARENESS OF THE GROWING EFFECT THE FASHION INDUSTRY HAS ON THE ENVIRONMENT.IMAGE CREDIT: VYTAUTAS KIELAITIS / SHUTTERSTOCK

The voucher scheme Siegle speaks of is one of the best selling points and also one of the most criticized aspects of H&M’s textile recycling program. You see, each customerwho drops off a bag of clothing to be recycled receives a voucher — good for either a dollar value or a percentage off a future H&M purchase.

So while offering their customers a way to sustainably get rid of old clothing and textiles — and, H&M would argue, offering them financial incentives to do so — they’re simultaneously encouraging them to shop again and shop more; buy more of the unsustainable fast fashion that is so terrible for the environment in the first place.

  • Supporters of the program argue that shoppers would likely have continued to shop anyway and at least H&M’s clothing recycling program helps raise awareness of the growing effect the fashion industry has on the environment.
  • Critics say H&M can’t straddle the line between sustainable and polluter, claiming to solve a problem while being largely responsible for creating it in the first place.

Issues like this are sticky because we exist in a capitalist society and at its core, H&M exists to generate profit. It does this by producing vast amounts of cheaply-made clothing for incredibly low prices. Their clothing is designed to sell, not to last. This business model has been wildly successful in financial terms, it’s gotten them to where they are today, a mainstay at almost every shopping mall, their stores brightly lit with tables piled high of inexpensive, trendy clothing.

Room for both?

So, should we give H&M a pat on the back for their clothing recycling program, and attempting to mitigate the effects of their business while also trying to preserve the model that created the problems in the first place? Or should we simply write off their efforts as a shrewd marketing strategy dreamed up by savvy H&M analysts who recognize the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo?

I think we take a middle ground. H&M deserves both criticism and recognition for the steps it’s taking to address the environmental impact of its industry — clothing recycling is a great start. If critics are correct and only 1% of clothing is able to be recycled, perhaps now that mountains of unrecyclable clothing are H&M’s problem, there will be more pressure to find a solution. Shifting the responsibility for excess clothing from local donation spots or overseas exporting to clothing retailers may be the best way to ensure it gets addressed. Furthermore, if we viciously lambast every corporation that attempts to create positive change, they’re unlikely to continue doing so.

We must continue to criticize giant retailers for doing what they do best – encouraging rabid consumption at great cost to the environment. It is criticism which is well-earned and deserves to be repeated until it is heard. But we must also give credit where credit is due, and I’m a huge fan of this clothing recycling program; it’s a step in the right direction — even if it is a small one.