Where does fashion waste end up?

April 21, 2021
Hand holding bag of discarded clothes

It’s Earth Month: a time for giving extra consideration to our impact on the planet. And as the industry responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, the fashion industry has a lot to think about. When it comes to fashion’s impact, it's worth focusing special attention on the issue of waste. Each year, between 100 billion and 150 billion new garments are produced, and it’s estimated that at least 20% of them are never sold. What happens to all those clothes? 

For starters, there’s the familiar statistic that a garbage truck full of textiles is dumped into a landfill every second. In the US alone, 21 billion pounds of textiles go to landfill every year. Plastic fibres are particularly problematic: the average polyester garment takes over 200 years to decompose. 

Landfill isn’t the only place where unsold clothes end up; clothes go to incinerators too. Estimates of the volume of unsold clothes being incinerated are hard to come by, but several high-profile cases of brands burning tens of millions of dollars’ worth of unsold inventory in recent years suggest the volume is large. Burning clothes recovers a small amount of energy, but it also releases CO2 and plastic microfibres into the atmosphere, particularly problematic given 60% of the material that makes up our clothes worldwide is some form of plastic. 

Donating unsold clothes to charity is no silver bullet either. Most donated clothes, whether pre-consumer overstock or post-consumer secondhand clothes, end up in developing countries if they are not first landfilled or burned. And developing countries are drowning in unwanted clothing imports. In 2018, Rwanda banned the import of second-hand clothing. Imports of mountains of unwanted clothing cast-offs have destroyed once-vibrant garment manufacturing industries in East Africa, and in Ghana, streets and beaches are literally awash with unwanted, discarded clothes. 

What would a world without fashion waste look like? And more importantly, how can it be achieved? We’re still some ways off from a zero-waste global fashion supply chain. But it’s possible to move incrementally closer to that goal. One solution is clear: addressing overproduction at its roots. It is essential that brands get better at matching supply and demand. Designing products in secret and then releasing them in the hopes that 50-75% of them sell at full price is no longer viable for brands that are serious about addressing overproduction and reducing their impact on the planet. Using predictive analytics that incorporate real-time consumer insights is an excellent first step.

Fashion brands have not typically involved end consumers in their product design and demand planning processes. But given the urgency of the climate crisis and the fashion industry’s impact, now is the time to start. Forward-looking and conscious fashion brands have a unique opportunity to lead the way in addressing overproduction and show the industry how it’s done.

Where does fashion waste end up?
Lindsay Trombley
Wovn Cofounder