Fast fashion: Uncovering a hidden world of unsold goods

Gary Moore, sales director at UNTHA UK, explores the complex interplay between consumerism, waste management, and environmental responsibility, and examines how innovative technologies and strategies can revolutionise the industry’s approach to textile waste. In case you missed the original article on Circular, you can catch up below…

Media headlines are increasingly dominated by the shocking volume of seemingly usable products meeting their demise in landfills.

To avoid discounts and flash sales on surplus or damaged stock, for example, EU brands have been scolded for discarding 5.8 million tonnes of textiles every year — equivalent to approximately 11kg (24 pounds) per person.

On the face of it, it’s an alarming statistic. However, there’s a lot more that lies beneath the surface with this topic — not least when we consider the stringent compliance obligations plaguing manufacturers and retailers, as well as the perceived ease of following less sustainable, and more costly, disposal routes.

The carbon footprint of fast fashion

The fate of discarded textiles remains one of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. With many destined for landfill or incineration, this doesn’t just waste money and valuable resources but poses grave environmental risks.

Taking over 200 years to decompose, such materials generate harmful greenhouse methane gas, as well as leach toxic chemicals and dyes into the groundwater and our soil. 

According to the United Nations, the fast fashion industry is responsible for 8-10% of global emissions — more than the aviation and shipping industries combined.

Clothing and other textile waste account for much of the problem, with 57% of discarded, unsold, and used clothes ending up in landfills annually, where it degrades and releases potent methane gas.

On a 100-year timescale, methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide and has 84 times the global warming potential on a 20-year timescale. Once landfills reach their capacity, the trash is incinerated, releasing more greenhouse gases and compromising human health.

The problem is being exacerbated by the growth of e-commerce, where “deadstock” can tie up capital, consume precious storage space, and hinder growth in a market that thrives on quick turnovers.

Online shopping has also marked a significant shift in consumerism towards purchasing clothing more frequently.

Retail giants under scrutiny

Elsewhere, in one of the more shocking cases, a 2021 ITV News investigation exposed retail giant Amazon’s practice of destroying millions of unsold items yearly.

One anonymous employee revealed targets to destroy 130,000 products each week — including smart TVs, laptops, drones, hairdryers, headphones, books, and more.

Rather than redistributing these products to those in need or exploring avenues for reuse, they end up in recycling centres or landfills — which, as we know, is not the ultimate solution.

In line with the waste hierarchy, the prevention, reduction, and reuse of waste precede recycling as a priority.

Not only are many items still being discarded unnecessarily today, creating waste where there isn’t any, but even truly redundant products contain valuable resources that could be liberated for reuse elsewhere.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to the UK though. “Dumpster diving” activists — who salvage unused items from retailers’ bins — have also shamed the wastefulness of brands such as TJ Maxx and Bed, Bath & Beyond overseas, for discarding a large volume of unopened, perfectly usable products ranging from home goods to toys and electronics.

Cracking down on disposal practices

To date, disposal practices have primarily adhered to the definition of waste as outlined in the EU Waste Framework Directive, which was adopted into UK law through the Environment Act 1995. According to this definition, anything that is “discarded” is considered waste, irrespective of its condition or potential resale value.

This legal framework means that once wholesalers mark items for disposal, they are classified as waste, allowing them to be sent to recovery or disposal facilities without breaking the law.

However, waste legislation also imposes the requirement that every shipment of waste must be accompanied by a transfer note, declaring that the waste hierarchy has been considered

Thankfully, steps are being taken to address this growing problem and combat legal loopholes. Following France’s suit, the European Union is tightening regulations on fast fashion and prohibiting the destruction of unsold textiles and footwear altogether, as well as introducing the “digital product passport” to empower consumers with information about a product’s environmental sustainability. 

Meanwhile, the Remade Institute — a multi-stakeholder sustainability group comprising Braksem, Adidas, and Allbirds shoes — was recently awarded a grant of US $50,000 (EUR 46,400) to advance polymer recycling technology, working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their efforts aim to explore the reuse of process scrap and the recyclability of post-service parts.

Balancing safety, security, and sustainability 

With so much “red tape” surrounding compliance requirements, product destruction is sometimes the best course of action. If a children’s teddy bear has loose features, or its stuffing is too easily accessible, for example, it can impose choking hazards that are simply not worth the gamble.

Stricter manufacturing standards and more rigorous quality control measures will ensure excellence is maintained at every stage.

This won’t just prevent health and safety risks, but will also minimise the need for product destruction altogether — because items won’t make their way into waste streams in the first place. But sometimes, production waste remains inevitable.

In these instances, manufacturers bear a responsibility to maximise their inherent value by liberating the materials “locked” inside.

Companies and consumers also repeatedly have to address issues with product piracy, brand and product counterfeits, pirate copies, violations of copyright laws or counterfeit textiles. These products are repeatedly confiscated by customs officials and forcibly destroyed as a result.

Nevertheless, the method through which these items, and other genuine wastes, are processed is key — not just for mitigating environmental impact, but also for improving the business’ bottom line.

Mechanical processing and shredding offer a completely traceable and professional destruction process, ensuring certain products can’t re-enter the market while helping to close the loop on waste management practices and divert unsold goods from landfills.

If an item contains metal, for example, this can be liberated for recycling and recovery. Meanwhile, the remaining material can often be shredded to produce a premium SRF with a high calorific value — combatting our ever-depleting, and increasingly harmful, fossil fuel stock.

Of course, the onus isn’t just on retailers and manufacturers to address the challenges of product disposal. As well as advocating for sustainable practices and demanding accountability throughout the supply chain, consumers have an equally important role in managing our throwaway culture.

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