In a report out this week, the European Union suggests that what researchers and campaigners have been saying for years is true: textile reuse and recycling are not solutions for the industry’s waste problem, and instead may be merely shifting where the waste ends up.
“The avoided environmental impacts related to reuse depend on whether this reuse actually replaces new textile or fibre production,” the European Environment Agency said in its report, adding that if the EU exports textiles that don’t get reused or replace new clothing purchases, it is not likely to replace new production. “Instead, the exports will only lead to more textiles ending up as waste. Given the limited waste management facilities in many receiving countries, the situation may be worse: these exported textiles may cause even more environmental damage than if they were sent to recycling or waste incineration in Europe in the first place.”
Reuse and recycling, when deployed properly, offer “considerable environmental benefits”, according to the report. They need to be part of a holistic system of solutions, not a one-off strategy, in order to improve the fashion industry’s environmental footprint — but, to date, they have largely been touted as sustainability initiatives by companies that are not using them to change their underlying business models.
“If [brands are] not changing their business model, [adding resale] is not actually more sustainable. The consumer can be more sustainable as an individual, but if every brand is still just generating more and more new stuff every year, that’s not actually changing anything,” Nicole Bassett, who co-founded The Renewal Workshop (now owned by logistics company Bleckmann), told Vogue Business last year.
The report evaluated patterns and trends in used textile exports from the EU between 2000 and 2019 using data from the United Nations Comtrade, a database that aggregates global trade statistics. It found that exports have increased annually, and shifted from going primarily to Africa to being split equally between Africa and Asia — with the total volumes climbing from just over 550,000 tonnes to nearly 1.7 million tonnes. The latter is equal to 3.8 kg per person.
The report recognises a number of gaps and uncertainties in the data — how much of what’s exported to Asia gets re-exported elsewhere, for instance. The underlying point, however, is that Europe — and presumably other wealthy nations that export large volumes of secondhand clothes) — has little idea of where those exports actually end up. The notion that such exports are keeping clothes out of the waste stream may be entirely false.
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