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Fast fashion doesn't recycle your used clothes

The circularity scam that always ends up in a landfill

Fast fashion doesn't recycle your used clothes The circularity scam that always ends up in a landfill

Used clothing take-back and recycling programs are becoming increasingly popular in the fast fashion industry, presenting consumers with a seemingly convenient way to return their unwanted clothes to big brands for a second life. These schemes promise to donate to the needy or recycle garments into new clothes, projecting an image of sustainability and responsibility. However, an investigation conducted between August 2022 and July 2023 by the Changing Markets Foundation and titled Take-Back Trickery sought to trace the path of items handed over to, among others, H&M (which was already accused of greenwashing last year), Zara, Primark, and C&A, and to shed light on the greenwashing behind these programs at a time in history when even the European Union is beginning to tighten laws against these practices. Using discreet airtag trackers hidden in the clothing, the investigation closely followed 21 items delivered to ten fashion brands with take-back schemes throughout the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Germany. All of the returned clothes were of good quality and originally purchased from second-hand clothing stores, making them suitable for reuse. The tracking results revealed the discrepancy between the brands' claims and the actual fate of the collected clothing.

What happens to the clothing you give back to fast fashion brands?

@adropintheoceanshop when your CEO admits the planet can't cope, maybe it's time to make a change. #hm #fastfashion #greenwashing Make a Change - Paddy and the Rats

The investigation revealed that many brands have little traceability and control over what happens to clothing after collection. Some brands collaborate with charitable organizations or business partners, transferring responsibility for reuse and recycling without direct oversight. This lack of transparency is troubling and challenges the image projected to consumers. All returned garments fall into four groups: 

  • Downcycled or Destroyed: Seven items were quickly destroyed, downcycled, or thrown away, despite being in good condition. Some were used as upholstery or cleaning cloths, while others were burned to produce energy in cement plants, contrary to the brands' claims about downcycling or burning for fuel only items not suitable for reuse.
  • Resold in Europe: Only five items have found a second life in second-hand clothing stores or with customers on the same continent. Although promising, this used clothing trade in some regions contributes to the waste problem in countries with significant challenges.
  • Just disappeared: Several items have been trapped in the global used clothing trade, stagnating for months in indeterminate locations or warehouses, never fulfilling brands' promises of reuse or recycling.
  • Sent off to Africa: The most controversial category involves clothing shipped to African countries, entering the massive second-hand clothing markets with inadequate waste management systems. This often results in landfilling or burning, with clothing from brand take-back schemes directly contributing to the problem.

How to defend yourself against greenwashing?

According to the report, there are several ways to guard against greenwashing. First, change must come from lawmakers who should introduce eco-design measures for fabrics, ensuring the use of circular and non-toxic materials to promote sustainability and durability of clothing. In addition, an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system for textiles should be implemented to make manufacturers, including fashion brands, financially responsible for managing textile waste at the end of life. EPR fees should be high enough to cover collection costs and stimulate reuse and recycling. Performance targets should respect the waste hierarchy, prioritizing prevention and reuse, while closed-loop recycling should be favored over downcycling. At the same time, it is important to consider introducing a virgin plastic tax to limit the use of synthetic fibers derived from petroleum, reducing the environmental impacts of fast-fashion production. These actions will help promote a circular and sustainable textile economy, reducing the fashion industry's environmental impacts and countering greenwashing.

For consumers, however, the same rules as always apply. Shoppers can defend themselves against greenwashing by taking, in short, a conscious and responsible approach. Avoid impulse purchases and buy only what you really need, prefer second-hand clothes and circular fashion practices, choose brands that are transparent, sustainable and committed to reducing the use of fossil fibers. By raising awareness about greenwashing through social media and other platforms, consumers can promote sustainability and hold companies accountable for being authentically eco-friendly.