From catwalk to landfill: tackling waste in the fashion industry

fashion clothes on a rack in a light background indoors. place for text

Credit: White Bear Studio / Getty Images

This week is London fashion week, where hundreds of the world’s top designers will showcase their latest creations to the world.

These designs will soon trickle down onto the high street. Once there, they will be swept up by fashion conscious Brits eager to wear the latest trends.

However fast forward a year, and much of these garments will end up in landfill. We need to put an end to this heart-breaking cycle of waste and consumption. Luckily businesses and researchers across the UK are on the case.

Fast fashion

According to the UN Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTD), fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world. It accounts for:

  • 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions (more than shipping and aviation combined)
  • 20% of the world’s water use.

A major part of the problem is the world’s obsession with following the latest trends. Designers create new collections for every season, and consumers rush to purchase the latest styles at an affordable price.

Once people are done with the season’s clothes, they’re onto the next. This means that 85% of textiles go to the dump each year.

From ownership to usership

So, what can be done to reduce waste in the fashion industry? One solution is to buy less, and reuse and customise more.

A great example of a company doing just this is ACS, based near Glasgow.

ACS are the UK’s number one men’s formal-wear rental specialists. They have been successfully providing rental services to high street retailers and independent stockists for over 20 years.

Recently the firm used funding from Innovate UK to help reinvent themselves from a traditional men’s hire-wear provider to Europe’s largest centre for clothes rental and resale.

The company used the funding to better understand the needs of the fashion industry and develop a new strategy with sustainability at its core.

As a result, they now have a distribution centre that:

  • provides a garment refurbishment service for fashion retailers. This includes improving the condition and longevity of returned clothes so that they can be resold or rented
  • ensures fashion brands and retailers’ clothes are sanitised and look as good as new each and every time
  • has been verified by third parties to be climate neutral and circular in nature. 

Turning garbage into clothes

Alternatively, another way of reducing waste in the fashion industry is to wear clothes derived from rubbish.

Researchers at Cranfield University and the University of York have developed a greener way of manufacturing textiles from household waste, including food scraps and kitchen roll.

First, researchers use bacteria to break the waste products down into cellulose, which is a structure found in plants and wood.

Then, low environmental impact solvents are used to dissolve the cellulose into a viscous honey-like solution. This is then spun into fibres to make eco-textiles for sustainable fashion.

The solvents developed by the researchers are much less toxic than chemicals usually used to dissolve cellulose, such as sulphuric acid and carbon disulphide.

Moving towards a circular economy

Manufacturing textiles from household waste is just one of the projects funded by a centre aimed at lessening the environmental impact of clothing in the UK. To develop new clothes instead of relying on imported materials, the Textile Circularity Centre will use:

  • household waste
  • used textiles
  • crop residues.

It is a UKRI-funded Royal College of Art led consortium and one of five UKRI interdisciplinary circular economy centres that will help to move the UK towards a circular economy. Their aim is to:

  • use fewer resources
  • reuse and recover products and materials instead of disposing of them after use.

Making leather from pineapple leaves

One specific material, leather, comes with a pretty hefty environmental price tag. Raising livestock requires a huge amount of land and water. Cows also belch large quantities of methane gas into the atmosphere. The chemicals used to tan leather also contaminate nearby water sources, posing a risk to local communities and wildlife.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) alternatives have been available to consumers for many decades, but they also come with their own challenges. PU, or polyurethane leather is made from plastic and takes centuries to decompose. It has long-lasting, detrimental effects on many parts of the environment.

Social entrepreneur and designer Dr Carmen Hijosa has come up with a neat solution. Her product, Piñatex, is an eco-friendly alternative to leather created from the waste leaves of pineapples.

The natural fibres from the leaves are industrially processed into a non-woven mesh textile used for

  • clothing
  • bags
  • footwear.

As the leaves are the by-product of existing agriculture, their use also creates an additional income stream for farming communities.

Recently Hijosa teamed up with researchers from the Centre for Circular Design at Chelsea College of Arts and the University of the Arts London (UAL) to look at other ways of using the material.

It all forms part of the wider Business of Fashion, Textiles and Technology (BFTT) project. BFTT is funded by the Creative Industries Cluster Programme, managed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the Industrial Strategy.

