by John Lorinc
photography by Sofie Kirk
Over 16 months of pandemic restrictions, Amit Singh (MBA Schulich ’21), a full-time student who specializes in sustainability, discovered precisely how COVID-19 tore into the world of fashion and clothing. With stores shut and social gatherings severely limited, there was little motive to replenish his wardrobe, says Singh, a consultant with York Sustainable Enterprise Consultants (YSEC). “I have reduced my shopping by a considerable extent.” Now, he adds, “before I buy anything, I ask, ‘Do I really need this?’ ”
YSEC marketing strategy and sustainability consultant Suvidha Senson (MBA Schulich ’21), who works as a marketing manager for QEA Tech, adds that this global crisis has increased awareness about the next one. “Sitting at home has given a lot of people time to think about things we were neglecting,” she says.
Among them: all the clothing and textiles that accumulate in dressers and closets, much of it out of style and no longer in use. Senson and Singh want to see new approaches to an old problem: destigmatizing used and second-hand clothing, upcycling old fabrics and heirlooms and pushing clothing brands to create corporate sustainability campaigns that go beyond greenwashing and create meaningful change in their customers’ consumption habits.
Then there’s the downstream end of our society’s addiction to new clothing. About 85 per cent of discarded textiles in Canada end up in landfill, according to Kelly Drennan, executive director of Fashion Takes Action (FTA), a non-profit. In Metro Vancouver, residents pitched about 20 million kilograms in 2018, a stat that prompted the city to launch a public education campaign encouraging individuals to “think thrice about your clothes.” In Toronto, a 2015 survey estimated that an average household in the city tosses out about 29 kilograms of textiles per year.
When people donate, they want to know that there’s some social good
In larger cities, including Toronto, some of all those used duds are collected – either via pickups or bins – and resold by charities as a social enterprise revenue-generator. A portion of that material finds its way to the developing world. However, as Reuters recently reported, the $4 billion a year global market for recycled clothing has seen prices for recycled textiles fall because of reduced demand and increased donation activity during the pandemic.
It’s a growing international concern. At last November’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) made textile recycling and diversion a priority, renewing the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Currently, UNEP estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for between two and eight per cent of global carbon emissions – and expects to fall far short of its 2030 emissions reduction benchmark.
OF COURSE, the challenge of diverting textiles long predates the current crisis and has faced other impediments, among them media coverage of dubious recycling deposit bins falsely claiming to be run by charities. Five years ago, Simon Langer (BA ’03), Diabetes Canada’s national manager of government and strategic partnerships, proposed to the City of Markham that it expand its use of municipal branding on DC’s clothing bins as a way of signalling to consumers that the receptacles were authentic. Around the same time, Langer met York environmental studies professor Calvin Lakhan (MES ’10) – co-investigator for the WikiWaste project – at a conference, and the two began developing a strategy to collect data on textiles, including those turning up in the DC bins. “We felt this was really critical, because municipalities weren’t dealing with the ongoing issues,” says Langer, who is currently working on his master’s in environmental studies at York.
The Markham project has been extremely successful, with nine million kilos diverted since the bin branding program began. “It’s quite remarkable,” he says. “It was proof of concept.” In the intervening years, in fact, DC has partnered with over 220 municipalities and hundreds of other public agencies across Canada. The organization manages 5,000 bins and has collected about 23 million kilos, representing donations from about a million households, according to Lakhan. But despite these successes, the scale of the waste textile problem is formidable. As Langer points out, about 1.4 billion kilos of used clothing ends up in Canadian landfills.
Preliminary findings from the York/DC National Textile Study indicate that branded bins divert twice as much material as non-branded bins – a sign that this partnership does in fact counter consumer mistrust. The data, according to Lakhan, will provide more municipalities with insights about how best to situate collection bins. His research team is also overlaying demographic data, such as household income, to better understand clothing consumption patterns in different neighbourhoods. A City of Toronto staff report, for example, found that residents of apartment buildings tend to throw away more clothing than the occupants of single-family homes. Says Langer, “These types of learnings are helping us determine the optimal placement of bins in conveniently accessible areas like community centres and arenas to increase participation and diversion.”
Singh and Senson add that it’s critically important for Canadians to connect all the dots, both up and down the food chain. Jeans, a very ordinary type of garment, require huge amounts of water to produce. At the same time, consumers should remember that many people, from designers to factory workers, depend on global clothing supply chains for their livelihoods.
Similarly, with synthetic fabrics, production involves the use of fossil fuels, while new studies show that there’s a relationship between the buildup of microplastics in the world’s oceans and the use of materials like polyester, which shed microfibres when washed, according to a 2018 study by the U.K.-based Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
Drennan agrees that making it easier for consumers to drop off used clothing is important, but points to a range of other measures that should involve new types of regulation. About six years ago, using a collective impact investment grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, FTA brought together a coalition of stakeholders – municipalities, charities, academics, NGOs etc. – to establish the Ontario Textile Diversion Collaborative. The project commissioned some dumpster-dive research, which yielded some important insights.
One involved stuffed items. Drennan says the research showed that many such articles bear a tag saying that they’re stuffed with “new material only,” as per federal rules. She argues that cleaned and shredded recycled textiles should be allowed. Another idea: duty credits for retailers that import clothing that ends up surplus and unsold. “It’s completely backwards,” says Drennan.
To be frank, I’m not sure how it’s going to end up for the apparel industry in the long run
A third: more transparency from brands like H&M, the Swedish fashion giant that has had a much-hyped policy of taking back used items from customers. “What they do with the material is a bit unclear.”
Senson isn’t sold on this approach, and says there’s little incentive for a consumer to bring back a single item to a given retailer unless, of course, they’re planning to buy something new while they’re there, which may be the point anyway. Singh adds that convenience is more important – the organizations that deal with used clothing need to make it as easy as possible for residents to turn it in.
How about a more formalized municipal recycling/producer stewardship program that collects waste clothing from homes, just like all the other blue bin content? “That’s a heavy question,” Langer says. Municipalities aren’t set up to collect textiles because they’d be wrecked if tossed in with other materials earmarked for diversion. What’s more, charities like Diabetes Canada and the Salvation Army depend on the revenues to fund their programs. As he notes, “When people donate, they want to know that there’s some social good. They want to know that they are contributing to a legitimate charitable organization, because otherwise, as Calvin Lakhan has discovered through his research, they just throw their old clothes away.”
So as the world emerges from pandemic isolation, the diverting question about textiles is whether the clothing industry will see a wave of revenge buying, as Singh puts it, or, rather, a textile version of the shift away from meat in increasingly climate-conscious consumers. “To be frank,” Senson says, “I’m not sure how it’s going to end up for the apparel industry in the long run.” What’s most important, however, is that apparel doesn’t end up in the garbage. ■