Hidden Waste: The necessity to identify and manage textile waste in a system of ‘high-volume fashion production and consumption’
For perhaps the most intractable issue within fashion and sustainability is not, as is sometimes claimed, the apparently contradictory nature of these two entities, but rather the wastefulness, irresponsibility, excess and exploitation endemic to most of the business models and production and consumption systems that have grown up around clothing, expression and identity. It is the prevailing business model of high-volume fashion production and consumption that is in most direct conflict with sustainability goals.
Kate Fletcher, Sustainability, pleasure and fashion politics
Textile waste – a by-product of the ‘prevailing business model of high-volume fashion production and consumption’ that has the potential to greatly harm the environment when ineffectively managed. Waste is generated throughout multiple stages of garment production, and ultimately ends with the garment itself becoming a waste product of our consumption habits. Managed ineffectively, this waste can find its way into our landfill sites, polluting our air, soil and water systems. What then, constitutes textile waste, and how is it being managed to decrease the potentially harmful effects on our environment?
Textile waste can be categorised into two groups: 1) pre-consumer waste (also known as post-industrial waste) and 2) post-consumer waste. The latter, post-consumer waste can be summarised as any textile product that has been consumed and then discarded after its use; from those worn-out odd socks, to our out-dated bed linens. According to Alan Wheeler, of the Textile Recycling Association, approximately 60% of post-consumer waste is suitable for reuse. Here, the definition of reuse refers to the resale of garments. Typically, discarded clothing is collected by charities, either through shops or textile banks, and transported to their individual warehouses for sorting. The garments are then sorted into categories: first, stock that is deemed suitable for resale within the UK, or within its local country of collection; second, stock for resale in foreign markets; third, stock to be down-cycled. The garments sorted for resale in foreign markets are sold to textile collection partners and exported to developing countries, such as Africa and Eastern Europe. With peak levels of consumption, the majority of redundant textile goods will enter this donation, sorting and resale system, irrelevant of their local donation site. Post-consumer waste that does not reach resale is down-cycled, sent to landfill, or incinerated.
Levels of post-consumer waste are regularly quantified through research undertaken by initiatives, such as WRAP UK and ECAP. The methodologies of research are broad and utilise data collected in academic articles, government and government-funded agency reports and NGO reports. The task of these enterprises is to be able to illustrate and bring to the foreground the impacts that post-consumer waste is having on our environment and, in doing so, highlighting the potential solutions to reduce these impacts.
Lesser known for its environmental impact is pre-consumer textile waste. This category of waste can be summarised as textile waste generated before reaching the consumer; primarily created in the development and production of new garments. This may consist of cutting scraps, end-of-roll fabric remnants, sample garments and toiles. Cutting scraps are often small and oddly shaped, which therefore means that they are difficult to reuse. The fabric’s composition determines its ability to be recycled, and without labelling its content clearly, sorting scrap fabric can be challenging. Conversely, end-of-roll fabric remnants are often larger than cutting scraps. Many design studios will keep these remnants as raw material for new product development; or alternatively, remnants may be sold or donated to textile merchants and fabric retailers to sell to consumers. Sample garments are sometimes sold at discounted prices through in-house or pop-up sample sales. Toiles have the potential to be reused in-house in the development or new garments and products.
The methods for reusing pre-consumer waste, as outlined here, are not guaranteed to be undertaken in every design studio. In fact, few companies will disclose the ways in which they manage their pre-consumer waste. It is due to this discretion that pre-consumer waste is particular difficult to quantify, and therefore there is very little data that represents the quantity of pre-consumer waste being recycled, reused or disposed of via landfill or incineration. Jessica Schreiber, founder of New York fabric scrap recycling company FABSCRAP, explains that part of the problem lies in privatised waste management services, which are not required to disclose quantities of waste, or the intended destination of said waste.
The lack of available information, regarding pre-consumer waste management, does little to encourage more efficient and environmentally conscious systems of management. As a result, the potential avenues for pre-consumer waste are limited. The scale of operations can infringe on an organisations ability to store and dispose of their waste. For instance, Large-scale organisations may not have the storage facilities to accumulate waste, and their donations may be too large for recipients (local schools, textile merchants, non-profit organisations) to accept – this would relocate the problem on to smaller recipients unable to effectively manage large quantities of pre-consumer waste.
Time is a precious and profitable entity in the current fashion and textile systems, and therefore textile merchants may not wish to accept fabric that they cannot easily identify to sort. Without technological assistance, identifying a fabric’s fibre composition by hand is arduous and time-consuming. The issue of time also applies to the design process, as many designers will utilise the most efficient methods in the development and production of new garments. The methods of reusing pre-consumer waste in-house (designer studios) may not align with the practice of efficiency for maximised profits. For example, the reuse of toiles can sit either side of the time consumption line. Reusing toiles that are similar in silhouette and style might be time efficient, however deconstructing toiles to utilise fabric can be time-consuming.
If effective waste management cannot be guaranteed within Western design studios, it can be assumed that manufacturers in Eastern factories are also generating waste without consideration for responsible disposal. Today’s globalised supply chain increases the difficulty in tracing and quantifying pre-consumer waste. Without identifying the quantities of pre-consumer waste produced, as evidential data to the problem of waste management, how can the industry encourage environmentally friendly waste management practices?
