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Key Takeaways:

  • Fashion brands are accused of engaging in deception by destroying or exporting clothes returned for recycling or reuse, despite claims of sustainability initiatives.
  • An investigation by the Changing Markets Foundation has revealed significant deficiencies in take-back programs, highlighting the lack of accountability and transparency in the post-sale handling of clothing.
  • Achieving true sustainability in the fashion industry requires traceability and circularity throughout the entire lifecycle of garments, extending beyond the point of sale and encompassing post-consumer use and disposal based on technology, not trust.

This week, Dutch sustainability campaign group the Changing Markets Foundation (CMF) has accused top fashion brands and retailers (including H&M, Zara, and Primark) of destroying or exporting clothes that were returned by customers for recycling or reuse as part of “take-back” initiatives. Take-back schemes are cleverly marketed to consumers as a hassle-free way to return their unwanted clothes directly to fast-fashion brands and retailers. These companies promise to breathe new life into the garments, either by donating them to those in need or recycling them to create new clothing.

But the year-long investigation found that a majority of the 21 discreetly tracked (via sewin-in Apple AirTags) items ended up either downcycled or destroyed, stuck in warehouses, never leaving their drop off location, or shipped to the African continent, where they entered a resale market already smothered by an influx of excess clothing from the West. As per the CMF report: “An olive green skirt deposited at H&M’s London store took a five-month, 24,800km journey, through the United Arab Emirates SOEX processing facility and later to Bamako, Mali, where it was eventually tracked to a vacant lot, suggesting possible dumping or discarding.”

Considering that all the clothes that made up this study were in excellent condition at the time of being dropped off, they should not have been downcycled or shipped hundreds of thousands of kilometres away. Clothes in this condition should have been resold within the country where they were originally deposited, cutting out any need for transport and, in turn, the carbon emissions of completely unnecessary freight.

In reality, only five items of clothing ended up in a second-hand shop or with a customer on the same continent, and just one of the items was resold in the same country where it was initially dropped off. The cynical read here being that the brand(s) in question would rather have the domestic market buying new, because they make no margin on products resold or shared through third party channels.

While the investigation only examined 21 specific items, the issues exposed are likely to be representative of the larger systemic problem of post-sale handling of clothing, and they highlight the significant deficiencies in take-back programs: namely their lack of accountability and transparency. Clothes are donated in good faith, but what actually happens to them afterwards is based entirely on trust.

And even with all the industry chatter and the ongoing clarion call for the importance of traceability and transparency, the prevalence of strategic illusions within the fashion industry is on the rise in general – beyond this immediate investigation.

You wouldn’t imagine, for example, that a factory that was visited by Queen Mathilde of Belgium at the start of 2023 – recognised for its pioneering sustainable practices that involve renewable energy – would on Monday make headlines for an “extensive” fire breaking out. The factory in question, owned by Fakir Apparels, is part of the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC), which took over the responsibilities of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety in 2020. But while Fakir Apparels Ltd achieved a 100% progress rate and completed the required safety training program, the same programs for some of its factories are yet to start.

With our cynics’ hats on again, it’s easy to understand why the outward appearance of action on environmental and ethical issues is progressing faster than inward change. Because promoting an initiative might be enough to get consumers, royals, and other figureheads to endorse the vision, without asking to see the reality. As a consequence, comparatively little is being done to address the roots of the issue at the finished product level, and the frequency of these incidents is not slowing down – with four textile facility fires or explosions in the last six months.

But what we might refer to as the  “take-back trickery” is different. It feels more…brazen than the relatively opaque and complex nature of supply chain codes of practice and working standards. Brands are boldly presenting take-back schemes to consumers as a significant part of the solution to reduce textile waste, with collection boxes in the stores proclaiming: “Bring the clothes you no longer wear and give them a second life” and “we will clean, donate or recycle your worn item, giving it a second chance.”

There are a lot of words doing some serious heavy lifting in those sentences – not least the definition of “you” and “we”. The first of these is another incidence of brands placing the responsibility, and the onus for action, onto consumers. The second is hard to see as anything other than a way to benefit from being the friendly face of environmentally-friendly, guilt-free circularity, at the same time as shifting the real responsibility onto a company (or really a chain of companies) hired to handle the practical side of things.

Unlike the lifecycle for new products, where advances in raw material traceability, regenerative agriculture, and other innovations are making visible easier to achieve than it has been in the past, few brands appear to have have any direct oversight into what happens to the clothes after they have been collected.

Adding to the complexity of this picture for consumers, textile-to-textile recycling options (distinct from other, more successful methods of extending the useful life of textile waste through repurposing fabrics for other worthwhile use cases) and are still in their early stages, with only a few companies beginning to really scale up operations to the level that they’re advertised as being at. Among them are Adidas, Inditex, Target and Zalando and Fashion For Good, who have partnered with footwear recycling company FastFeetGrinded, for a pilot project to transform pre- and post-consumer shoes into various new material granulates. This signals good progress, but the responsible disposal of unwanted clothes still needs substantial investment, and if the CMF investigation is anything to go by, tracking the long secondary lifecycles of products that brands willingly bring back into their ecosystems is going to become essential to avoid future reputational harm.

For true transparency and traceability to run behind the scenes of initiatives like these take-back schemes, and to restore trust in them,  garments and footwear will need to be tracked at a massive scale – unlocking provable transparency, traceability and circularity. And this needs to go beyond tracing the first-hand supply chain alone – where considerable progress is being made at the raw fibre and material level – it requires tracking every individual item along the post-sale journey.

Merely tracing garments up until the point of sale is, based on the current headlines and the current maturity level of the industry at large, insufficient for creating a truly sustainable and circular system. To achieve meaningful and lasting circularity, traceability must extend throughout the entire life cycle of the product. This means keeping track of how garments are used, reused, recycled, or disposed of after they have been sold and used by consumers.

And regulations are coming for the extended lifecycle sooner or later, with new steps  being taken by legislators to tackle the fashion industry’s environmental performance. The most recent update is from the European Commission who published a revised Waste Framework Directive on the 5th of July 2023 proposing the implementation of an EU-wide extended producer responsibility (EPR) system, where fashion brands will be required to pay fees for each product they introduce to the market. These fees will cover the costs associated with end-of-life collection, sorting, recycling, and responsible disposal of the products. This approach aims to create a financial incentive for brands to take greater responsibility for the environmental impact of their products – one that will join the brand protection incentive that came to the fore this week.

And there is, of course, already a variety of competing technologies and approaches for the job of tracking products post-sale, including RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) Tags; QR Codes; NFC (Near Field Communication) Chips; Digital Watermarks; and Sustainable Certification Programs like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Fair Trade.

At the moment, though, all the technology in the world won’t change the fact that the journey of a product post-sale is not one that brands want to reveal because the reality is not one they want to showcase. However, it’s the reality that customers really do care about – whether they’re entrusting brands with their hard-earned money for new products, or trusting them as custodians of those products’ extended lives.

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