Sustainability, recycling, reusing and.. plastic

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The topic of sustainability is constantly evolving, with both consumers and makers getting involved to a greater or lesser degree. Hence, I wanted to do a followup piece with some new ideas and information. It’s very easy to become confused or swayed when reading or listening to pundits or companies go on about the ethical and environmental aspects of the garment and fashion industry, so I’m going to try to lay out a few of the issues and problems here. The confusion is evident in that even the term sustainability appears to be open for interpretation.

There were two things that really pushed me to do a followup on this topic. The first is that the Norwegian consumer authorities are now going after fashion brands that are promoting their “sustainable” and eco-friendly goods, with little or no actual information about just how sustainable these are. H&M was especially singled out for their “Conscious” label, claiming it’s the sustainable option, but with quite vague or noncommittal information about just how much more sustainable these goods are. Norwegian expert, Ingunn Grimstad Klepp at Oslo.Met derides the claims from H&M as “totally laughable” and that it shouldn’t be allowed to sell them, let alone describe them as sustainable. Ingunn was also the person that really brought to attention the problem of sustainability and plastics in clothing, and all that is not being done about it, in Norwegian media.

I’ve done a few posts on similar topics before: here, here, here and here.

The even bigger problem

As I’ve been working on this piece it has become increasingly clear that what might look like a fairly small and defined problem, i.e. what can we do about the clothes waste, is impossible to see only in a limited context. It becomes a matter of capitalism against the environment. Peoples jobs and futures against the environment. It also becomes another piece in the case of humanity versus our continued habitation of the planet.

Think how a town came to grow up to serve a coal mine with its workforce. Families would establish and over time it grew more. Then the coal mine is closed down and there are no jobs. Will the town shrink and disappear when it’s livelihood is gone? I don’t need to hammer home the analogy, but factories and workers in low-cost countries such as Bangladesh are living this reality today. Constantly undercutting each other to keep work coming in, with the threat of closure looming large.

Most humans find it hard enough to contemplate what to have for dinner, let alone whether their lifestyle choices are contributing to the end of mankind, so how can we possibly join forces and work together? Made harder still when we realise the opposing time has a huge headstart?

The players are the makers and the consumers

I’ve decided to differentiate between the garment industry and the fashion industry, and dividing those into a further two. This is due to there being quite differing motivations and underlying agendas, depending on whether you’re selling or buying and whether you’re small or large.

On the makers’ side, there is an obvious distinction between companies that are making garments that may be considered timeless or traditional in smaller volumes and the multi-season frenzy of the fast fashion industry. While the former is likely already less of an environmental problem, primarily through making garments that are in use longer and not subject to the vagaries of fashion, the fast fashion industry is all about getting the product out the door, and then getting yet more out. Smaller companies will also have less infrastructure that needs to be covered by profit margins, fewer investors demanding dividends and a shorter way to market. Large companies will not just scale up, but almost exponentially so, with very much more employees, likely over several continents, have shareholders and investors to answer to and whole chains of distribution. Hence, when companies such as H&M say they have a focus on sustainability, you can really read that as a focus on sustaining and increasing their profits, as anything else is quite secondary if that.

There is also a distinction that has to be made between consumers. True, we’d all love to think of ourselves as “woke” and ethical consumers, making only considered purchases of what we really need, and there may well be some that are as good as we’d all like to think we are, but in reality, we’re battling the forces of marketing, trying to lure us into buying stuff we neither need or will use. As long as the fast fashion emporiums are restocking with cheap, new fashion items on a continuous basis, people will keep buying.

At the end of the day, change can come from both sides, where the consumer can exercise their power by buying less and better to be more sustainable and the maker can clearly improve the way they make their product and accept that they will have to scale down their business. Realistically though it’s a battle against “shopping therapy” and a business that needs to shift units. Have you ever heard a compulsive shopper say “I wanted to go shopping, but I had a cup of tea instead!” or a company say “well, we wanted keep growing and improve profits, but we decided to do our bit for the planet, so we’re scaling down”. Of course not, we’re humans and they have shareholders to please.

