The Hidden Cost of Your Closet

Are your fashion choices impacting the planet?

by Sarah Forman | Mon, August 07, 2017

Living in Shanghai, we are more likely than most of our friends and family back home to have concerns when it comes to air and water pollution. The terms AQI and PM2.5 have become commonplace, while apps like Airpocalpyse have made their way onto our phones in an attempt to be better parents and healthier individuals. But as much as we are aware, there are key players and issues that often don’t make their way into the conversation.

We may be avid recyclers, composters and Mobike enthusiasts, but one decision in particular has a surprisingly heavy hand in the damage we’re doing to our planet – what we wear. The textile industry has become one of the most significant contributors to global waste, and while you may think you’re doing an act of charity when donating clothing, the actual effects may be more complicated than you think.

The problem

There are many spaces in which unnecessary amounts of waste are created in the production and consumption of clothing. In a report on the textile industry, Shuk-Wah Chung writes for Greenpeace stating,

“An estimated 400 billion square meters of textile are produced annually, of which 60 billion are left on the cutting room floor.”

Clothing manufacturers often can’t use all of the materials they purchase and the textile companies that produce the fabric use intense chemicals and dyes to do so. With loose regulations and dependent economies, manufacturers in India and China end up emitting large amounts of these toxic byproducts into the environment, polluting the water we drink, the air we breathe and the soil from which our food grows. Shanghai-based non-profit Green Initiatives reports that 53 percent of the world’s textile production waste comes from China, with 2.5 billion tons of waste water produced annually. The water is used to remove excess colors and chemicals from the treated textiles, and then often disposed of by being put back into nearby rivers or the ground surrounding – illustrating that pollutants springing from our faucet have become inseparable from the garments we put on our bodies. 

One world

As individuals, our impact is just as significant. Expatriates know too well the overwhelming logistics and frenzied nature of moving house, the kind that lends itself to boxes of outgrown children’s clothing left on the curb, in the doorway or thrown into the dumpster. Unfortunately, those pieces that don’t find new homes accompany the other 60 billion clothing items that end up in landfills or incinerated annually. In the same Greenpeace report, Chung states that only a quarter of the garments produced are recycled, while the remaining 75 percent are improperly disposed of. 

And with ever-changing styles and access to cheap clothing, it’s easily understood how our closets get fuller – the fast fashion industry and a “buy now” culture have made it convenient for us to express ourselves through what we wear. Unfortunately, there are significant unseen costs that make that ¥299 blouse more expensive than we’re lead to believe. While companies like H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer have invested in environmental research and placed clothing donation boxes in their storefronts, the issue is still more complicated. Sorting fibers in previously owned clothing is a complex process and creating material of equal or higher quality is difficult to do at a base level, which leaves retailers in a tricky spot when it comes to sourcing their materials.

Founder of Shanghai-based environmental Social Enterprise, Bao Squared, Nick Lim, elaborated on it’s complications by saying that in order to even come close to solving the problem:

“At the end of the day, we need to be able to make everything a closed loop situation as we say.”

Consumers, retail brands and factories need to make changes and support each other in that process. Fortunately, a number of individuals and designers are doing just that. Bao Squared has partnered with several schools and organizations like the naked Group to collect, sort and distribute previously owned clothing. Having recently given individualized packages of clothing and school supplies to over 70 children in the province of Qinghai, Lim has found an avenue to address one piece of the problem. 

Dealing with waste is part of the solution, but just how do we address the root cause? Nitin Dani of Green Initiatives runs the Re:Form campaign, encouraging and connecting Shanghai residents with responsible avenues for recycling. However, Dani’s initiative focuses primarily on education, helping us to literally reform our consumption behavior and to better understand the severity of the issue. In his presentations, he often highlights another way that fashion designers and businesses are engaging with the issue of textile and clothing waste; through upcycling projects, a concept illuminating just how much life an old t-shirt can, and should, have.

What is upcycling?

For some, this may be a familiar word, but for those who have never heard of up-cycling, you’ve surely seen it at various points in your life. Upcycled products are:

  • the backpacks made from old fishing bags that can be seen throughout Southeast Asian tourist shops 
  • the pencil cases made from juice packets
  • the drinking tumblers made from old, glass bottles

But what is it exactly?

“Upcycling is when you take an existing material with minimal modification or minimal additional investment of resources, be it water energy or effort, and make it into something of the same or higher value,”

explains Nick Lim. While recycling often means that materials are being reused as-is and downcycling means the object is being turned into a usable material of lesser value.

What can we do?

While upcycling is a great and creative way to give new life to overlooked objects, the most considerable thing we can do to combat waste is change our shopping habits. Educate yourself on the initiatives big organizations are taking and find out where you can donate your clothes in Shanghai.