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The Environmental Cost Paid for Fast Fashion Chains

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There comes a model in which fast-fashion chains are paying a very high environmental cost, with tons of clothes ending up in trash bins, incinerators, and landfills. This model mainly supports clothes, which are processed to get them on the market as soon as possible.

Recent H&M Sustainable Venture

A pile of cast-off clothing reaching to the ceiling was displayed to visitors who stepped into fashion retailer H&M’s showroom in New York City in April 2016. This was the launch of H&M’s Conscious Collection. Actress Olivia Wilde, presenters, and models for H&M’s venture into sustainable fashion, were there wearing a dress from the line. H&M announced it is accepting donations of used clothes from customers and recycle them to create a new fiber, and thus new clothes. The main objective was to get customers to recycle their clothes. In return, customers would get vouchers to use at H&M.

Everybody wins! H&M states on its blog

Nevertheless, only 0.1 percent of all clothing from charities and programs that recycle clothes actually recycles. The brand’s Development Sustainability Manager Henrik Lampa admitted this. Fast-fashion chains are paying a very high environmental cost by announcing collections that claim to recycle clothes. But Newsweek found that these agendas are not helping at all.


Ultimately, a lot more unwanted clothing is adding to the national trash pile.

Reports, Researches, and Surveys

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 84 percent of surplus clothes wind up in a landfill. Fast fashion is the second filthiest global industry after oil. Since 2011, Greenpeace has been administrating detox campaigns to support global fashion houses to leverage hazardous chemicals from clothes.

The problem further intensifies by the speed of trend turnover. Fast-fashion chains, due to their quick and large output, are changing trends speedily to incite sales. This will ultimately lead to recent purchases going out of style sooner than before. Further an infinite pile of clothes in the trash.

Natural fibers such as silk, linen, cotton and semi-synthetic fibers have a decomposition process similar to food, yielding methane. However, it's nearly impossible to compost these textiles. Additionally, Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition reveals that these fibers go through an array of unnatural processes on their way to becoming a garment. Other fibers such as acrylic, nylon and polyester have a petroleum base. This means it can take a hundred of years to completely decompose.


Despite these ugly drawbacks, Americans are carelessly littering more clothes than ever. In less than 20 years, the quantity of clothing Americans throw each year has doubled. The Environmental Protection Agency reckons that deflecting often-toxic littered textiles into a recycling program will equalize with taking 7 million cars and their carbon dioxide release off the road.

In The News

According to the Council for Textile Recycling, charities on the whole sell only 20 percent of the clothing contributed to them at their retail stores. When these do not sell in the store or online, there comes a need of something to be done with it, remarks Michael Meyer, vice president of ‘Donated Goods Retail’ and marketing for 'Goodwill Industries International'. Hence, Goodwill and similar industries bale up the residual redundant clothing to shrink-wrapped cubes taller than a person and sell them to textile recyclers. This angers people who suppose that the role of thrift shop charities is to give-away clothes to the poor. A Fashionista headline early this year – ‘What Really Happens to Your Clothing Donations?’ hinted that they’re not all going towards a good cause.

People like to feel like they are doing something good. However, the tragedy is that in the US there do not exist deprived people on a scale equal to the rate of production.

If one donates clothing anywhere in the New York City area and the items fail to sell at a secondhand store, they’re probably to end up at Trans-Americas Trading Co. Fast-fashion chains are paying a very high environmental cost not exactly with what happens when the trash is put in the ground. There is an array of waste resources for manufacturing a textile. These are furthermore devastating for the planet.


Fast-fashion chains such as H&M, Nike, Zara and more do not want customers to stop buying their products. Furthermore, they don’t want to give up on their fast-fashion business sculpts.

A Ray Of Hope

A statement in Vogue magazine from Marie-Claire Daveu of the global luxury holding company Kering states that the ‘Holy Grail’ for sustainability in fashion is close-loop sourcing. Kering owns brands such as Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney.

In a close-loop technology, a product recycles back into almost the same product. This is an enticing outlook for sustainability advocates since it fundamentally imitates the natural process of life. Nonetheless, commercially scalable, closed-loop textile recycling technology is still 5-10 years away. Furthermore, closed-loop recycling of synthetic textiles such as elastane and nylon blends is more away from commercial viability.

An optimistic event happened in May when Levi’s launched a prototype of jeans in affiliation with the textile technology startup ‘Evrnu’. This prototype is made with a combination of virgin and chemically recycled cotton from old T-shirts.

The Verdict

There’s an extraordinary logic of urgency to these fast-fashion chain's efforts to close the loop, creating a new and lucrative market for old clothing. In 2015, the market for secondhand textiles has tanked, getting this whole system to the edge of disintegration.

One Comment

  • Claude says:

    Clothes which are processed to get them on the market as quickly as possible—a model favored by H&M, Zara’s, and Forever 21—come at a very high environmental cost, with millions of tons of clothes winding up in trash bins, incinerators, and landfills. Sure they are trying to mask the environmental impacts by launching programs that claim to recycle clothes. I don’t think it’s helping at all. They are trying to show fake reports I guess.

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