Are In-Store Clothing Recycling Programs Actually Sustainable?


clothing recycling programs - a pair of jeans hanging over a brown wooden chair against a white background

When clothing recycling programs started to pop up in mainstream stores like H&M and American Eagle, I was ecstatic. I thought these take-back programs were the solution to fast fashion. My old clothes could simply become new clothes and I’d get a 15% discount on my next purchase. I thought it was a win-win, but oh how naive I was.

As I began to investigate the fashion industry and its environmental impact more, it became clear to me that these take-back programs were not a silver bullet.

As it turns out, many fabrics can’t be recycled due to their complex make-ups, meaning that a small percentage, around just 12% of material used for clothing, ends up being recycled. Of course that left me wondering, what happens to all of the non-recyclable clothing that ends up in those bins?

Well, some of it is downcycled into industrial materials like insulation, while the remaining portion is either sent to the landfill or shipped over seas to be distributed at resale markets (more on why that should make you cringe later).

Essentially, it certainly is not all being turned into brand new clothes that you can purchase guilt-free on your next shopping spree. Continue reading on to learn more about the journey your clothing goes on once it’s dropped off in those bins.

What is an in-store clothing recycling program?

Clothing recycling programs aim to give a brand’s consumers a way to consciously discard of their unused clothing, by providing accessible drop-off bins. The idea is that people relinquish their old garments, a recycling company the retailer has partnered with picks them up, and then the clothes are turned into something new. Now, while some programs do a good job of doing just that, many do not. This is particularly evident in programs associated with fast fashion retailers, and this is the side of the “recycling” business I wanted to explore.

Why do retailers use clothing recycling programs?

Now to understand the process, we must first understand why these programs have become so commonplace to begin with.

The story starts like this: When the general public started to realize that the production of billions of garments ever year was perhaps not so great for the planet, retailers had to do damage control.

They started introducing “conscious” collections in order to create the illusion they were sustainable brands. In reality, these allegedly planet-friendly collections typically only made up a small percentage of their total assortment. They began to use buzzwords like “recycled materials” and “eco-friendly” in their marketing. And of course, they started to introduce take back programs.

These types of programs made consumers believe that they could shop guilt-free. If their clothes were ultimately being taken back and made into new clothes, why did it matter how much they bought?

Most importantly though, these programs got consumers in stores. This means they were one step closer to making a new purchase, which is of course the ultimate goal of any retailer.

So in short, retailers use clothing recycling programs to get us to buy more clothes.

Related: A Step-By-Step Guide to Sustainably Decluttering Your Closet Once and For All

What actually happens to recycled clothes?

The actual recycling that occurs from these “recycling programs” is sadly, pretty minimal. Like I said, most fabrics are difficult to recycle because so many of our clothes are made of blends, not of one single fabric. That complex makeup results in fibers that are sometimes impossible to separate, therefore impossible to recycle. As a result, “recycled” garments may end up seeing a different fate including being downcycled, resold, or thrown in the trash.

They’re recycled

Some clothes do ultimately get recycled. For instance, For Days, a brand working toward a circular future, states on its website that 90% of For Days clothes that are returned through their take back program are recycled. This makes sense because all of their clothes are made with recyclable materials like 100% organic cotton. Remember, single fabrics are easier to recycle.

However, For Days also takes clothes from other brands, and when it comes to that sector of garments, the statistics are a bit more bleak. 50% of those items are downcycled into rags and insulation, 45% are resold, and 5% are sent to the trash. Which brings me to my next point.

They’re downcycled

People often think recycling and downcycling are synonymous, but they’re not. Recycling means converting waste material into something of roughly the same value. Downcycling however, is the conversion of something into a lower value. The latter is what ultimately happens to most of our discarded clothing despite nearly every retailer advertising its take back program as a “recycling” process.

Of course downcycling clothing is better than shipping it off to the landfill, but it’s not necessarily creating this circular fashion system that retailers are advertising. Most fast fashion retailers are still utilizing virgin fiber in the majority of their assortments. For instance, in 2021 only 17.9% of material used in H&M’s assortment (production numbers which are estimated to be around the half a billion mark) are recycled.

They’re resold

Many retailers note that non-recyclable clothes are resold. One may notice though, that where they’re resold is strategically vague. Even For Days did not reply to my request for comment when I asked them where they send their resale clothes.

This is likely because many of these clothes end up going to resale markets in developing countries. More often than not, brands will market this as “giving clothes to those in need” but in reality citizens of these countries don’t want or need the low quality clothing we’re donating.

Take Kantamanto Market for example. This resale market is located in Accra, Ghana and is one of the largest in the world. While it was once a booming source of income for local sellers, it is now mostly a dumping ground for the western world’s one-time wear garments.

Close to 40 percent of the shipments that come into Kantamanto Market are of no value. That results in about 6 million garments leaving the market as waste each week.

“We have become the dumping ground for textile waste that is produced from Europe, from the Americas and [elsewhere],” said Accra’s waste manger, Solomon Noi, in a statement.

Not exactly the “recycling” you had in mind, right?

Related: Thrift Like a Pro—Everything You Need to Know About Building a Pre-Loved Wardrobe

They’re landfilled

Finally, the garments that are unable to find any second-life use, end up in the trash. And most of the time, the people managing that waste are not the people who created the problem.

Returning to the example of Kantamanto Market, lets talk about those 6 million garments that are of no use each week. It’s the responsibility of Accra’s government to get rid of them, which often equates to burning them. This means nearby neighborhoods and wildlife are exposed to air pollution and the threat of fire. Meanwhile, the garments that escape a fiery demise end up in the local waterways and clogging sewers.

This means that instead of dealing with the consequences of our own overconsumption in the Western world, we’re sending it off to developing countries so they can deal with the problem instead. Doesn’t seem quite fair when they’re not the ones posting monthly fast fashion hauls to their TikToks.

Are clothing recycling programs sustainable?

It depends, which I know is not the answer you were hoping for. While some retailers execute these programs better than others, they are first and foremost, a tactic to get you to buy more. Since one of the golden rules of sustainability is to buy less, most are fundamentally not sustainable. Plus, for reasons stated above, they can often create more problems than they solve.

That said, if you believe recycling is the best option for you, then be intentional about which program or organization you choose to donate to. Try to choose programs associated with transparent and sustainable brands (more on how to identify those in this article). A reputable program will provide transparency around its process, share exactly what happens to recycled garments, and provide clear insight into where non-recyclable clothing ends up.

When in doubt, feel free to reach out to companies to see if they can provide more information.

What to do with clothes instead of recycling them?

If you want to avoid participating in these recycling programs altogether, you still have several options when it comes to cleaning out your closet. You can upcycle or downcycle garments yourself, give them to friends or family, or donate to smaller, local organizations.

For the largest impact though, it’s important to focus on creating better shopping habits, that way you have fewer garments to get rid of in the future. For more info I’ve got you covered with a deep dive into how to ethically clean out your closet and tips for creating more sustainable shopping habits.

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