The Uneasy Relationship Between Fashion and Waste

Through a garment lifecycle there is waste. This results in an extraordinary 57% of clothes being discarded and going to landfill each year. Managing waste in a more efficient way offers cost savings and benefits to the environment.


Key Takeaways

  • At the heart of fashion is waste – it goes hand-in-hand with the word fashion – both when you discard materials when making a garment and getting rid of items when they are out of fashion.
  • The fashion industry does not pay attention to waste as much as other ecological issues however if waste was managed better it could result in a savings of 4 billion per year.
  • In the supply chain about 35% of materials end up as waste
  • Washing synthetics creates microfibre use and almost 35% of microfibres that pollute marine habitats come from washing clothes
  • Garments are both and discarded more than ever and 57% of these garments go to landfill.

Waste is at the heart of fashion and occurs all throughout the supply chain through to consumer use and all the way up until the garment is finally disposed of. This is then compounded due to the fact that fashion by definition, then goes out of fashion and this makes people feel like it is ok to throw away garments after a few uses.

Considering this, it might come as a surprise that hardly any attention is given to waste as an important issue in the industry. If we were to utilise technology better the industry could save up €4 billion per year up to 2020 according to an article from Pulse of the Fashion Industry in 2017. If we are to utilise new recycling technologies the potential savings will be much higher at a commercial scale.

Supply Chain Waste

On average, before a garment or product reaches the consumer, 35% of all materials will end up as waste in the supply chain. This could be anywhere from un-useable stock due to design changes, cutting waste, transporting spoilage, excess stock that is sold in stores, or even incinerated by brands.

Elements of waste are difficult to avoid. Unless the garment is designed specifically to be ‘zero waste’ then there will always be some waste from the fabric. Some researchers estimate that by being more conscious about how you work, leftover fabric could be reduced significantly to about 10% of materials used. The bigger the garment, and the bigger the production run, the higher the likelihood is that extra waste will be generated.

Fabric cut-offs aren’t the only thing that cause wastage. Production at the intermediate stages also can generate large amounts of water waste and also air emissions ‘waste’. The Pulse report estimates that the industry uses 79 billion cubic metres of water in their supply chain per years. Most of which is released as water waste that is polluted. *

Consumer Waste Use

When a garment is washed as part of daily use it will release thousands of tiny fibres. These tiny fibres find their way through wastewater in to the waterways and then oceans. Scientists have long noted this types of pollution but it is only now attracting the wider attention in the media.

A chief culprit of microfibre pollution is caused by synthetics (polyethylene, elastane, acrylic, polyester). Washing synthetic textiles is estimated to release almost 35% of the micro plastics (defined as plastic particles less than 1mm in diameter) and are gathering in marine habitats worldwide.

When experimenting with domestic washing machines it was shown that a single garment can actually produce over 1,900 fibres every wash. It is worth nothing that fibre shed varies depending on the type of fabric and whether it was blended and also what type of garment construction is used. Shedding also differs with the age of clothing and is shown to be up to 1.8 times high for older garments. It salso depends what type of washing machine is used and washing machines that load from the top can shed up to 5.3 times more.

A study was conducted for Patagonia and it estimated that 110kg of microfibres is released in to the waterways daily for every 100,000 people. This is equivalent to pollution that is caused by about 15,000 plastic bags.
It is estimated that 110kg of microfibres is released in to the waterways daily for every 100,000 people.

Compared to 2000, the average consumer is now buying 60% more items of clothing. However with this increases, the garment is now kept for just half the time with people discarding garments much more quickly. 39 million tonnes of post-consumer textile waste results from these buying habits. This is generated worldwide each year and is hosting in the form of garments.

Of the discarded clothing about 4/5 goes in to the waterways disposal stream and recycling and sorting counts for the other 1/5. In the waste disposal stream about 30% will be incinerated and 70% will go in to the landfill. Of the 1/5 that goes for recycling or sorting, about half is recycled, 40% is used again as second-hand clothing nd then about 10% ends up in the waste stream again.

If you look at this from the bigger picture this breakdown means that over all on 10% is recycled, 8% re-used as second-hand thing and a whopping 57% sent to landfill.

Baxter House is dedicated to ethical manufacturing and to find out more about our ethos please click here.