- Textile waste has increased 811% between 1960 and 2015, and the vast majority of this is heading to the landfill, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Textile waste totaled more than 1.76 million tons in 1960 and grew to more than 16 million tons as of 2015, according to EPA data.
- The utilization of clothing — the average number of times a piece of clothing is worn before being discarded — has decreased 36% in the last 15 years, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation "A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion's Future," contributing to the growing levels of waste.
Jackie King, the executive director of Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART), said she's seen the issue of clothing headed to the landfill worsen in the last 10 years she's been in this business.
"In the U.S. particularly, we're huge consumers, we're consumers of a lot of fast fashion, where people are buying clothes, almost disposable clothing, and they may be wearing them a couple times and then they decide to get rid of them," King told sister publication Supply Chain Dive.
It also doesn't help that a lot of the "fast fashion" clothing is not very well made and might not last through more than a few washes before ending up in the landfill, she said.
While a lot of this waste happens at the consumer-level, brands shoulder some blame as well. H&M and Burberry have admitted in the past to burning millions of dollars worth of unsold merchandise. This helps to "protect the brand's exclusivity and value," as the BBC reported last year.
But there are alternatives to the landfill and burning, King said. One suggestion is to reuse clothing without any alterations if it's in good enough condition.
These materials can also go on to have a life beyond clothing. A brand like Burberry might not want its clothing given away with its brand and label still in place, but this fabric can be used to make insulation, rags or carpet padding, King said.
Some companies have started to come up with more creative uses for this waste material. "Recently, one of our members has partnered with Converse where they're making sneakers out of denim," King said. "And so they're basically collecting a lot of denim and then they're cutting and making the sides of the converse sneaker out of what was a pair of jeans."
The problem is, though, the process for recycling textiles and clothing is not very mature. Researchers are looking into how old clothing can get turned into fiber that's usable for creating new clothing. One company that's currently selling products made from just these kinds of fibers is Evrnu.
"As technologies such as Evrnu evolve over time, there will be greater opportunities to accelerate the pace of change towards a closed loop apparel industry," Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss, said in a statement when Evrnu and Levi entered into a partnership in 2016.
Clothing will likely continue to head to the landfill in record numbers, though, until sourcing these kinds of fibers becomes more common in the textile industry, or more consumers become aware of alternatives to simply tossing their old T-shirt in the garbage.
This story was first published in sister publication Supply Chain's weekly newsletter, Supply Chain Dive: Operations. Sign up here.