Is there a problem with the recycling of clothes?

An important question that needs to be asked is: How feasible is it to recycle clothes? The garment industry is currently doing a lot of research on ways to transform discarded clothes into reusable fibres. Admirable advances have been made, though it remains to be seen how these scale up in capacity and most importantly in cost. The huge problem that is being under-communicated though is the same as goes for other waste, it’s not a uniform substance. Those that are trying to recycle clothes face the same problem faced by those trying to recycle metals, electronics and plastics. Everything needs to be sorted down to the minute and similar types. Can you recycle the fibres from a cotton shirt together with a partly polyester shirt? What can the end result be described as? What about all the buttons, be they bone, horn or plastic, and the zippers, and other details made of who knows what? And that’s without even considering the chemicals that may be involved, so we’re unlikely to be issuing any “organic eco-friendly reclaimed fibres” certificate.

To be deemed as actually recycled they would have to be turned into new clothes,  but in actual fact, there is very little true recycling of clothes today. You have some very special cases, that tend to be hyped as much as possible, where a company might recycle a select fraction of garment waste and amidst much hoopla launch a limited range of eco-friendly, and supposedly sustainable, clothes. In reality, the insane tonnage of discarded clothes will mostly end up becoming something very far from what they originally started out as, such as low-grade insulation material. Not actually recycling, more a case of “what the heck can we use it for”.

There is a far greater benefit in using the garment until it’s worn out than discarding it and having it turned into something entirely different. Even for natural materials such as wool, the mechanics of recycling results in fibres that are weaker and shorter, resulting in blow par products. Hence the addition of virgin, unused wool in products using recycled wool, which begs the question of why not just use only new wool fibres and end up with a better and longer-lasting product?

Reclaiming fibres is just one part of the environmental impact of garment production though. The fibres have to be spun into yarn, go through the dyeing process, receive various treatments, be woven into fabrics and finally cut and sewn into garments. These processes have to be performed again even if the fibres have been recycled, and they also have a greater environmental impact than the actual production of the fibres. Even with ambitious goals of 40% of textiles being recycled within 2030, the actual reduction in environmental impact may only be between 3 and 6%. This clearly shows that recycling is a horribly poor way to reduce the environmental impact of our clothes habit and that any gains made by recycling are a mere drop in the ocean compared to using fewer clothes longer.

Yet, the technical issues of fibre composition and so forth are only part of the problem. A different part is the sheer volume of clothes discarded. Fretex, a charity effort run by the Salvation Army in Norway collects and processes 25-30 tonnes of clothes a day at their facility in Oslo. That is 25.000 kilos a day, every day, all year round. It’s an immense amount, and only a very small portion of it finds it’s way into their shops for resale. And of course, only a portion of what is selected for sale in the shops actually sells, though that is a different matter. The numbers for clothes discarded in the UK are very much the same, if not even worse.

So, what is this greenwashing business then?

Since the production of synthetic fabrics grew massively in the 1980s the global production of clothes has exceeded what we can actually use, and that includes what the recipients of our waste clothes can use up. Clothes production is characterised by the main brands being large and global, controlling the entire chain of value of their products, from sourcing to end-user sales in our high streets and online. Their business idea is quite simple, shifting as many units as is possible, and by any means necessary.

Hence the idea of recycling is vital to their strategy, as it solves their two main problems: If they can get people to return clothes for reuse and recycling, they can continue to sell people more clothes they actually need, in a perpetual circle of consumer joy. Consumer guilt at over-consumption is relieved by pretending that increased consumption of ever-changing fashion items is perfectly fine, as the economy is circular. On the other hand, we’re promised that sustainability and circularity are just around the corner.

What we’re missing is a collective understanding that sustainable fibres don’t exist, only less bard and the at for now the only circularity we have is partial recycling that is using up more of our common resources. What the industry needs to do from an environmental perspective is to find dramatically better ways to reduce the impact of each unit and drastically reduce the volume produced. Sounds kind of simple right, until you realise that the industry has no inclination to do so if their customers are still buying their units, which is where their real effort goes. The clever people employed by the large companies do of course realise that the longer they can tread water for before making actual changes, the longer they can reap the profits of fast fashion.

