Thanks mostly to retailers such as H&M, C&A, and Inditex (the owner of Zara), fashion has become far more affordable to millions of consumers. Once fiercely protective of their brands, high-end designers Roberto Cavalli, Matthew Williamson, Sonia Rykiel, and others have collaborated with H&M, bringing fashion-forward styles to the masses.
Cheap fashion, however, has a cost. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that it takes 8,500 litres (2,245 gallons) to raise 1kg (2.2 pounds) of cotton lint – enough to make one pair of blue jeans. The use of pesticides and fertilizers, in addition to water, makes the global textile industry one of the most polluting and waste-generating sectors in the world. Plenty of companies boast about apparel made from PET bottles, but when that item of apparel is no longer wanted, its disposal once again becomes a nagging issue.
Further complicating the sustainability of the global fashion industry is that recycling textiles is problematic. H&M and C&A are quick to discuss energy efficiency in their stores, increased recycling of clothing hangers, and their shift towards organic cotton. The stubborn fact remains, however, that in the US alone, almost 11 million tonnes of textiles ends up in landfill.
One hurdle for increased textile recycling is that the various fibres that comprise clothing make reprocessing and recycling a challenge. Some materials such as cotton and linen can be composted, but petroleum-based fibres such as polyester have little chance for reuse.
Few municipalities accept textiles into their recycling programmes. Add the heaps of clothing rejected by retailers because of flaws or they've missed the season, and the result is a resource that is not as easily recyclable as aluminum cans, glass, or even plastic.
New York City has experimented with the increased scale of textile recycling by placing bins in high-traffic areas, but for most consumers the disposal of textiles requires an inconvenient trip. Most unwanted clothing ends up in a dumpster, even though charities such as Goodwill have served as a repository of unused clothing for decades.
More retailers, sometimes working with construction companies, have found creative ways to reuse unwanted textiles. Denim is making a comeback as a building insulator, and Wal-mart is working with vendors to increase the recycling of polyester and nylon for industrial use. Some clothing manufacturers are moving towards a closed loop system: Patagonia, for example, allows consumers to drop off unwanted clothing bearing its label at company stores, and allows consumers to post unwanted clothes back to its Nevada service cenre. Earlier this year, H&M caused a buzz when it partnered with the French fashion house Lanvin for its Waste collection, but the line of dresses and bags were at too high a price point for many of its customers.
The future of textile recycling lies in the supply chain, not retail stores. One company that has mastered the intricacies of textile recycling is LMB, based in east London's Canning Town. The company has found a goldmine in Britons' annual disposal of one million tonnes of discarded apparel, and either recycles or finds an alternate use for everything from towels to sari fabric.
Each item is inspected by hand and sorted by material: wool socks end up as yarn, and items of higher quality end up in Eastern Europe or China where there is a market for used clothes that will not sell in "vintage" shops in the UK.
Companies such as LMB are the current laboratories of textile reuse. Their experimentation and innovation are necessary: while sustainability advocates focus on water and fossil fuel scarcity, cotton, which requires heavy amounts of both resources, has faced a global shortage in the past year. H&M, C&A, and their competitors will have no choice but to follow the lead of their suppliers, who are ahead of the curve.