“Fast fashion” got its name from the speed at which retail giants mass produce runway trends, but also should refer to the speed with which clothing goes from our closets to the landfill.
The statistics are staggering. Hauling fast fashion to dumps and incinerators is costing our country more than $4 billion a year and contributing to climate change and other environmental challenges.
Every year, the fashion industry contributes more than 30 billion pounds of textile waste to landfills and incinerators. Up to 80 percent of our apparel is trashed instead of being reused. This not only exacerbates the dwindling space in domestic municipal landfills but also has devastating impacts on the global South, where we can now see piles of discarded clothes from space. In the midst of the hottest summer on record, textile waste is our landfills’ third-largest emitter of methane, which is responsible for 25 percent of global warming.
The concept of circular fashion business models that include resale, rental, repair, upcycling and textile recycling have emerged as a potential solution to this challenge. Fashion reuse has immediate value — so much so that customers already are buying, selling and even renting clothing on their own.
But cost-effective, wide-scale adoption of these models, at a magnitude to outpace new production and our landfill capacity, will require concerted efforts to shift cultural, behavioral, policy and shareholder sentiments. The key lies in incentivizing the businesses and innovations that already are involved in the reclamation of these items.
Thankfully, some in Congress are starting to notice. Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) recently authored a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office raising some of these environmental concerns with fashion waste but also exploring possible areas where both federal and local policies could turn the tide on textile recycling.
It behooves Congress to consider all solutions to address this unaddressed problem. Policy solutions like closing the de minimis tax loophole, reducing import fees on recycled textiles, second-hand sales and use tax exemptions, and offering priority shipping rates for used apparel should all be explored.
Policymakers also should be examining modern textile Extended Producer Responsibility and/or deposit laws that prioritize and incentivize reuse and reward customers and businesses for returning and reselling their products.
What’s unique about fashion, compared to other household recyclables, is that greater adoption of these kinds of reuse initiatives will provide the necessary aggregated volumes to also fund the unit economics required for textile-to-textile recycling—a goal that has been unachievable in recycling plastics.
In short, companies participating in fashion reuse already are building the economies of scale, infrastructure and labor necessary not only for reuse, but also to eventually support textile-to-textile recycling’s value chain. To put this in real world terms, every physical resale distribution center—your neighborhood thrift, your online resale shop’s distribution centers, your neighborhood parking lot clothing bin’s sorting partners—gets the most value from reselling reusable products, and the rest could be recycled.
Now it’s time to build a bill that supports this economy end-to-end and at every point along the textile value chain.
Reuse is practically the only way we keep fashion products in circulation today, and the logistics and infrastructure of resale businesses are costly. To deny them consideration in the funding of any textile legislation is misguided and ultimately could incentivize low-quality, high-volume garments to continue to fill our markets—in the hopes that one day they will be “recycled”—without encouraging an economic system that will allow that to happen.
Additionally, we need a federal bill that makes American manufacturing, including circular apparel manufacturing, more competitive so we can bring jobs and economic development back to our communities most in need.
Good policy is critical to reducing the massive waste in the fashion industry. Businesses that make products need greater incentives to create durable and circular lifecycles for their garments. Businesses that specialize in extending the life of fashion waste won’t be able to fully scale and compete with new clothing production unless there is policy that promotes the opportunities that circular fashion business models provide.
This is a new frontier for policymaking, but the problem is growing — literally — with each trip to the dump.
Rachel Kibbe is the founder and executive director of American Circular Textiles, a coalition devoted to promoting circularity in American and global fashion.
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