Hence all the bullshit greenwashing initiatives. This is a huge issue at the moment and it’s when a company announces that they are becoming more sustainable, more eco-friendly, using less plastic, more ethical and so forth, with no real proof, promises, plans, actual output etc other than to look good in public and reduce consumer guilt.

For a country generally regarded one of the good guys, it’s surprising to see that Denmark takes a strong lead when it comes to greenwashing. Even the Danish royals are behind the effort to promote Danish fashion brands as “sustainable”. Last year the Danish organisation, Global Fashion Agenda, launched their “Pulse” report, which apart from making it clear they were leading the sustainability race also proclaimed that polyester is the sustainable fabric of the future. The argument for this was that it is recyclable and hence the consumer will be convinced of its excellence. The report makes clear that the authors realised this was a challenging sell. From the 2017 edition of the report (downloadable here):

“Polyester is no perfect answer, of course. It comes with its own challenges. In a 2017 study, it is estimated that 15% to 30% of plastics polluting the oceans can be attributed to primary micro-plastics, 99 with 35% of those attributed to laundering of synthetic textiles. 100 (See Micro-plastic Contaminating Oceans.) Moreover, polyester’s production relies heavily on fossil fuels. It is a non-renewable resource and is not biodegradable. Yet polyester lends itself to fibre-to-fibre recycling better than cotton does. It can also be made from waste products such as plastic bottles.”

More than a hard sell really, but it does clearly show the side of the business the industry doesn’t want you to see. Microplastics are mentioned just once, so clearly not a real problem. You may wonder who is behind this Global Fashion Agenda? Well, not surprisingly it’s our old friends H&M the greenwashers, together with other large players such as ASOS and Danish Bestseller (full list here). Naturally their “Strategic partners” are also credited with being best in the class when it comes to sustainability. Right.

Incidentally, car makers are also greenwashing when they urge you to replace your older car with a brand new and more eco-friendly model, carefully neglecting to mention that the largest impact a car has on the environment is being made in the first place. It’s a message you’re not really that opposed to hearing though when you’d really kind of like to get a new car though, right? In truth, a car that is well maintained and kept for a long time will be less of a burden to the environment. Maybe the car makers should start offering upgrades to improve emissions instead? Not as great for the bottom line, mind you, but we’re all on the same side, surely?

Plastics and why they are not a good friend

Synthetic clothing is an increasing problem. It might be cheap, it might be technical or street-tough, but at the end of the day, it’s made from plastics and every wear or washes it’s shedding microplastic. And this increases with age and use. Recycling it for further use does now clear the issue, it has been strongly argued that the safest way to handle unwanted synthetic clothing is to burn it, by an appropriate recycling operator. Some argue that they can be recycled into new fabrics, but that really isn’t tackling the problem, it just ensures we have more plastic being used. I’ve even seen others argue that synthetic clothing could be shipped to Africa, as they would happily use them there. Where are the ethics there, I ask?

Around 60% of the clothes made are plastic, primarily polyester, but also acrylic, nylon and other names. In addition to the plastic part, they also include chemicals to contribute to colouring, flame retardants, water repellency, moisture and odour control and so forth. A veritable cocktail of goodies that we really have very little idea of the long term effects of.

What is actually the problem with plastics though? Mainly it’s twofold in that it’s made from primarily oil and it results in microplastic. We’ll not focus on the oil aspect here but instead, look at the microplastic side of things. It is estimated that around 25-35% of microplastic in the oceans is from the washing and wearing of synthetic clothing. The only larger contribution is from the wear of car tyres.

Part of the really insidious problem of microplastics though is how they spread. Not only through the expelled water from washing, but through micro-organisms, fish, animals, the food we eat and so forth. Microplastics have even been found in remote lakes, indicating that microplastics spread through the air as well as water.

