[RETHINK Retail] — Eco-friendly shoppers are exhausted. They don’t know who to listen to. In a world where even airports realize going green is a smart choice, consumers would like to think that they’re doing their part. They see clothing signs like “green,” “eco-friendly,” “ethical” and “responsibly made,” and want to do their part to fight against climate change. But for those who don’t have the budget to purchase higher-priced items, fast fashion may be their best bet at finding appealing clothes. The problem is fast fashion isn’t exactly doing its part to be earth-friendly.
Fast fashion versus environmental impact
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. That’s the advice that the Environmental Protection Agency gives to consumers to help save the environment. So customers shopping H&M’s Conscious or Zara’s Join Life collections are doing their part, right? Not exactly, according to recent news.
In fact, comedian Hasan Minhaj is having a little fun with these stores. In a recent episode of his Netflix show “The Patriot Act,” he created his own pop-up shop to prove that these stores “use ambiguity to sell you the feeling of responsibility.”
Using a black jacket from Zara as an example, the store advertises it as “the most sustainably produced polyurethane.” What consumers may not know about a material like this is that polyurethane, which was first developed in the late 1930s, is used for adhesives, athletic apparel, building insulation, solid plastics and surface coatings. While the product is definitely popular and comes in handy for a wide amount of products, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that, “a product made out of PU also won’t biodegrade anytime soon, either, and neither can it be recycled.”
So while that fancy “vegan leather” jacket may be more animal friendly than one from a high-priced fur store or upscale clothing boutique, the solvents used to make the polyurethane-based synthetic leather are toxic. In simpler terms from Minhaj, “How do you sustainably produce clothes made out of oil? It’s like having a fair-trade blood diamond.”
Additionally, the coat’s base fabric is still 87 percent polyester and 13 percent cotton. The only part that’s polyurethane is the coating on top of the coat. And even the simplest outfit of a cotton T-shirt and pair of jeans can use up to 5,000 gallons of water for manufacturing. But how often will a fast fashion consumer pay this much attention to the manufacturing results? Once they see the recycling label on the item, it’s probably easier to close their eyes and hope for the best.
That is, unless they choose second-hand stores instead. Who wouldn’t want to bring new life to old clothes without having to dissect each retail tag?
Second-hand shopping or donating: Is that the answer?
The arguably good news is that customers have stopped trying to buy every item within reach. American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) (via Quartz) reports that consumers have gone from buying 42 garments per year in 1991 to about 66 garments in 2016. Even with the Great Recession dip in 2008, people were still buying more than 55 garments. But that number is still lower than it was in 2005, which almost shot up to 69 garments purchased in a year.
For consumers who stock up on clothing and wear it for ages, this may not be so bad. The bigger issue, according to PBS, is they’re not keeping the clothes. Americans throw away 13 million tons of textiles (approximately 85 percent) annually, which amounts to 9 percent of total non-recycled waste. And that ends up in the landfills.
So what about those customers who dump their unwanted textiles into neighborhood recycling bins or take them to donation centers? This can be a catch-22 as well. The Chicago Tribune has already done a deep dive into donation boxes from Gaia, USAgain, Planet Aid, IICD and Humana. Gaia hadn’t met eight of its 20 charity accountability standards. USAgain is a for-profit company, so consumers aren’t “donating” to a better cause; clothing that goes into that bin is just being sold again.
Planet Aid was reprimanded for “lack of transparency, insufficient spending on program services (11 to 44 percent) and too much spending on fundraising ($76 to $85 per $100 raised).” And all of the companies are owned by the Danish group called Tvind, which (at the time of the Tribune’s report) spent a “very small percentage of its revenue on environmental projects.”
But let’s just say consumers skip the questionable “donation” or “reusable clothing” bins and go to reputable charities such as the Salvation Army or Goodwill. While these companies are far more trusted and well-known than USAgain, Gaia and the like, Goodwill and the Salvation Army only end up selling approximately 20 percent of donated items. Whatever else is left gets packaged into tightly sealed plastic bales and sold to for-profit recycling companies. Then those textiles are sold to developing countries.
The bales are shipped to places like Africa and re-opened. A pair of jeans valued at $1.30 before it left the United States is now $6.66 to its “new” customers. And the “bend-over market”—who literally bends over to see all of the textiles laying on the ground to be purchased— picks and chooses what they can afford. The rest end up junking up their own landfills. Even worse, ABC reports that African textile companies are closing up shop. Why? Fast fashion has taken over where they used to be able to make and sell clothing.
The rubberband effect continues.
Purchasing from a second-hand store gives clothing items new life. Eco-friendly fast fashion retailers may not be as environmentally friendly as they like to claim. Donating to a charitable organization that uses the donated textile profits to feed the homeless, contribute to disaster relief and create outreach for the elderly may be ideal—if the clothing actually gets sold there. Dumping clothing into a garbage can doesn’t do anybody any favors, especially when recycled textiles can be used as rags, car seat fillings and carpet. But retailers being transparent about how their textile items are made and used, as well as discussing the importance of durability and longevity of each textile before its purchase, may help consumers make better shopping choices. And maybe pulling out the needle and threat to “fix” damaged clothes instead of discarding it will come in handy, too.