I’ve always wondered about these little babies. On the face of it they seem like a good thing, right? But in my experience looks can be deceiving and well intention initiatives can have unintended negative consequences. Is that the case here or am I just too cynical. Well lets look at them in a bit more detail.
Sooooooo recycling? Long time subscribers to this website will know I’m not a fan of recycling. If you don’t now why here’s my article on Why Recycling isn’t the Answer. Is clothes recycling any different? What happens to clothing that goes into these bins?
I apologise in advance for using UK information, I could find no research into this in Ireland, but I figure the end result is not going to be substantially different here in Ireland.
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If it’s wearable it’ll be sold to companies that ship clothing to countries with a second-hand clothing market like Poland, Ghana, Pakistan and Ukraine. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Well, maybe, but not at the scale that it’s happening.
Wrap estimates that more than 70% of all UK reused clothing heads overseas. In 2013 the UK exported more than £380m ($600m), or 351,000 tonnes, worth of discarded fashion overseas (Source: BBC News).
Unfortunately not just quality clothing is shipped and there have been reports of un-saleable clothing ending up on bonfires in recipient countries (Source: CBC news). Just think about it, not only does the collection, sorting and shipping of these garments cause carbon emissions, we also have the carbon emissions and associated pollutants that come with open fires.
Also, some argue that this mass influx of second hand clothing has a negative impact on the textile industry in a lot of countries. In Uganda, second-hand garments now account for 81% of all clothing purchases and Ghana’s textile and clothing employment fell by 80% between 1975 and 2000. While Nigeria’s 200,000-person textile workforce has also all but disappeared (Source: BBC News).
On the other hand some point to the fact that the second-hand clothing market has created it’s own industry, albeit of a much lower skill level than the making of clothes would generate.
Worn Out Clothes / Clothes in need of Repair
If the garment is worn-out or in need of repair, regardless of how simple the repair, it may be recycled into new clothing but only if it made from a single fibre, which is quite rare in clothing today. Garments made from more than one type of fibre, like polycotton, can’t be recycled into new fabric and so will be used for carpet padding, painters’ cloths or insulation instead. I:Collect, the company that handles the donations for H&M and several other major retailers, says about 35 per cent of what it collects is used for products like this. (Source: CBC news)
Even if the fabric in a worn out garment is recyclable the market for the recycled fibre garments is so tiny that it might not be worth doing and so end up a rags or landfilled or incineration. Author and environmentalist Elizabeth Cline says less than one per cent of clothing is recycled to make new clothing and according to the UN a garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned globally every second (Source: UN)
If we look at the one of the biggest proponents of clothes recycling bins, H&M. Their own sustainability reports acknowledge that, of the material used to make its estimated half a billion garments a year, only 0.7 per cent is recycled material (Source: CBC news). Based on this figure it would take 12 years for them to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste, which is the same amount of clothes a brand of this size pumps out in 48 hours. (Source: The Guardian)
Impact on Behaviour
Also lets consider what’s in it for stores the that give vouchers in return for used clothing. What do people do with this voucher? I’d imagine most use it to buy new clothing. So are these voucher scheme actually encouraging more shopping? Probably, seeing that on a global scale, the average consumer purchases 60 per cent more clothing than they did 20 years ago, and that on average, each item is kept half as long, with about 40 per cent of garments in wardrobes in developed countries going completely unworn. (Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE))
It’d be interesting to survey customers who donate bags of clothing in shops that give vouchers in return. Did they donate to that store because it gave out vouchers? Do they spend the voucher on the same day as the donation? Did they buy something that they previously wanted, or was it an impulse purchase? Would they have bought the item in another store had they not had the voucher?
Surely if H&M, and others, were really concerned about sustainability they’d resell pre-worn items, or offer a repair service, or make more clothing from recycled fabric, or change styles less frequently.
Clothes Recycling Bins in stores could also impacting on revenue for charities. If people are dropping good quality clothes into H&M or similar instead of their local charity that’s inevitably going to hit their potential to generate income. The Irish Charity Shops Association state that for every €10kg of clothing donated to non-charity clothing banks / textile recylers up to €68 is lost to charity.
All that said, what if these vouchers are encouraging people who would never consider recycling to donate their clothing instead of binning it? Perhaps the payment of a voucher is giving those people an incentive to think more sustainably. Some argue that giving a voucher places a value on unwanted clothing, something that you don’t get when you donate to a charity shop, and that if we want to move towards a circular economy that’s a good thing.
What to do
Having read this you might be tempted to leave your unwanted clothes in the wardrobe, but don’t. The total amount of unworn clothes owned by Londoners equates to 123 million items, or 333,000 tonnes of CO2e – enough to power 50,000 homes for a whole year. It would take the entire population of London 15 years to drink the water footprint of London’s unworn clothes. (Source: Traid). So if you rehome that pair of jeans that no longer fit you’d be saving someone from using up 2,000 litres of water required for a new pair. (Source: UN)
As is often the case with sustainable living we’re well past seeking the perfect solution, we’re looking for the least bad option (the perfect solution would be not to have any clothes to rehome / dispose of in the first place).
So lets consider our objective. For most, the goal is to get unwanted clothes out of our wardrobes, but that mindset isn’t helping us or our planet. We need to flip our thinking around from how do we get rid of this clothing to how do we get this clothing into the hands of people who will use and value them. When we successfully do that we prevent the purchasing of new items, which saves on litres of water, tonnes of fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
But what’s the best way to do that? Well that depends on the condition of the clothes and the fabric type. You can read the hierarchy I go by in my article What to do with old clothes
And before I go, let me say that even if you do decide to put clothes in those in store clothes recycling bins you’re still doing better than a whole load of people. In the UK, three-quarters of consumers send clothes to landfill rather than recycle or donate. In Australia (the second biggest per capita consumer of new clothing in the world, after the US), it’s estimated that some six tonnes of textiles are sent to landfill every 10 minutes. (Source: Huckmag)
So as always lets just do our best, knowing that my best will look different to your best and our bests will look different today than they will next year. As long as we continue to learn and review our actions as we do we should feel very proud of ourselves.
PS – Hope you enjoyed this article. In previous years I’ve written article on
4 thoughts on “Are Instore Clothes Bins just Greenwashing?”
Great post, Elaine! In future, if recycling rates increase, then buying items made from a single fiber becomes more and more important. H&M did launch a challenge (w/ 1 million prize fund) to come up with a recycling method for multiple fibers. But this may have been somewhat of a PR stunt. Single fiber recycling would definitely take precedent in any case.
Did they really? I know there is a company looking into this. I heard H&M got back lash recently over promoting a recycled fashion scheme the same week people were planning memorials for the Rana Plaza collapse.
great post – I get so miffed when i see ‘give up clothes for good’ in TK Maxx which implies donate your clothes and feel good (even though charity shops are over full) and but more. H&M are now being called to account in sweeden with their sustainable claims but I really wish more could be done. Boohoo bought Coast and Karen Millen recently and it was not for the brick and mortar stores, but for their online share. On-line returned clothes are another ‘dirty secret’.
of all sustainable living options, I think getting people to review the clothes thing is the ‘hardest sell’, the payday treat and cant wear same outfit to different wedding seems to have become so ingrained. On the other hand, I took part in a repair cafe (sewing only) in Galway recently and there are people out there who are willing to look at repairing, as well as reading some nice editorials from fashion editors on their favourite wardrobe items showing that items 20+ can still work in your wardrobe and buying to last is ‘proper shopping’
I too get so annoyed at the sales pitch that recycling is the guilt free solution to over consumption. Hopefully the tide is turning and fast fashion will only exist in history books
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