Uncovering the True Cost of Fast Fashion: Where Do Recycled Clothes Really End Up?

A dozer in a landfill.

Aftonbladet revealed that most of the collected garments aren't valuable second-hand items. Instead, they end up as waste in landfills in far-flung places worldwide. (Image: via Pixabay)

The fashion industry is one of the most lucrative industries in the world. It produces about 100 billion garments yearly and employs thousands of people (primarily underpaid). But fast fashion has quickly become a scourge on our planet. Out of the produced garments, only 20 percent are collected for recycling and reuse, while 92 million tons of recycled clothes end up in landfills yearly. Also, only 1 percent of the produced textile will get recycled into new clothes.

In January 2023, investigative journalists from Swedish news outlet Aftonbladet attached tracking devices to 10 garments from H&M — a Swedish fast fashion company. The reporters wanted to see the end destination of “reused and recycled clothes.” They also wanted to investigate further the company’s promises of reducing textile waste, summed up by its motto: “Let’s close the loop,”

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Where do recycled clothes end up

H&M started its Garment Collecting program in 2013. Their main aim was to collect unwanted clothes from their customers to be reused, reworn, and recycled. For example, in 2022, they collected over 15,000 tons of clothing through this initiative.

However, after tracking the 10 garments, Aftonbladet revealed that most of the collected garments aren’t valuable second-hand items. Instead, they end up as waste in landfills in far-flung places worldwide. The tagged clothes traveled thousands of kilometers, ending up in places like Benin or India. These are places without the necessary textile recycling infrastructure.

Danish designer and clothing expert Laura Lava says H&M's promises are a 'greenwashing strategy.'
Danish designer and clothing expert Laura Lava says H&M’s promises are a ‘greenwashing strategy.’ (Image: Monikabaumbach via Dreamstime)

Greenwashing by fast fashion multinationals

It surprised many that their “donations” ended up causing more harm than good. But people who understand the fashion industry weren’t surprised that these garments still end up as trash in African and Asian countries.

For example, a Danish designer and clothing expert, Laura Lava, says H&M’s promises are a “greenwashing strategy.” Greenwashing is when big companies spend more money and time painting themselves as environmentally conscious than minimizing their products’ impact on the planet.

“Closing the loop is in practice impossible, as the industry will never be able to reuse all textile materials successfully,” Lava said. “We have been able to hide this extreme overproduction because worn-out clothes end up in landfills abroad,”

Europe produces about 5.8 million tonnes of textile waste every year. However, the leading producers of textile waste are China (20 million tons) and the U.S. (17 million tons). In 2019, for example, Africa received 60 percent of EU textile exports. The end destination of these items is unknown, mainly as their reuse, recycling, and disposal are not well-documented. 

The prevalent ‘waste capitalism’

In February 2023, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said that the fashion industry has fast become one of the leading pollutants in the world. They also warned that clothing donation might not be the recycling and charitable cause that many believe it is.

Søren Zeuth, a Danish photographer, has spent significant time showing people the damage their donated clothes have abroad. Over two-thirds of these clothes are made from synthetic fibers. He’s seen these garments’ effects once they reach countries like Ghana, where they are discarded in landfills beside rivers, often drifting into the ocean with harmful toxins leaching into the water. 

Two Chinese young women shopping.
In February 2023, the European Environment Agency (EEA) said that the fashion industry has fast become one of the leading pollutants in the world. (Image: via Pxhere)

“In Denmark, we collect recycled clothes in good faith, thinking it can benefit poor people in Africa,” Zeuth said. “40 percent of it is completely useless garbage, with holes, stains, or a design unsuitable for the local climate.”

Zeuth has seen many clothing industries move their companies abroad, first to Southern Europe, then to Asian countries like Bangladesh, where they pay people peanuts.

“In Bangladesh, women work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, for an hourly salary lower than the UN-set minimum standard. We are talking below the poverty line — only so that the textile industry can produce fast collections at low costs,” Zeuth said. 

Worse still, these garments make a complete roundabout. Once worn, they mostly return to these countries as trash. Zeuth says the famous “reduce, reuse, recycle” logo no longer represents that. Instead, it means an endless profit cycle from cheap labor, fashion, and trash. 

How do you address the issues of textile waste around the world

Donating or selling gently used clothes, buying upcycled or recycled clothes, and buying organic clothes are still viable ways to reduce textile waste production. Pushing for more regulations when recycling may also help.  

But the most promising way to tackle this issue is to reduce the number of clothes produced globally. Remember, this is not solely a manufacturer’s problem because, as consumers, we determine market trends and drive the fashion industry.

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