Elizabeth L. Cline: we need policy to stop new clothes from making a ‘straight line’ to the landfill

We hear from the author and journalist on secondhand clothing, the fashion industry’s addiction to cheap fossil fuels and how to break the waste cycle.

It’s no secret “fast fashion” has become a dirty word, and that’s because it’s a dirty industry known for contributing to pollution, climate change and a growing waste crisis. At the heart of these environmental problems is the take-make-waste business model the industry is built upon. 

The global fashion industry operates using a linear economy where raw materials are grown or extracted, used to produce the clothes people wear and then --- after they’re worn a few times--- tossed in the trash.

During a recent webinar hosted by U.S. PIRG Education Fund as part of its Waste is Out of Fashion campaign, I had the opportunity to sit down with three expert panelists to talk about this problem, including: journalist and Senior Contributor at Forbes Brooke Roberts-Islam; Founder and CEO of FABSCRAP Jessica Schreiber; and author and journalist Elizabeth L. Cline. 

This is the third of a four part series, which features some of the highlights and lessons learned from Elizabeth L. Cline. You can view the recording to listen to the whole conversation and hear from other panelists.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: When people talk about reducing waste, the concept of circularity comes up a lot. What does a “circular” fashion economy really mean or look like?

A: Before I answer that, I’ll back up just a step. The way that I started to research secondhand clothes was writing Overdressed, and that book covers a lot about how the industry becomes incentivized to produce all this waste. I don't think anyone sat down and was like, “Let’s create the most wasteful fashion industry we possibly can.” There’s just lots of different forces pushing the industry in that direction that have developed over the last several decades. 

When I was writing Overdressed, one of the most fascinating parts was going to a Salvation Army and getting to see behind the scenes where all of the clothing we no longer want ends up, and I remember this moment that really pushed me further into exploring waste. I asked the manager of the warehouse, “What happens when you run out of clothes?” and he laughed at me! He was just like, “That would never happen,” because there is just so much waste. 

There is so much clothing waste in the United States. Charities are able to sell about 15-20 percent of it, and then the rest is exported and goes all around the world. There are some really beautiful and efficient parts of that [reuse] system that we should also address. It’s not like there isn't any system to deal with used clothes. With post consumer waste in particular, there are second-hand markets all over the world that process stuff. A lot of people have started to point out that that is the already-functioning circular economy. There is already a fashion circular economy.

But to get back to the question, I was asked to write a feature story on circularity for Sierra Magazine, and even knowing as much as a I do about second-hand clothing, what happens to our clothes when we no longer wear them anymore, when I sat down to write it, I realized I really don't fully understand what circularity even means. When I started to dig into it, I realized that I really wasn’t alone--apparently there’s over 100 different definitions of circularity--but almost all of them define it as reuse and recycling. I think it’s just useful to always be really specific about what we’re talking about. Circularity sounds like something really innovative, but when you start to pick it apart, we’re talking about reuse and recycling. 

Q: Speaking about that article you mentioned, “Will the circular economy save the planet?,” in it you talked about the circular economy becoming a “red herring.” What do you mean by that?

A: I am certainly not the first one to poke at circularity and try to really understand business and corporate-driven circularity and what it aims to achieve, because we are seeing in a lot of fast moving consumer sectors, which fashion is kind of the ultimate example of, that right now the circular economy is running parallel to the linear economy.  

There is a lot more reuse and recycling starting to happen, but it’s not slowing down the part of the industry that produces new stuff. There’s no infrastructure to solve a lot of these problems, and so one of the issues is that [the circular economy] is happening in tandem instead of replacing the current system. Then, there’s research showing that second hand products don’t always reduce virgin resource consumption.

Q: In addition to the massive amounts of clothing waste that the fashion industry creates, in what other ways is the fashion industry wasteful? Can you talk about the industry’s consumption of resources and some of the upstream impacts?

A: Absolutely. Maybe 30 years ago, a big order of clothing would have been 5,000 or 10,000 pieces, but now if you are producing in a factory in Bangladesh for example, around 20 to 40 thousand units would be a small order. 

You can imagine 40,000 pieces of a trendy pair of shorts. We don’t actually know or have enough data, but let's say about one third of those find a good home, and then the rest are excess. Maybe someone wears it once, and then throws it away or the brand throws it away. 

So then you back up one more step, and you think about everything that goes into making that product. Part of it is just the scale. When you are making over 100 billion units of clothing per year, you have to think about all of the water that goes into growing the cotton, dying the clothing, all of the energy--the fossil fuels--used to heat up the boilers in the textile mills. A lot of people don’t realize this, but a lot of the infrastructure in factories is actually coal powered, so we are using fossil fuels to power these factories. 

And then the other piece of it is there is a lot of plastic, which is another fossil fuel product. More than 60 percent of all textiles are synthetics, so that means that the fashion industry is contributing, one to plastic pollution, but also has this addiction to fossil fuels at its core. 

So it’s a two part problem. First, just the scale. Anytime you are making that much of anything it’s going to require a lot of natural resources. And then the second piece of it is, like so many other industries, the fashion industry is really addicted to cheap fossil fuels.

Q: What kind of progress has already been made in taking steps to reduce waste, and what kind of things need to happen in order to tackle this problem?

A: There has been this huge generational shift in acceptance of second-hand clothes in the United States, and I’m assuming this has happened in Europe as well. So there's no stigma associated with buying used. That is a big cultural change that is going to be really key to pushing the industry in a more sustainable direction. 

I’m really excited about fiber-to-fiber or textile-to-textile recycling technology. I don't even think that we know what kind of impact it could have--it’s just really exciting to me. I’m excited to see where these companies that are even able to take agricultural waste and turn it into viscose rayon are going.

But, as we have already mentioned, what’s missing is--especially in the U.S--is policy. The fashion industry can only be expected to make so many of these changes on their own and they really need to have incentives, one to do the right thing, and second, we need infrastructure. 

If we want the industry to be circular we have to have FABSCRAP, but we also have to have more recycling facilities in the United States. There are just so many pieces of the system that we’re gonna have to cobble together for this to work. One group called Accelerating Circularity, is starting to at least piece that infrastructure together in the United States, or start getting people talking to each other, so we don’t have just a straight line from clothes being produced and then going into a landfill.

Elizabeth L. Cline is a New York-based journalist, expert on consumer culture, sustainability and labor rights in the apparel industry, and the author of two books, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (2012) and The Conscious Closet: The Revolutionary Guide to Looking Good While Doing Good