While on one side, microplastics likely pass through the human gut without issue, there are huge amounts of unknowns here, both with regards to the long term issues of the chemicals and the plastics that literally embed themselves in the food chain. Are you comfortable eating fish containing finely ground remnants of plastic bottles, bags, underwear and so forth? Considering how immensely slowly mosts plastics degrade (yes, even the ones described as bio-degradable) microplastics are going to be around for a very long time, and during that time they will only accumulate. Apart from any problem that this creates in the food chain, we still don’t know what hereditary or other issues it may bring on.

What it really comes down to with plastic waste is that we need to treat it as waste and deal with it accordingly, i.e. taking it out of the supply chain, which will usually mean incinerating it. By creating clothes from waste plastics, we’re really just making more rubbish from existing rubbish. Oddly, while there are many laws and regulations already in place or on their way with regards to plastics, there is apparently almost no focus on their use in clothes, which is remarkable when you know more about their clear impact on the environment.

There are voices that say that it is less wasteful to recycle plastics, but this isn’t happening today, with recycling rates between 30% for developed countries and 0% for less developed countries. Much of the problem lies in the huge variety of plastics making it difficult to recycle, as does the vast amount. The lack of profit in the recycling of plastics is clearly illustrated by China, the recipient of much of the worlds plastic waste for many years, now refusing to take any more. There are naturally valid concerns about the emissions from burning huge amounts of plastic.

Attempts at remedies to bring about sustainability

The alternative to reducing the use of plastic, and dealing with all the plastic-based garments that are already out there, is to come up with ways of dealing with the shedding of microplastics. I’ve seen a couple of initiatives promoted to aid in this, one is the Guppyfriend, a bag for you to wash your garments in that makes convincing claims to contain any microfibers that are washed out of the clothes. There are concerns about the efficiency of the washing bag at doing what it claims, in addition to problems in that it will only wash smaller amounts of clothes and less efficiently. In addition that bag must be emptied into thrash that will be incinerated for it not to find it’s way back into nature. Another option widely mentioned is a filter to use on the wastewater from the washing machine. This could be a usable solution, only it doesn’t actually exist yet and will be subject to the same maintenance as the washing bag. And neither of these have any impact on airborne microplastics.

There have recently been brands that have been using reclaimed ocean plastic as a basis for new “sustainable” fabrics, where the plastic fibres are some percentage of the fabric mixed in with cotton. This is clearly not going to save the world, as the reclaimed and recycled plastic is no better than other plastic fabrics in that it will shed microplastics and be impossible to actually recycle later on. In a world in media-induced grief over fish and animals lying dead from eating plastic, it is a superbly effective variant of marketing manipulation though.

The only real strategy though is to reduce the use of plastics in garments and deal with those already made. A large part of this will consist of making people aware of the issues and coming to an agreement on how to deal with existing garments.

Some potential ways forward

When we take a look at ways the garment industry can move forward the overwhelming point is to reiterate that production and consumption must be reduced. Once we have a common understanding of this we can start to look at other ways to make it more sustainable. Second is of course to eliminate the use of plastic materials. This leaves something of a void in materials though, as next on the list of materials to avoid is cotton. Yes, the supply of organic cotton has ramped up quite remarkably rapidly, so there is cotton available that is an improvement on the immensely thirsty for water and hungry for pesticide style of cotton farming that has been the industry norm until recently.

There are alternative source materials that can be used though, ones that waste fewer resources and can be made into fabrics in a similar manner to the ubiquitous cotton. I’m talking about hemp and linen, both traditional plants that have a history in garment use. Nettles is a left-field entry but could be included just to add diversity.

There are also entirely new developments and innovations being made. Lyocell is an iteration of the older viscose style of making fibres from pulped cellulose. While the original viscose developed in the 1850s was a horrible and hazardous process using various acids, the new processes are apparently a lot more friendly to both the environment and the operators in the factory. There are other innovations with names such as Ioncell and NuCycl that show promise but are likely a long way from being produced in any quantity. There is a very promising innovation in Finland using tree waste as it’s the basis.

