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Fast Fashion’s Dirty Secret: Trillions of Clothes Wasted Every Year

ECOLOGYFast Fashion's Dirty Secret: Trillions of Clothes Wasted Every Year

Every year, a statistical European discards approximately 11-15 kg of textile products, including clothing. According to data from McKinsey, three out of every five manufactured garments end up either in a landfill or are incinerated. Only a small percentage finds its way into the secondary market, but it’s still a massive quantity. “In our sorting facility, we process 350 tonnes of unwanted clothes every day. That adds up to 84 million kg per year. This volume would fill four Congress Halls in the Palace of Culture and Science,” says Monika Lipnicka, an expert in secondary clothing cycles at the company Wtórpol.

According to data from the European Commission, global textile production nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015, and the consumption of clothing and footwear is expected to grow by 63 percent by 2030.

“Unfortunately, we are being hit by a wave, or rather an ocean of unwanted clothes. The average European buys 26 kg of new clothes every year and gets rid of 11 kg. Sadly, only a small portion of these clothes make it to the secondary market, which could mean that the majority of unwanted clothes, often bought impulsively, end up in landfills. There, they will slowly decompose over hundreds of years,” says Lipnicka.

According to McKinsey, fast-fashion consumers treat the cheapest clothes as disposable and throw them away after just seven uses. Every year, consumers worldwide lose up to $460 billion by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear.

“There are many risks associated with buying clothes. Very often, we treat clothes superficially and as disposable. The purchase cost is low, and we buy because we want to feel better, constantly want something new, and want to meet the expectations of others. It’s a closed loop of unnecessary decisions because our decisions are focused only on what to buy, choosing between one hanger and another, between one brand and another. However, we don’t pay attention to what will later happen to that item,” Lipnicka advises.

The European Commission reports that around the world, a truckload of textile products is stored or incinerated every second.

“We all will bear the cost of this, because the price of clothes is not just what we see on the tag. There are also hidden economic and ecological costs, often deferred. What will happen to the clothes languishing in landfills will only be seen in 10, 20, 30, or maybe more years,” says Lipnicka. “The worst solution is to throw unwanted clothes into mixed garbage, where they will likely end up in a landfill or incinerated. It’s important to remember that clothes are also a valuable resource. Even if they are damaged, they can be recycled and serve others in a changed form.”

Only a small percentage of clothes end up in the secondary market or get recycled, but the volumes are still substantial.

“Every day, our conveyors process 350 tonnes of unwanted clothes, not 35 tonnes, not 3.5 tonnes, but 350 tonnes. In a year, this adds up to as much as 84 million kg. This volume would fill four Congress Halls in the Palace of Culture and Science. These clothes are often bought on impulse, under emotional influence, often never worn once, and discarded often even with store tags still on,” says the Wtórpol expert.

Research from SW Research commissioned by EPP found that nearly 90 percent of Poles believe that donating unused clothing is a way to help those in need, and 86 percent consider it respect for the environment. Clothes are most often given a second life by being put in special containers (42 percent), given or sold. Every fifth person takes them to collections or gives them to organizations supporting those in need.

“It’s not about imposing artificial and restrictive resolutions that we won’t buy anything at all or only from the secondary market. The most sensible solution is simply common sense – we buy when we need, we take care of the clothes we have so they serve us as long as possible, and when they are no longer needed or we are bored with them, or for whatever other reason we don’t want to wear them anymore, let’s give them to a place where they will have a chance to enter the secondary market and get a new life,” advises Lipnicka.

According to European directives, selective textile collection will become mandatory by 2025. By 2030, the European Commission wants clothes to be made more from recycled clothing materials. McKinsey estimates that precisely recycling fibers could partly solve the waste problem. It involves transforming textile waste into new fibers, which would then be used to create new clothes or other textile products. Such technologies are already in use, although they usually apply only to clothes with simple composition, containing only one type of material, such as pure cotton.

Chemical recycling of polyester is just a step away from commercialization resulting in up to 70% of textile waste being processed.

The increasing number of produced and purchased clothes has a tremendous impact on the environment. The total greenhouse gas emissions from textile production amount to 1.2 billion tonnes per year – more than emissions from all international flights and maritime ships combined. Parallelly, the negative impact of this production on resources, water, energy consumption, and climate is rising. Cotton, which accounts for about 30 percent of total textile fiber consumption, is usually grown using large amounts of water, pesticides, and fertilizers.

“When producing clothes, we use natural resources that are not renewable and consume large amounts of water. The clothing industry ranks an unenviable second in terms of sectors that have the most negative impact on the environment. Let’s also mention microplastic, which is released into the water and comes from our clothes. Most of our clothes are produced in Asian countries, where working conditions and wages are far from any standards,” emphasizes the expert in secondary clothing cycles at the company Wtórpol.

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