Clothing related waste and possible solutions

A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation ( describes the global clothing sales increasing from 50 billion units in 2000 to 100 billion units in 2015 while the number of times clothese were worn on average before being discarded decreasing by 36% during the same period. The report claims a less than 1% recycle rate of clothing and suggests a greenhouse gas impact that is greater than international flights and maritime shipping. Is fast fashion, where there is an interest in following short term trends, the reason for such an impact ? Should consumers be charged for the environmental impact of their clothing or should this be the responsibility of the producers to take back used clothing ? Should manufacturers be provided explicit incentives to reuse clothing fibres from used clothing or should this be based on self interest to reduce costs ? Is there a need for governments to enable coordination to create a circular economy for clothing ?

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5 Responses to Clothing related waste and possible solutions

  1. Sara Moscato Howe says:

    This is a fascinating report on something that impacts each of us. It seems the fashion industry has always had quick changes in trends, so I find it less likely it is due to increasing changes in fashion trends. I would guess it is more likely due to a change in what we value, how quickly we discard old to get new and a lack of understanding of impact. Thus, I think it might be useful for this type of report to be turned into quick soundbites that can be promoted online to educate the general public. I also think an enterprising company could offer a discount for returned clothes to recycle rather than adding a surcharge. Many companies are looking to reduce their footprint these days and so are individuals. It could be a win for a company to add that incentive rather than a charge. A minimal surcharge may not be enough to change behaviors, but consumers like discounts and it makes them feel good to do something positive. A final option is similar with government – perhaps incentives to those companies that recycle more than those that don’t? Same principle as before – more likely to try for an incentive than really make an effort with a charge. If that does not work, then the surcharges are the next reasonable option. Knowing this information now, I will definitely make a better effort to recycle and cut down on the clothes I don’t wear!

  2. srinivas tadepalli says:

    This is a very interesting topic. As I was reading the document in detail, per the environmental protection agency from 1960 to 2010 (50 yrs), the average American textile waste increased from 20 pounds/year to 85 pounds/year (~4X). With the advent of affordable fast fashion and trendy clothing the use of non-degradable materials has increased multiple folds in the past few decades and the use of biodegradable materials such as cotton etc has gone down (for various reasons, one being expensive compared to polymeric fabric). Consumers are not willing to spend money on good and long lasting textiles anymore and poor quality garments (predominantly from the fast fashion market) don’t last long either. As a result, consumers buy more. On the other hand, the fashion industry has become notorious for exploitation of human capital, outsourcing production to the world’s lowest-wage economies etc. I also think most of the waste in the fashion industry is hidden along a chaotic supply chain which is not environmental friendly. I don’t think there is a perfect solution for this problem but I do believe in intelligent choices from both the consumer and producers. Clothing manufacturers should be incentivized for using biodegradable materials and recycling clothing and some efforts are already under way from some brands such as H&M etc. Unfortunately, whatever cannot be recycled ends up in a landfill polluting the environment.

    p.s.: @ Sara.. to your comment ” enterprising company could offer a discount for returned clothes to recycle rather than adding a surcharge”, some companies in the fast fashion world such as H&M etc are doing this right now.

  3. Matt Slane says:

    This article made me think about the built in lower quality techniques that have been used to allow costs to remain low and increase access to more income types. I don’t think that surcharges should be brought into this segment. Rather, this could be an opportunity for new entrants to come into the market with a big focus on the overall sustainability their product provides. Many of the lower quality materials have also moved into high end appliances. When having your HVAC system fixed talk to the techs. They all see much higher service issues and malfuntions in today’s appliances. However, we all have benefited from the lower price in purchasing these items. Much like the clothing industry, it seems like the economics are greater influences than the total quality and impact to the environment outlined in the article. Reflecting on a surcharge or tax from our econ course, we may find that those people groups with less income will be adversely impacted by this type of program.
    There could also be an opportunity to partner with goodwill etc to take and reprocess clothing as a possible solution.
    Interesting read.

  4. Anna Dietrich says:

    This was an interesting read! I have particularly always held an interest in fashion, yet rarely considered the environmental impact until more recently.
    I do believe that the idea of fast fashion (H&M, Zara, Forever21, etc.) has accelerated this waste and contributed to the numbers shared in the article. I think there is also a societal relationship in that consumers tend to want “new” and the latest and greatest. While a stereotypical example, it’s similar to what my grandmother would tell me- she would sew and fix clothes or share them as hand-me-downs, not throw them away.
    I do think manufacturers and retailers have a shared responsibility in this effort. While it’s a stretched comparison, I work for Cummins, a company that produces diesel engines which are regulated by emissions given the environmental impact. Again, it is not quite the same, but think it supports the narrative that companies should have environmentally related responsibility.
    From a consumer perspective, it’s hard to imagine a user tax placed on items that have negative impacts.
    I see a more sustainable solution in recycling, the materials used / reused, and quality of clothing to encourage a longer useful life. As shared in our Strategy course this module, Patagonia has a similar motto in that the founder strives for consumption, but less of it, with higher quality products.
    Potentially this idea of “green fashion” could be a competitive advantage for companies that position themselves in that way.

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