Saving London’s fire hoses

When thinking about a fire hose, fashion brands may not be the first thing to come to mind. However, another company has found a way to prevent London Fire Brigade’s decommissioned hoses from ending up in landfill. Luxury brand Elvis & Kresse, who has also signed up to the BFTT project, has reclaimed over 200 tonnes of material and developed a way to convert the composite vinyl material into luxury gifts.

The company also found a solution to the 800,000 tonnes of virgin tanned leather thrown away each year, turning them into modular cuts that could be reused as:

  • rugs
  • chairs
  • luggage.

A five-year partnership with luxury brand Burberry, formed in 2017, will see at least 120 tonnes of leather off-cuts from Burberry recrafted into new luxury items, designed and sold by Elvis & Kresse.

The company are also developing a solar-powered forge that can recycle some of the 56 million aluminium cans thrown away in the UK every year.

The fashion industry’s dirtiest open secret

Of course waste in the fashion industry isn’t just limited to consumers throwing away old clothes.

A great deal of waste occurs before clothes even hit shop floors.

In Cambodia, garment factories churn out clothes destined for fast-fashion retailers in Europe.

The country is in the midst of a construction boom, so there is a huge demand for bricks. Rather than relying on wood for fuel, kiln owners often burn off-cuts from the country’s garment factories.

Burning clothes has a devastating impact on workers and the environment. Clothing commonly contains toxic chemicals including chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, and ammonia. Heavy metals, PVC, and resins are also commonly involved in dyeing and printing processes.

Researchers behind the Blood Bricks project interviewed workers at one of Cambodia’s many brick kilns. Many of the workers are trapped in debt bondage, which is one of the most prevalent forms of modern slavery in the world.

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), found that garment burning, often for several weeks at a time, had a profound influence on residents’ health.

The researchers also conducted particulate analysis studies when the garments were being burned. Instruments showed consistent readings for PM2.5 and PM10 of 999.9 micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3), the maximum readings possible.

PM2.5 poses considerable health risks as fine particles can get deep into human lungs and even the bloodstream, with exposure affecting both respiratory and circulatory systems. Coarse particles (PM10) are known to irritate a person’s eyes, nose, and throat.

Reducing unnecessary sampling

Another source of wastage in the fashion industry is through the hundreds of samples that are sent out to potential customers and buyers at each stage of the design process.

This means that before a fashion product reaches shelves, it has already contributed significantly to textile waste.

Advanced Dyeing Solutions Ltd, a textile merchant in Birstall, West Yorkshire, is working on a solution. The company is developing a new digital tool that can measure the tactile properties of a textile fabric. This information can then be relayed to customers over the internet.

This will reduce the need for excessive sampling, and the time and resources involved in building a global customer base. It has the potential to:

  • slash costs
  • reduce waste
  • reduce product development lead times.

The work is part of the AHRC Future Fashion Factory project.

Reuse, recycle everywhere

Of course, it isn’t just fashion. We need to find a way to cut waste in every household and business on the planet.

Research can help here too.

For instance, UKRI-supported researchers and innovators are also recycling everything from coffee grounds to CO2 to help grow a circular economy.

Researchers have also teamed up with consumer goods company Unilever. The aim is to develop new renewable and biodegradable materials for everyday products, such as laundry detergents and shampoos. This is through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Prosperity Partnership.

Plus, academics and businesses are collaborating on a host of projects that reuse, recycle and replace plastics.

All these efforts are already having an impact in multiple different ways.

One example is that estimates show that 4,000 fewer tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year thanks to the 2018 UK ban on plastic microbeads in certain products.

The ban came about after the Natural Environment Research Council funded research (PDF, 2.5MB) showed that:

  • tiny particles of plastics from cosmetics, clothes and other products were being washed into seas, rivers and lakes
  • the microplastics were being eaten by deep sea creatures.

This finding was also instrumental in the UK government’s decision to implement a 5p ‘plastic bag tax’ across the UK. This led to a reduction in plastic bag usage by 86%.

These are just some of the ways that researchers are helping minimise waste, that we have highlighted for zero waste week.

Find out more about our work on sustainable fashion in our new podcast. Hit subscribe on your usual platform to listen to the series.

Last updated: 21 September 2021

NOTE Council web content is being transitioned to this website – let us know if you have feedback or would like to help us test new developments.