In-store Recycling Gains Brand Support to Stop Throwaway Culture

When you step into your favorite clothing shop, you’re probably hoping for a good bargain, not seeking to get rid of an old turtleneck. However, in the past couple of years, clothing retailers and brands have become increasingly interested in in-store recycling. They basically started asking customers to bring in their cast-offs and donate them for recycling purposes.

According to a survey conducted by the Sainsbury’s supermarket, 75 percent of consumers bin their unwanted clothes. In most cases, people throw their garments away because they do not realize charities and some recycling centers also accept worn-out or dirty clothes. The same survey revealed Britain will send about 235 million pieces of clothing to landfill this spring alone. Sadly, the majority of these clothes could be re-worn, recycled, or reused.

Solving Clothing Waste with In-store Recycling

In response to the massive clothing waste, major retailers have come together to fix the problem at the root. Brands like Zara and H&M are introducing in-store recycling initiatives more widely, inviting customers to drop off discarded items in fashion “bins.” This action was already launched in several high-street shops around the nation.

Meanwhile, brands like Adidas and luxury group Kering – the holder of companies including Gucci and Alexander McQueen – have also agreed to establish 2020 goals for textile collection. The decision was made at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which took place on May 11. The main idea of this initiative is to promote garment collection and boost recycling rates. Most of all, the brands seek to do their part in reducing excessive waste to landfills.

On the other hand, the same companies keep on driving the levels of consumption. Some are releasing up to 20 new clothing collections each year. So, can in-store recycling be more than a symbol gesture, in these conditions? Let’s look at some statistics and see the progress of some of these recycling initiatives.

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From Your Closet to the Recycling Plant

H&M’s in-store recycling efforts started in 2013, and according to their reports, the company has collected more than 40,000 tons of clothes ever since. The clothes you toss into their recycling bins are transferred to a German recycling plant they have partnered with. The items that cannot be reused are downcycled into various products, including insulation fibers and cleaning cloths.

Nike is also famous for its green schemes. The Reuse-A-Shoe is a long-running collection initiative, which rescues about 1.5 million worn out trainers per year. Whether you send them by post or simply dump them at Nike stores, the shoes go out to facilities in Tennessee and Belgium. There, they become materials used for playground surfaces and sport turfs.

But that’s not all. Brand enthusiasm for such efforts seems to be developing. Catarina Midby, H&M sustainability manager for UK and Ireland, has recently announced the company wants to increase garment collection to 25,000 tons a year by 2020. To achieve this goal, H&M will employ various tactics, including vouchers, advertising campaigns, and educating employees about the scheme, so they can inform customers.

Zara has also hopped on the bandwagon. During 2016, the famous clothing brand has diligently installed collection bins in its European stores. This year, Zara has worked on to launching its initiative across China, and it has recently announced the installation process will soon be complete. The collected clothing will be donated to various charities, including the Red Cross.

Changing Bad Habits

Growing investment is just one side of the coin. The other is represented by consumer behavior, which proves hard to change. According to the Sainsbury’s survey we mentioned before, three quarters of British householders toss discarded clothes out with their domestic waste.

Cyndi Rhoades, founder of Worn Again, a recycling technology firm, has high hopes for the future. She believes the growing interest in high-street collection initiatives will kick-start much needed behavior change around clothing. Rhoades hopes the population will start to look at garment collection just as they look at paper and plastic recycling.

“It’s part of the wider communication campaign to consumers to say – whether it’s rewearable or not, whether it’s returned in store, to charity shops or textile banks – clothing can be recycled.”

But some observers dispute the power of in-store recycling to result in real, quantifiable change. Dilys Williams, head of sustainable fashion at the London College of Fashion, believes such efforts are relevant as part of a broader strategy to boost resource-efficiency. However, on their own, she fears they might encourage customers to cultivate a guilt-free consumption attitude.

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The Fate of Recycled Clothes

Rhoades reminds people that collecting clothes is only half the fight. What happens with the mountains of garments after the collection point is equally important. Thanks to current mechanical recycling process, natural fibers like wool and cotton result in shorter, lower quality textile fibers. These can’t be turned into clothes again, Instead, they become prime materials for lower value products (cleaning cloths and such). These secondary items eventually end up in the landfill or in incinerators.

Is there anything we can do to improve this cycle? According to Rhoades, brands could also invest more into tech companies who create more circular models. In these centers, raw materials in clothes are recovered and restored to the fashion supply chain. If retail brands don’t play an active role in financing these solutions, tech companies have little chance of researching and developing their circular recycling models.

Jade Wilting of the Circle Textiles Programme at Circle Economy, a social enterprise, thinks brands have the highest responsibility in this respect. They should make efforts to fund the technology needed for efficient solutions. However, Wilting doesn’t deny the need of a cultural shift. Finding the perfect way of recycling clothes into new clothes will not be the end of our woes. We would still have to take a hard look at our incredibly high consuming rate.

That’s why the best solution is simply buying fewer clothes. Not only will you help the environment, but you’re also boosting your wellbeing. The initial thrill of shopping a bargain is often followed by feelings of guilt. Free yourself from the expectation of always keeping up with the ever-changing trends! Studies show it won’t make you happy; instead, it can contribute to a feeling of emptiness.


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Lindsey Andrews

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