I’d also like to mention a production philosophy that holds some promise, zero waste. There are probably many interpretations of this, but to my mind, the most elegant is through the use of knitting machines that create the full garment from start to finish with no excess to be cut off. Traditional garment-making starts with cutting individual pieces from a roll of fabric, a process that even though the layout is optimised will cause a certain amount of cuttings that are more or less waste. Combine 3D-knitting machines with exact sizing and custom ordering and we might actually be talking about the next generation of clothing.

This is all really depressing, what can we do?

So at the end of the day, what should you do with your unwanted or worn out clothes?

If they’re worn out, send them to the appropriate recycling, either through a charity collection box or other means. Worn out garments can be recycled for their fibres and used as insulation and other products. For the time being, synthetic clothes should also be sent for recycling.

If they’re usable, either give them to someone who can use them, sell them or donate them to a charity or secondhand shop that will actually put them out for sale, not ship them abroad.

There is also the case for not washing your clothes more than you need to. Washing is a major source of wear, and also the main way that microfibres are released. I’ve noticed that especially teenagers will drop an entire outfit into the dirty laundry, regardless of whether it’s actually dirty or in need of washing. A more conscious and pragmatic approach to this is beneficial to both the environment and your clothes.

Links:

Fast fashion and the environment:

Plast og plastdiskusjoner på avveie (Ingen Grimstad Kleppe & Tone Skårdal TobiassonNorwegian text)

H&M’s sustainability efforts slammed by regulators, labelled “greenwashing” in latest PR disaster

More Recycling Can’t Fix The Fundamental Flaws With Fast Fashion

Fast fashion: Britons to buy 50m ‘throwaway outfits’ this summer

The story of a £4 Boohoo dress: cheap clothes at a high cost

How polluting is the fashion industry?

The environmental cost of fast fashion

New fabrics:

From forest to fashion in Finland with a new textile process

Adidas by Stella McCartney is making new clothes by liquifying old ones

 

5 Comments

  • WDW 12/07/2019 at 13:30

    Very good article on a very depressing topic.
    You are left feeling very powerless against the powers that decide what should be available for you. Sourcing local and ethical is not that easy everywhere and the further you are from a big city, less choices you have.
    Food is portion wrapped, I have no choice. Plastic bottles, plastic containers, plastic bags and liners.
    There are no farmers markets where I live. I cannot buy packaging free food. Norwegian made clothes are insanely expensive and hard to find. I can make my own, but how is the fabric produced?
    I am forced to accept plastic with most purchases i make and I have no control of what happens to it besides my religious attention to recycling.
    Where do I get womens underwear and pantyhoses with no plastic? Or a nice shirt with buttons in natural material?

    I could go on forever. I guess I just needed to vent because it takes an enormous amount of effort to even start comprehending this. And it’s not black and white. So much more than the actual material (plastic) mist be taken into account…

    Reply
  • Shaun Brown 12/07/2019 at 21:53

    Excellent article Nick, and very well researched. Some points to note, this is a still in the whole scheme of things a relatively recent problem therefore is still reversible. And Retailers have been very quick, as you pointed out, to start bandying about the words “ sustainable “ “eco” etc with no clarity or accountability. That has to change. And let’s buy more second hand, used , call it what you will. Thank you

    Reply
  • Roland Novak 13/07/2019 at 10:26

    Thank you for your insights and research! Great read throughout!

    Reply
  • Philip Sanderson 21/07/2019 at 10:38

    Great article. Underlying all of this is of course a certain unease as as readers we probably consider ourselves environmentally aware and yet we are drawn to this blog about clothing partly by a desire for more stuff – yes well made and designed, sustainable, environmentally friendly, hard wearing but ultimately more stuff, when most of us already have more jackets etc than we need.

    Reply
    • nick 21/07/2019 at 10:49

      Thanks, Philip! You highlight a point that is difficult to reconcile. To my mind, we need to focus on doing better and making better choices, helped by knowing more. The mere fact of say, recycling better, as in giving a coat to someone who will use it instead of it ending up ground into insulation in Eastern Europe, allows us some leeway. It does come down to company profits vs the environment though and if the bigger picture is known by more of us, where does the sympathy lie?

      Reply

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