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The MacArthur Foundation and fashion designer Stella McCartney are working to change attitudes about recycling clothing. They say the world throws away nearly a half trillion worth of clothes every year, leading to more carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Green Economy

Clothing & Carbon Emissions — The Naked Truth

The MacArthur Foundation and fashion designer Stella McCartney are working to change attitudes about recycling clothing. They say the world throws away nearly a half trillion worth of clothes every year, leading to more carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

The clothing industry is responsible for more carbon emissions each year — about 1.2 billion tons — than international airline flights and shipping combined. That’s according to a report issued this week by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which finds that people are buying more high fashion clothes, wearing them less, and throwing them away sooner. It claims “if the industry continues on its current path, by 2050, it could use more than 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2C pathway.”

clothing and carbon emissions

“Fashion is a vibrant industry that employs hundreds of millions, generates significant revenues, and touches almost everyone, everywhere. Since the 20th century, clothing has increasingly been considered as disposable, and the industry has become highly globalized, with garments often designed in one country, manufactured in another and sold worldwide at an ever-increasing pace. This trend has been further accentuated over the past 15 years by rising demand from a growing middle class across the globe with higher disposable income, and the emergence of the ‘fast fashion’ phenomenon, leading to a doubling in production over the same period.

“The time has come to transition to a textile system that delivers better economic, societal, and environmental outcomes. The report A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future outlines a vision and sets out ambitions and actions – based on the principles of a circular economy – to design out negative impacts and capture a USD 500 billion economic opportunity by truly transforming the way clothes are designed, sold, and used.”

Stella McCartney, international fashion designer and daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney, has added her voice to that of Ellen MacArthur, calling the fashion industry “incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment.” The report “opens up the conversation that will allow us to find a way to work together to better our industry for the future of fashion and for the future of the planet,” she says.

The Guardian quotes the report as saying,

“The textiles industry relies mostly on non-renewable resources — 98 million tons in total per year — including oil to produce synthetic fibers, fertilizers to grow cotton, and chemicals to produce, dye, and finish fibers and textiles. Textiles production (including cotton farming) also uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, contributing to problems in some water-scarce regions. With its low rates of utilization … and low levels of recycling, the current wasteful, linear system is the root cause of this massive and ever expanding pressure on resources.”

The problem is accelerating. In the US, people only wear their clothing for a quarter of the global average. In China, the amount of time people wear their clothing has decreased 70% in the past 15 years. In most industrialized nations, people have far more clothes than they need. Each year, nearly a half trillion dollars worth of clothing is discarded worldwide, according to The Guardian.

“What really excites me about [the report] is that it provides solutions to an industry that is incredibly wasteful and harmful to the environment.” McCartney tells the BBC. Those solutions are grouped into four main areas:

  • Phase out substances of concern and create safer materials
  • Transform the way clothes are designed, sold, and used to break free from their increasingly disposable nature
  • Radically improve recycling by transforming clothing design, collection, and reprocessing
  • Make effective use of resources and move to renewable inputs

Wearing recycled clothing may not strike everyone as something they want to do, but some are working to change that perspective. One of them is Cyndi Rhoades, founder of WornAgain in London. Her company is developing new technology to separate and recapture polyester and cotton from textiles so it can be utilized to make new clothing items. “We already have enough clothing and textiles in existence today to satisfy our annual demand of new raw materials for new clothing. All we have to do is make sure it doesn’t end up in the bin, and processes like ours are scaled as rapidly as possible,” she says.

In Phoenix, Arizona, mayor Greg Stanton says his city is working on how to create a circular economy using textile waste. “Each year, more than 18,000 tons of textiles find their way into … waste and recycling streams. Our city is working on creative solutions to redirect textiles from the waste stream … as a valuable resource, to ultimately stimulate the local economy.”

MacArthur has already found corporate sponsors for her initiative, including H&M and Nike, but the battle is just beginning. Market consulting firm Kantat Futures says its most recent survey finds consumers would be willing to pay more for products that last longer, but that finding is offset by other data. Mintel, another market research organization, finds that 80% of women aged 16-24 are mainly looking for low prices.

“Always Low Prices” — the mantra that made the Walton family the richest in America, is at the core of current capitalist theory. It is perfectly okay for Walmart to pay its workers wages that make them eligible for food stamps and other forms of public assistance because, hey, it’s all about making money, right? What else could capitalism be about other than getting rich?

The circular economy, carbon fees, lowering global emissions? They are all great concepts, but unless they result in lower costs for consumers, they are non-starters in the great global marketplace of ideas. The naked truth is that self interest trumps public good every time. Until capitalism evolves to include social needs in its calculations, reports and studies will be about as welcome as hand-me-down socks from your older brother.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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