Consumer Waste: A Look At The Numbers



Around the same time we start to find our affinity for all black a little out of season, suddenly our whole closet is subject to the trials and tribulations of spring cleaning. What was this season becomes last season, new fades to dated, and all too quickly we find ourselves with a pile of throwaways and a handful of empty hangers. And while this might seem like the first step towards being Marie Kondo, it’s actually doing more bad than good: rather than just a metaphor for banishing clutter and bad karma, this pile is a big part of consumer waste.

The Data

Despite the tipping piles of jeans and racks of black, most Americans only wear about 20 percent of what’s in their closets on a regular basis, a statistic that’s often also cited when commenting on wardrobes elsewhere in the developed world. And while it might seem like the solution is to purge the unwanted, to donate it to thrift stores or recycle it, about 85% goes straight to landfill.  Eventually, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that this added up to about 13 million tons of textile waste in 2013.



The Reasoning

At one point, the average consumer kept a single garment for up to three years. Now, with the advent of fast fashion, more to buy for less means bigger hauls and less room to store everything, so styles make their way to the bin after just a few wears. Fast fashion has decreased the average number of wears for a garment from 50 to 5, and the average lifecycle from 365 days to 35.

Everything from product design to packaging contributes to the environmental impact of a garment. Since more purchases means more packaging, tissue paper and difficult to recycle materials like bright yellow plastic bags and large processed cardboard quickly pile up. 

And if not in our closets or shoved into a drawer, both the clothes and the bags they came in have to go somewhere. Tasha Lewis, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, warns we can’t sustain the current rate that consumers tire of their clothes. "We don't necessarily have the ability to handle the disposal," Lewis says. "The rate of disposal is not keeping up with the availability of places to put everything that we're getting rid of and that's the problem." In the last five years alone, textile waste increased by 400% based on weight, the bulk of which is now piled in landfill sites.



The Big Picture

Electing to give a piece of clothing a new life rather than relegate it to landfill seems like a good thing. However, despite the presumption among the general public that items donated to thrift stores will be sold in these shops, far more gets exported overseas. The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), a UK government and EU-backed agency tasked with reducing waste, estimates that more than 70% of all UK reused clothing heads overseas - joining a global second-hand trade in which billions of old garments are bought and sold around the world every year.  And this “here, you take it” mentality is nothing new.

Second-hand clothing started making its way to Africa in the 1980s, where it was seen as cheaper, but better quality for the money. According to Newsweek, by 2004 81% of the clothing purchased in Uganda was second-hand.  And in the time in between, the local textile industry plummeted, creating a dependent economy that now, thanks to the depleting quality and price of our throwaways, receives some of our shoddiest and most pollutive pieces. Sylvia Owori, a Kampala-based designer, told CNN how locals struggle to keep up with the second-hand market. "Probably 90% of the clothing people are buying in the whole country is second-hand clothes," Owori said. "It's a multimillion dollar industry -- so, as a small fish, how are you going to start to compete with that?"

The Alternatives

While donations and buyback programs seem like a solution for consumer waste, they’re merely displacing it. Most of the time, it’s tiny flaws like a stuck zipper or ripped seam that cause consignment or thrift shops to reject our old clothes and send them along to sell or take up space somewhere else. According to the Guardian, retailers reject 10-12% of clothing with minor imperfections that could easily be fixed. The Renewal Workshop, a US-based apparel company, tries to divert textiles from landfills by repairing returned and poorly manufactured clothing, selling it back to consumers as good as new.

Part of The Renewal Workshop’s approach is to promote a circular economy that leaves zero waste behind and maintains the full value of the product. Similar close-looped systems have been adopted by H&M and Patagonia. Take-back programs at both retailers encourage consumers to bring in old, unwanted purchases so they can be recycled or repurposed and, eventually, resold in stores. At Patagonia, items that can’t be upcycled are sold second-hand.

But unfortunately, most of us won’t take the time to haul our former favorites back to the mall. We like to blame big companies and the movement toward fast fashion, but the heart of the matter lies in consumer demand and lack of action. Little things like waiting on a purchase, trying second-hand, skipping on the packaging, and knowing where our clothes are going and where they come from are changes we can all make to reduce waste, as well as our seasonal rejects. And as with spring cleaning, awareness that it’s time for a change is the first step.

Key Takeaways

  • We only wear about 20 per cent what’s in our closets on a regular basis.
  • About 85 per cent of unwanted clothing goes straight to landfill. 
  • Fast fashion has decreased the average number of wears for a garment from 50 to 5, and the average lifecycle from 365 days to 35.
  • Waiting on a purchase, trying second-hand, skipping on the packaging, and knowing where our clothes are going and where they come from are changes we can all make to reduce waste.