The role of waste in the fashion industry

  • by Vivienne Austin

The fashion industry's excessive waste is a result of overproduction, overconsumption, and inadequate end-of-life solutions. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the equivalent of a garbage truck load of clothing is burned or buried in landfills every second. This is deeply concerning, and makes us wonder what the solution to this fashion issue might be.

The fashion industry produces an estimated 92 million tons of textile waste each year, a figure that is expected to increase by 60% between 2015 and 2030, with an additional 57 million tons of waste being generated annually, bringing the total to 148 million tons. Manufacturers and retailers generate about 13 million tons of textile waste annually, largely due to overproduction. Every season, approximately 30% of the clothes produced are never sold, leading to tons of unsold garments that are often burned. This toxic system of overproduction and consumption has made fashion one of the world's largest polluters.

Fast fashion has been one of the key drivers of the waste problem in the industry. Retailers produce clothes at an incredibly rapid pace, aiming to get the latest styles on the market as quickly as possible for shoppers to buy. Unfortunately, this also means that clothing is often discarded after only a few wears, contributing to the ever-growing waste problem.

Consumers also play a role in the waste problem, with around 56 million tonnes of clothing bought each year, a figure that is expected to rise to 93 million tonnes by 2030 and 160 million tonnes by 2050. The average piece of clothing is worn 36% fewer times than it was 15 years ago, and a staggering 85% of discarded textiles are either burned or dumped into landfills in the US alone. On average, an American discards about 37kg/81 pounds of clothing every year.



The future of fashion is circular

In the fashion world, fibres and fabrics play a significant role in determining its environmental impact. While the challenges seem insurmountable, human nature drives us to find solutions to our biggest problems and that requires innovation.

Every fabric we use today was once considered a marvellous innovation at its time. Polyester, a plastic-based fabric, was a miracle invention in the 1940s due to its durability and low maintenance. Nylon, similarly, revolutionised military clothing and became a popular consumer material. However, almost a century later, we now face the downsides of these once "miracle" fabrics. Polyester sheds microplastics, which have harmful health implications and find their way into our oceans and bloodstreams.

While envisioning a plastic-free future may be ideal, we must consider the volume of plastic we've already produced. Recycling it is the most viable option. Although an intensive process, aiming to achieve a circular economy within the fashion industry is the only way to make the most of these materials and delay their ending up in landfills. Circular fashion aims to "design out waste" by reducing the number of natural resources used to make clothing and diverting products from landfills. It is a closed-loop system that makes new materials out of old ones. As we look to the future of fashion, we must prioritise recycled materials and practices to minimise our industry's new impact on the environment.



Turning waste into fabrics

In the search for sustainable fashion, new innovations have emerged, such as CiCLO.

CiCLO is a textile technology that aims to replicate natural fibres' biodegradability by creating a similar molecular structure in synthetic plastic fibres. The Netherlands-based company, Fashion for Good, an incubator that invests in sustainable fashion ideas, is behind CiCLO - the same company who has supported some of the most prominent material startups in fashion, including Lucro and MYCL.

CiCLO is an additive that releases nutrients into synthetic fibre polymers, promoting microbe metabolisation and decomposition into naturally-occurring nutrients, similar to how natural fibres break down. The technology has been adopted by emerging companies such as activewear line Definite Articles and medical scrubs maker Welles, who are committed to circular product design. CiCLO's third-party research suggests that the decomposition of synthetic fibres results in only nutrients, with no traces of microplastics. However, research on plastic biodegradation is still in its early stages, causing concern among some.


We personally have high hopes in this specific tech innovation as it seems to be the only option out there to reuse plastics already in circulation without the issue of microplastics! What are your thoughts on CiCLO?

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