Many retail clothing companies are reducing their environmental footprint by manufacturing with sustainable raw materials and implementing take-back programmes to facilitate the reuse of garments, but few are holistically addressing waste across the business. For companies with hundreds of stores and distribution centres, an accurate assessment of waste generated or recycled is often difficult. But while compiling this data is challenging, there are untapped opportunities to reduce costs, increase recycling rates, and show real progress on a retail company’s path to more sustainable fashion.
Waste is not in vogue. Fashion retailers know that consumers across the globe care more about the environmental impact of their purchases than ever before. They expect greater transparency and disclosure from their brands of choice. Retail surveys have also shown a steep drop in brand loyalty, as customers are now doing more research on brands prior to making purchasing decisions. As McKinsey’s most recent State of Fashion Report puts it:
In April 2021, the global rating agency, Moody’s, issued a warning: increasing scrutiny by consumers with regard to sustainable business practices will create challenges for many global apparel companies and can have a negative impact on their credit rating. Adding to the demand-side pressure, the fashion industry is also facing an increase in competition from second-hand retail (like Poshmark, Thred Up, and Depop).
Businesses have started taking consumer expectations for sustainable and zero-waste fashion seriously, and many have already made first steps towards establishing more sustainable fashion practices.
Over half of the 200 largest global fashion brands reviewed by the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index have introduced at least one certified, sustainably sourced raw material—such as bio-cotton, recycled polyester, or sustainable viscose—into their production process. Given the highly complex supply chains of the fashion sector and the acute environmental and ethical concerns that have come to light in recent years, this is an important move towards reducing both CO2 emissions and the environmental impact of the production process. Natural textiles can outlast synthetic lifespans, be upcycled easily, and don’t give off microplastics like polyester does. A recent study by the Royal Society for the Arts (RSA) of 10,000 clothing items of four leading fast fashion brands found that 49% were exclusively made of plastic fibres (polyester, acrylic, nylon and elastane). Only 3% of clothing which contained any plastics used recycled plastics.
Learn, for example, how Allbirds—a shoe manufacturer incorporating natural materials like merino wool and eucalyptus trees into their products—examined their entire supply chain to identify short, medium and long-term wins to produce products in a sustainable way in this recent webinar.
In addition to sourcing more sustainable materials, many fashion businesses are taking steps to reduce post-consumer waste. Over 30% of the world’s largest fashion brands have set up take-back programmes for used textiles, often linked to rebates on new purchases. Several brands have introduced repair corners or repair kits to encourage product longevity, and some have implemented a second-hand resell system. The European Commission has determined that separate collection programmes for textiles will be mandatory by 2025 in all European countries.
Despite these efforts to separately collect textile waste, the EPA reports only 15% of textiles are currently being recycled in the United States, similar to the current levels across Europe. Of these 15%, most clothing is exported or downcycled into cleaning rags. According to a recent European Parliament report:
Textile-to-textile recycling technology has only recently started emerging, though it is developing fast. In 2019, the European Union issued a guidance tool to stimulate developments in this area, based on an EU-funded pilot project testing fibre-to-fibre recycling methods across different types of textiles.
Despite these upstream and downstream sustainability initiatives, only 27% of global fashion brands share the steps they’re taking to reduce the waste created before clothes hit the shelves, according to the 2020 Fashion Transparency Index. Plus, despite the fact that sorting and recycling is common practice across all industries in the EU and most of the United States, 25% of the largest fashion brands do not have any company policies on recycling in their office or packaging waste.
Good data is hard to get. As brands communicate more on fashion waste and circular initiatives, they will need to compile more complete and accurate data on the waste they generate. The lack of data not only prevents companies from tracking and measuring progress toward their goals, it also prevents them from negotiating service levels with waste contractors and identifying more cost-effective diversion solutions.
Setting aside waste from the manufacturing process, which takes place in Asia for around 80% of the apparel sold globally, the two single largest types of waste generated by fashion retailers are plastic hangers and packaging. The latter includes cardboard boxes, various filler materials and polybags, the plastic protective covers used during transportation.
Whether produced for fast fashion or luxury brands, every garment is traditionally delivered in a polybag, which means that over 150 billion single-use polybags are thrown out every year. Although these transparent bags—usually made from low-density polyethylene (LDPE)—are produced to be recyclable, in practice, very few are actually recycled. This is firstly because municipal recycling programmes in both Europe and the United States are geared towards polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE). And secondly, separate LDPE film collection is often considered too costly. More and more fashion brands are now committed to addressing this problem. Key initiatives include:
While clothes hangers are meant to be reusable, fashion retailers globally still purchase 957 million new plastic hangers every year for transporting and storing garments, according to Arch & Hook. Premium brands are known to display garments on wooden hangers, though lightweight plastic hangers are still used during shipment and are then discarded.
Large multi-site retailers typically contract waste services with multiple providers per region on rolling or legacy contracts. In some cases, head office teams have no visibility at all as to how waste is being collected in their stores. In many European countries, the local municipality can collect business waste up to a certain volume threshold, but companies are at liberty to select their preferred waste contractor. In the United States, there are both open markets and franchised markets where businesses must contract with a pre-defined waste hauler. To increase transparency, companies often opt for a single waste contractor at federal or national level. While this approach presents certain benefits such as simplification of contracting and ease of reporting, it can also result in a substantially higher cost of waste collection and less flexibility. Many organisations work with an independent waste consultancy to optimise waste contracts, find the best local solutions, and provide fuller transparency into how waste streams are being handled.
Service right-sizing leads to cost savings, especially when fashion retail companies start reducing waste and implementing better sorting and recycling practices. Cross-checking invoices against contracts and waste data from on-site waste audits or internal company sources is also worthwhile. If the company‘s internal team doesn’t have the time, a waste consultant can help ensure the correct amounts are being paid, that service levels correspond to the company’s needs, and that waste contractors are reporting back more complete and accurate data. Reducing the amount or size of packaging used during the delivery of goods to each store can also drive down the cost of waste collection, provided the service levels are adapted accordingly.
Assessing a company’s current level of recycling requires reliable reporting on how waste contractors are handling specific types of waste. While some reporting programmes allow for using average treatment data per contractor, the information is often difficult to compile. A waste consultant will have this data readily available in a database and can also advise on how to increase recycling rates, or become certified zero waste to landfill, depending on company objectives. It is also wise to assess the types of materials being procured upstream, and explore inner company reuse programmes. Since this might impact different stakeholders and departments, it’s worthwhile to set up a workshop or strategy group within the company. Consider using a waste consultant to set this up and bring in additional waste market expertise.
Is your organisation in need of better waste management practices? ENGIE Impact is a trusted partner for businesses across the globe – managing waste suppliers, gaining greater visibility into enterprise-wide waste costs, responding to stakeholder demands for mitigation of environmental impact, and more.
The author would like to thank Arnold Bowers, Chelsi Tryon and Amelia Fujikawa for their contributions to this article.