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Polluted Places: Where Clothing Waste Goes To Die

5 min read

Polluted Places: Where Clothing Waste Goes To Die

If you want to understand how the fast fashion industry works, look at the piles of clothing waste in countries like Chile, Kenya, Ghana and Indonesia that are so big, one of them can even be viewed from space. A dumpsite in Chile’s Atacama desert recently became the source of internet outrage - as it was revealed that this pile of clothing is not just polluting a nearby city, but growing in size. 

National Geographic reports that 44 million tonnes of clothing waste from Europe, Asia, and North America arrives in Northern Chile every year, due to its massive duty-free port. According to Dazed Media, 85% of such garments have never been worn. 

The fact is, this is one among thousands of fashion dumpsites found all across the global south. In Kenya, Greenpeace claimed that 180,000 tonnes of second-hand clothing was being imported from the Global North annually. Due to low quality, dirtiness, or tearing, vendors say much of this is completely unusable and ends up being wasted. This too, is a symptom of a fashion system that not only produces too much clothing, but doesn’t make it durable. 

In Ghana’s capital, Accra, there is so much clothing waste from fast fashion, it has contributed to a 65 foot waste mountain

Poorly managed textile waste inevitably ends up clogging rivers, polluting local environments and reducing quality of life. And we haven’t even touched upon fast fashion’s landfill and garment-burning track record… which may have informed the UN’s labelling of fashion as “an environmental and social emergency” for the planet, back in 2018. 

Did you know? According to the British Fashion Council there are “enough clothes on the planet to dress the next six generations.”   

The Fashion Industry’s Answer: More Organic Cotton. Wait What?!

Since 2020 it’s been fairly common practice for massive fast fashion companies to wheel out “eco-friendly” collections that are made from materials like organic cotton. In some cases, only 50% of the garment needed to be made from organic cotton for it to qualify as a “conscious” choice. While switching out planet-trashing materials like cotton and polyester for more sustainable choices like organic cotton is an important transition for fashion, this tactic looks a lot like greenwashing. It doesn’t make one bit of difference for fast fashion brands to use organic cotton if in the end most of that organic cotton collection is going to end up being sent to the Atacama desert to fry in the sun. “More” of anything is not going to help the planet. What we need is less. 

Materials matter, but only as far as corporations take account for their high levels of overproduction. 

For their part, consumers can take a sceptical view of fast fashion companies who claim to be “part of the change”, if all they are doing is introducing a few more eco-friendly styles made from organic cotton

As Greenpeace writes,Global fashion brands need to completely change their linear business models and start producing fewer clothes that are designed to be better quality, longer lasting, repairable and reusable.”

Some regulators are also working towards EPR or Extended Producer Responsibility, whereby brands would be held responsible for the end of their product’s life-cycles, aka the clothing waste that they have caused by overproducing. This could force brands to make a radical change to their production systems, although, given the recent popularity and influence of one particular fast fashion brand - which has zero regard for the planet - it’s hard to see how likely a change that is. 

Back when TWOTHIRDS was founded in 2010 it was already massively clear that overproduction, low quality materials and clothing waste was a major issue. We turned our backs on shoddy synthetics and adopted organic cotton (alongside recycled polyester, TENCEL™ Lyocell and other recognised “sustainable” fibres) as one of our main materials. By 2015 we had installed a PRE-ORDER system to help eliminate overproduction from our supply chain. This has been hugely successful - leading to a slow fashion system that prioritises quality, durability and longevity. Our customers have to wait a little longer to receive their garments, which we hope contributes to the knowledge that they are receiving something worthwhile that does not belong in landfill. Year on year we sell between 96%-99.9% of all our garments. In 2018 it was estimated that 30% of clothing went unsold, worldwide. 

Towards A Circular Fashion Model

All fashion brands must take responsibility for the waste that they produce. Countries in the Global North should not be allowed to send away their clothing waste, as it completes a toxic cycle where low-cost clothing is imported from the Global South to  be worn once - or never worn at all, and then sent back to the Global South where it may end up as pollution. 

That’s not the kind of “circular” model that we want to see! Instead, we’re big believers in the circular economy - a type of economic model that sees businesses “designing negative impacts out” of their production systems. “In such a model, clothes, fabric, and fibres re-enter the economy after use and never end up as waste,” says the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. This keeps the waste where it belongs, and makes it circulate so that fewer resources are needed to make new products. Check out circular economy principles - Eliminate, Circulate, Regenerate - here.  

At the material level it makes more sense to celebrate recycled cotton as a sustainable solution ahead of organic cotton. That’s why we’ve started scaling back our use of organic cotton and substituting it for Recover™ recycled cotton where possible. Don’t get us wrong, we think that organic cotton shirts, organic cotton loungewear and organic cotton basics all feel amazing to wear and have a better environmental performance than garments made from synthetics and regular cotton. But the industry has to show more inventiveness even when it comes to materials - it was never enough to have one or two organic cotton items and leave it there.