Clothes are cheaper and more disposable to shoppers than ever, and the environment is suffering for it. Between 2000 and 2014, global clothing production doubled, according to McKinsey, while the average amount consumers spent per item, and how long they kept it, both declined. Producing this much clothing uses up huge amounts of natural resources and pumps toxic chemicals into the soil and rivers. The clothes themselves, increasingly made of polyester, are putting dangerous amounts of microfibers in the oceans, and too often wind up in landfills after little wear.
Fashion brands and industry groups have been eyeing one solution (pdf)—technology that would allow us to recycle textiles infinitely, turning old clothes into new ones again and again. But a new report from Greenpeace contends that these efforts are nowhere near being viable yet. What’s first required, according to the environmental advocacy group, is for consumers to embrace “true materialism.”
Materialism usually means a tendency to value material possessions over spiritual needs, but that’s not what Greenpeace is getting at. The group is borrowing from Kate Fletcher’s book, Craft of Use, to describe true materialism as “a switch from an idea of a consumer society where materials matter little, to a truly material society, where materials—and the world they rely on—are cherished.” In other words: We’re not materialistic enough in how we value our clothes.
Greenpeace does acknowledge that “closing the loop”—completely and perpetually recycling textiles—is important, and research has made some promising strides. The H&M Foundation and the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel recently announced what they described as a breakthrough in separating polyester and cotton in blended fabrics, which has been a major stumbling block in textile recycling. The new method allows them to capture the polyester fibers with no loss of quality. The cotton, however, comes out as a powder, and according to Erik Bang, innovation lead at H&M Foundation, that powder breaks down and doesn’t retain the quality of virgin cotton. As of now, it can’t be easily turned back into clothes.
Nor is putting more synthetics back into the system necessarily desirable, since those materials are most responsible for the devastating microfiber pollution turning up in our oceans and food. For that reason, Greenpeace is even critical of work by brands such as Nike and Adidas to turn plastic ocean waste into products like basketball jerseys.
Either way, brands continue to use far more virgin resources than recycled ones, which highlights Greenpeace’s point. “A ‘circular economy’ is the latest meme being used across the EU and worldwide,” Chiara Campione, Greenpeace Italy’s senior corporate strategist, said in a statement. “[But] behind this nice phrase lies the industry’s fantasy that circularity can fix a material-intensive system; selling the promises of 100% recyclability which is unlikely to come true.”
Greenpeace says that the immediate focus has to be on changing the way we produce and consume clothes in the first place. To slow down fashion, it suggests:
Stop the trend for decreasing lifespans and quality by designing for long life—including better quality, classic styling, repairability, durability, guarantees and emotional longevity;
Put an end to the accumulation of clothes in people’s wardrobes by developing services, with a priority on repair, but also take-back systems, sharing and leasing, re-selling and customisation;
Stop reinforcing the disposable/fast fashion mindset with their marketing and advertising; instead brands should promote the true value of their products and encourage a change in their customers’ attitudes;
That sounds like a common-sense approach, but it would require a massive shift from both brands and consumers. In the meantime, the fashion system shows no signs of slowing.