The uneasy relationship between fashion and waste

Waste is inevitable in fashion, in fact, it’s at the very heart of fashion. It happens all along the production chain, starting from consumer use to the very end of disposal. But somehow when we think of pollution, we visualise coal power plants or crude sewage waste flowing into our waterways, we don’t often think about the clothes we wear.

Fashion is a complicated business involving long and varied supply chains of production, textile manufacturing, clothing construction, and ultimately the disposal of clothing, this expenditure can be very wasteful and the impact the apparel industry has on our planet is quite grim.


Current textile waste

The clothing industry is one of the most prominent sectors in the UK. A recent study released by LABFRESH placed the United Kingdom as the fourth-largest producer of textile waste in Europe, producing over 200 tonnes of waste every year.


We all have unused garments in our wardrobes, which we often end up throwing away because the colour, style, and fit has already been outdated. This ends up in landfills.

As the age of fast fashion continues to grow, prices fall and consumerism festers. This is the cycle that governs the textile waste crisis.

With brands such as H&M coming up with new collections each year, buyers begin to see clothing as perishable goods. People are buying more clothes at an alarming rate with fast fashion as a business model encouraging this and subsequently the clothing industry significantly affecting our environment.

In the UK alone three-quarters of textile waste ends up in landfills after being used according to a recent study. This disposing culture affects not just our wallets but also our environment.

Elisa Tonda, Head of the Consumption and Production Unit at UN Environment, said: “If we carry on with a business-as-usual approach, the greenhouse gas emissions from the industry are expected to rise by almost 50% by 2030.”

Lynne Hugill Image credits:

Lynne Hugill, Principal Lecturer in Fashion and Textile at Teesside University highlighted a common problem around the textile waste that we fail to comprehend.

She said: “When we think of textile waste, we only focus on the final leftovers that are produced however the production of raw materials is liable for a large share of this environmental impact.”

“As indicated by WRAP an estimation of 1.14 million tons of clothes is supplied onto the UK market each year, to produce this, around 1.76 million tons of raw material are sent and one-third of this ends up in the landfill.

“This could be due to various issues such a large quantity of fiber being lost during production or due to shedding of natural fibers, garment construction, including cutting and making up, also produces large quantities of fabric waste while being processed.

“These figures are eye-opening.”

New concepts in waste reduction: cutting back our carbon footprint

To calculate our total carbon, water, and waste footprint we have to look at the volume of clothes that is consumed by every country. The entire life cycle of garments is included in the footprint calculations. The processes considered include the production of the raw material, the scope of production, processing stages, garment assembly, the ‘use phase’ of clothing, re-use, recycling, and final disposal. And that brings us to the carbon footprint of clothing consumed in one year which is about 195 million tons CO2e, here the ‘use phase’ is shown to have the largest carbon impact, although production also accounts for nearly a third of CO2e emissions. 

how much carbon does your outfit emit?


Sam Forno’s Low to No Waste Jacket, Shidume Lozada Photography

This calls for an action to accelerate the movement towards a sustainable resource-efficient economy by re-thinking how we design and consume products. In recent years there has been a rise in sustainable designs to reduce textile waste by utilizing scraps and recycling, and such ideas are helping us moderate the flow of waste in the fashion industry, however, it depends on the designer’s skills and craftsmanship within the context of sustainability.

For instance, Sam Forno’s no waste jacket is a result of merging design and pattern making process together. This process reduced the quantity of fabric usually required for a jacket by more than 25%.  Here instead of imposing conventional methods of dressmaking, the designer shows how creativity and ability to make quantum leaps of imagination hold the potential to transform the industry.

To encourage the growth of sustainable fashion, three crucial components are necessary:

The first is to shift consumers outlook from quantity to quality by encouraging people to buy good quality clothes less often; this also calls for brand transparency which is often classified as a major component for successful sustainable fashion marketing. It is crucial that consumers understand where their clothes are being made and what materials are being used to create them.

Secondly, to entail a longer product lifespan from manufacturing to discarding and the third is to encourage production that does not exploit natural resources to accelerate manufacturing speed. Designers such as Stella McCartney and Edun are focussing on establishing fair trade-based relationships and even established powerhouses, like Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy Group, are getting involved.

Furthermore, the trend towards sustainable fashion has also reached fast fashion brands, such as H&M with its organic Conscious Collections. Clothing and footwear brand Timberland has also addressed the problem by taking measures to reduce its carbon emissions in the future. Timberland has provided their design teams with material rating systems in order to support the selection of less carbon-intensive materials that can potentially decrease carbon emissions down the supply chain.

The ultimate goal of the sustainable fashion movement is to massively slow down production and consumption of garments on a global scale. The key component of sustainable production is the reduction of ‘waste and resource consumption through apparel recycling’ And despite the fact that slow fashion is currently limited, with the growth of more sustainable companies and consumer interest there is hope that sustainable fashion will be put into practice sooner rather than later.

Transforming fashion systems – a thread of hope?

Recently top clothing designers, including Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, and Ralph Lauren are on the leading edge towards reforming the fashion industry.

Eileen Fisher’s company is already utilising 84 percent organic cotton, 68 percent organic linen and is reducing water use and carbon emissions, and working to make its supply chain sustainable by 2020. But the real change in the clothing industry will only come if the big, affordable brands find a way to make and sell sustainable clothing. Until then, consumers have to help by changing where they shop and what they purchase.

Lottie Woods Image credit:

Lottie woods, a fashion designer and slow fashion blogger from London, said: “I decided to opt for sustainable lifestyle after years spent working in the fashion industry and learning from the inside what a wasteful industry it is, I live by re-wearing my clothes, shopping second hand, buying for love over lust and quality over quantity, and trying my best to stay informed”

This is valid because, the high environmental impact of clothing makes it a priority to focus on expanding opportunities to increase repair, re-use, and recycling. This calls for us to redefine what is possible through re-use and recycling.



During my research, I contacted DEFRA and under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs) I found the following about textile recycling in the UK


And according to WRAP, there are an estimated 921,000 tonnes of textiles in household residual waste in the UK in 2017. From this, an estimated amount of 600,000 tonnes of textiles are collected for re-use and recycling in the UK. Despite the fact that these figures appear to be promising, we still have a long way to go by embracing sustainable marketing practices.

Image credits: Victor Garcia photography

Lottie said: “I believe sustainable fashion will be more popular in the future.”

“I do believe in the power of slowing down our purchases and the positive effect that has on the planet, my motivations were the hope of doing my small piece to slow down fashion consumption and show others in my circle the need to do the same, it takes time but the ripple effect does happen and people tend to listen more to your actions than your words.”

Sustainable fashion is a burgeoning sector of the textile industry with the potential to grow exponentially as consumers become more informed of the ecologically depleting production practices of the fast fashion industry.

By slowing down consumption and production patterns, the fashion industry can be made more sustainable for the future. So, let’s do fashion better.




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