The effects of quantifying post-consumer waste can be seen in the growing number of campaigns against irresponsible post-consumer waste disposal – e.g. Love Not Landfill and Love Your Clothes. Quantifying post-consumer waste promotes the necessity for sustainable waste management, and encourages the development of science and technology to combat the problem of growing post-consumer waste. Considering this, should we not think it necessary for organisations to disclose their waste management systems and provide evidential data as to the quantities of pre-consumer waste generated in the development and production of new garments? Highlighting this problem has the potential to further encourage revision of current pre-consumer waste management systems, towards that of more sustainable standards. Without methods of quantifying pre-consumer waste, the potentially harmful affects, of irresponsibly disposed pre-consumer waste, continue to silently occur.
 Alan Wheeler, "Textile recycling in the UK," in The Sustainable Fashion Handbook, ed. Sandy Black (United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2012), 264
 Jessica Schrieber, "Recycling Fashion’s Remnants: Residential and Commercial Textile Waste," Cooper Hewitt Design Journal, last modified November 17, 2017,
Tuesday 18 December 2018
The Wasteful Practice of Practicing
Calico, untreated. Calico, unbleached. Calico, unprocessed. Altogether, unassuming.
This fabric, with its low-cost and ease-of-use, became synonymous with the design process acquired throughout my undergraduate degree. When beginning the Fashion Design and Business Studies course, I utilised the abundance of calico conveniently available at the university. With little experience in handling fabrics, I took security in knowing that calico would hide my mistakes and assist me in illustrating my designs in three-dimensional form. A formidable combination of laziness, convenience and affordability encouraged my wasteful attitude towards the disposal of each toile, and coincidentally, I paid little attention to the life (or lack-there-of) of my toiles after they left our studio’s general-waste bin.
After exhausting my student loan on the living costs of unpaid internships, I returned to my graduating year with little financial preparation, underestimating the large expenses that were due to emerge throughout the year. Purely out of necessity, I began accumulating each calico toile and scrap that my designs generated, in the hope that they could be salvaged for future use. Future use developed into further toiles, technical samples, and protection from the debris of glue, dye and dust found on the steam press.
As deadlines grew closer, my days in the studios grew longer. Each night I would leave the studio and note the piles of calico overflowing from the bin, intertwined with other assorted scraps – varying from fabric to food wrappers. Mannequins lined the studios, adorned in toiles, as a silent army reminding me of the inevitable obsoleteness that was to follow. Although initially involuntary, my relationship with the reuse of toiles and scraps became a vested interest in the diversion of waste.
Living and studying in Brighton – a constituency governed by the Green Party, and consequently represented by Green Party leader and MP, Caroline Lucas – I had assumed that the university implemented a thorough waste management policy. When researching this, I came to realise that the university was employing a system of sustainable and ethical practices throughout their design disciplines. However, this system fell short of effective fabric waste management, and therefore I was curious to understand the possible paths that could be taken to divert this waste from landfill or incineration.
Investigating this process further, focused my attention on the limitations of commercially accessible textile recycling technologies, and the lack of scientific developments in returning cellulosic fibres to their raw fibre state for reuse. Commonly used methods of cotton recycling include shredding and carding, subsequently decreasing fibre length in the process. In doing so, the durability of the fibre lessens and therefore limits the potential end use of the recycled material. Examples of current end uses include industrial wipers, carpet underlay, and mattress and upholstery filling. However, in my design process, current cotton recycling methods did not provide any salvation for the pre-consumer fabric waste that I was creating, nor do they provide much salvation for pre-consumer fabric waste generated on a commercial level.
A small glimmer of hope emerged when I discovered re:newcell, a Swedish company pioneering textile recycling technologies with a particular focus on cellulosic fibres – primarily cotton and viscose. Furthermore, I learnt of the ground-breaking technological developments that UK-based company, Worn Again, has been making in the recycling of cotton and polyester blends. At the time of researching (2016/17), both companies were operating at laboratory level, testing their patented technologies for use at an industrial level.
With no viable recycling technologies available at a commercial level, I proposed a semi-cyclical process that would blend recycled pre-consumer cotton calico with raw organic cotton, to provide a more sustainable avenue for calico waste. This proposal was further developed through a hypothetical business plan taken forward for assessment in my Business Studies module. My tutors saw promise in this venture, and nominated the business plan for entry to ‘The Dame Vivienne Westwood Sustainable and Ethical Award’ at Graduate Fashion Week. Although hypothetical, a preliminary study, this business plan has grounds for development, once accessible cotton-recycling technologies are viable at a commercial level.
My investigation continues as I learn of greater developments in the textile recycling industry, and yet, of greater challenges within quantifying the necessity for these developments. Consequently, I am beginning to conduct independent research in the quantified differences in pre-consumer and post-consumer fabric recycling. Noting the abundance of data on domestic patterns of post-consumer consumption and disposal, I am left querying the non-quantified data of pre-consumer waste and the detrimental impact that this having on our environment.
My hypothesis stands: From universities to design studios, how do we measure the extent of pre-consumer waste disposed of through incineration or landfill? And more importantly, how do we divert this problem?
Monday 22 August 2018