Zero-waste isn’t necessarily a term you would associate with the fashion industry, which for decades has a behind-the-scenes history of textile wastage and stock incineration processes. The way that most garments are currently made means that by design, garments will have a limited number of lifespans before inevitably ending up on the rubbish heap. A recent report by the Environmental Audit Committee reveals that in the UK, ‘300,000 tonnes of textile waste ends up in house hold black bins every year, sent to landfill or incinerators’.
So what is currently being done to reduce fashions growing waste problem? The three ‘R’s, reduce, reuse and recycle, are collectively helping to minimise the volume of textile waste.
Consumers shifting to invest in a lower number of higher quality items rather than a higher number of lower quality items, is something that helps to decrease the volume of waste. Not only do they have less to dispose of, good quality garments tend to remain in wardrobes for far longer than lower quality pieces.
Re-use is a rapidly growing market, with second-hand clothes being viewed increasingly more as an individualistic and affordable alternative to high-street options, which tend to be limited to whatever the current trends are. In 2018, one third of women shopped second-hand in the UK, and clothes-swapping social events are becoming more accessible, showing the stigma that used to surround second-hand clothing seems to be evaporating.
Recycling garments comes in a number of forms, from up-cycling (repurposing new pieces from discarded materials, usually maintaining original characteristics) to recycling and transforming the original structure into something completely new, such as the recycled plastic t-shirts and sweaters at Uncaptive!
Recycling is the best option for garments and materials that are not suitable for re-wear or up-cycling, and help reduce waste by diverting from landfill and keeping materials in circulation for longer. The recycled plastic range at Uncaptive blends finely ground fibres of plastic bottles that have been collected from the sea with recycled organic cotton, which is sourced from the scraps left over during pattern-cutting stages of production, giving a second life to unwanted materials. A great example of fashion brands using up-cycling in a creative way is London-based company ‘Elvis and Kresse’. For over a decade, none of London’s fire hose has gone to landfill thanks to Elvis and Kresse, their statement bags, purses and belts all made from the diverted materials and featuring the original ribbed design details of the fire hoses.
So as consumers, what can we do to help minimise our contribution to textile waste?
The first is investing in quality pieces in the first place, looking after garments and learning essential mending techniques, which will help to prolong the lifespan of pieces. Look for garments that won’t date (Uncaptive are great for ethical quality wardrobe staples) and show your unique character through clothing choices rather than buying into short-lived trends. Customisation and alteration of garments is also a great way of making the most out of your wardrobe and reconnecting with your clothing! Next is swapping with friends and attending clothes swaps, getting rid of pieces you no longer feel connected with whilst having something new for your wardrobe, a win-win situation!
All of these things help to prolong the lifespan of garments, and the longer clothes and materials are able to be in circulation, the less there is the need for raw materials. A step in the right direction, but there are those that argue these methods don’t prevent the impact that clothing has on the environment, only it ‘allows them to take place in much smaller increments over a longer period of time’. The current model of the supply chain which is ‘make, use and dispose’, is simply stretched over a longer period of time.
In the zero-waste book ‘Cradle to Cradle’, chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough discuss the notion of overhauling our current linear model of production to a circular model. Rather than reinventing and reusing our current materials, they believe that the way forward begins at the source, looking at materials and products being designed in a way that makes them effective for reuse and reinvention without their structural quality being reduced over time. Progress towards circular textile production would mean fashion and textile designers being educated on alternative methods and encouraged to develop creative solutions. This could include working with scientists and technologists to create new innovative materials with a circular economy in mind.
Whilst this is certainly something to work towards in terms of sustainability, it isn’t something that will happen overnight. The recent report by the Environmental Audit Committee is a great step forward on looking at the present and future of the UK fashion industry and engages the government in a rare discussion on the topic. Suggestions include actions such as adding a one penny charge per garment for fashion retailers, which would raise £35 million to invest in developing more efficient methods of clothing collection and sorting in the UK. Other suggestions include banning incinerating or landfilling unsold stock that could otherwise be re-used or recycled. Looking long-term, they propose a ‘Resources and Waste’ strategy to incorporate eco-design principles and ‘offer incentives for recycling, design for disassembly and design for durability. Collectively, these actions would work towards a circular economy whilst also dealing with our current issues!
This article was written by Melanie, who is the director of Melanie Kyles. She is a contemporary embroidery artist based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
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