5 different ways to recycle clothing without killing the environment
Just don’t put it in the bin.
Photo from Sweet Lassi by Priya Ahluwalia
We buy around 1.13 mega tonnes of clothing in the UK each year, yet wear 44% of our wardrobes. But how can we recycle unwanted clothing so that it doesn't just end up in landfill? With Fashion Revolution in its fifth year of campaigning, and the government even launching an enquiry into fast fashion next month, textile waste and the environmental effects of our insatiable thirsts for garms are slowly coming more into public focus.
Despite this progress, it's still surprisingly hard to imagine where most our unwanted clothes end up. There are no tragi-cute images of turtles washed up suffocated in bra straps, to motivate us in the way it has the plastic straw crowd, yet three quarters of households put their clothes in the bin, where they eventually end up in landfill.
From that ugly dress you bought to cover up your tattoos at a relative’s wedding, to the badly judged outfit that wasn’t your taste a month later, you don’t need to feel guilt every time you glance inside your wardrobe. For a run down of what to do with your once loved body garnish depending on the state of it, keep reading.
1. Repair it
A seamstress I worked with once told me that a new zip on the favourite jeans I’d not worn for a year would cost me 50p. Can you imagine? Even if you’re as challenged as I am on the sewing front, with a world of YouTube tutorials, studios like Threadworks running amazing upcycling and sewing classes, or better still for a certified klutz like me, skilled dry cleaners and local seamstresses who can take up trousers and patch pockets for you, there’s no excuse to not breathe a new lease of life into your long suffering favourites. If you’re feeling creative, have a look at what fabric paints, cute patches or embroidery can do to an old pair of jeans.
2. Maybe don’t give it to the big boys -- they won’t practise what they preach
Plenty of industrial giants have come on to the “greenwashing” hype, with many encouraging you to bring old clothes in for the promise of vouchers to spend in store. While on one hand it’s great to see brands making inroads to a more responsible textile industry, how much of it is lip service when they only use 1% of recycled stuff to make their clothes? Accordingly to sustainability expert Lucy Seigle, it would take H&M 12 years to recycle 1,000 tonnes of waste. Meanwhile, it churns the same amount of new clothes out in just 48 hours.
Smaller, more radical companies are paving a more authentic way to a circular economy, with everybody.world among the first to offer recycled cotton t-shirts on wholesale, and Birdsong’s last spring collection from mostly reclaimed textiles.
Give your good stuff to charity shops, but be mindful of which charity shops you donate to. Is it the right area for the type of clothes you’re giving? Would a direct donation to a food bank be more appropriate? Do they have piles of stuff sitting around getting stinky at the back, or is half of the high street queuing for the changing room? Charity shops like Traid make an effort with their pricing and window displays, which means more clothes end up in hands that want them, rather than depriving countries in the global south of their own economies. From compensating orphan children of factory collapses to ending slavery in supply chains, Traid are good folks to donate to.
While I’m a big proponent of “one person’s trash is another’s treasure”, there’s a pretty gross colonial aspect to a lot of what goes unsold in charity shops. Many east African countries are now banning the imports of used western clothing, and the Ugandan government claiming they wish to invest more in their own textile industry. If you wouldn’t be seen dead in a stained, five season old football jersey, don’t assume someone living in the global south wants it either.
3. Rent, sell or swap
Got a friend whose style is always a lane ahead? Suggest a swap. Search clothes swapping groups IRL or online to make the most of your leftovers and still get that new clothes buzz.
The Nu Wardrobe started exactly on these principles. They’re launching an online platform for swappers in Ireland next month, but they also do talks, workshops and have a platform for you to set up your own sharing group. If you’re still holding out on an opportunity to wear that ridiculous dress, you can lend it out to someone and have it returned to you in perfect condition.
Not going to have the body of a teenager again any time soon? Give yourself a break and Depop it, eBay it, Etsy it. There are so many apps for lazy people with full wardrobes that it’d be a shame not to try one.
4. Buy organic and biodegradable natural fibres in the first place
While manmade doesn’t always equal “bad”, as a rule, if you can’t pronounce the name or is was made with loads with different blends of fabrics or chemicals, it’s not going to be good for returning to momma earth. Natural fibres are good for your skin and generally pretty easy on the ground too. Look for organic cottons, hand-woven traditional textiles, or fibres like bamboo that take up less water production.
And for all the animal-loving vegans out there, bad news. “Pleathers” can take 500 years to decompose. The truth is, no one knows how long that cute biker jacket will be around for; consider buying secondhand or trying vegetable leathers instead.
Finally, buy to love and to last. Ask yourself three golden rules when you’re about to buy: do I love it? Will I wear it at least 30 times? What is the impact this garment has on the world?
As Meghan Nesmith recently wrote over on ManRepeller: “A sweater is the hands that made it, the fiber it is made from, the energy it took to create... the memories you’ll form in it and what you’ll think of it a year later when you see it hanging in your closet.” These are all rules to live by. An item that’s worn to death is the most sustainable thing you can purchase.
5. A holey pair of y-fronts, anyone?
It’s the end of the line, the final curtain. If you’re convinced no one wants your odd manky socks or offensive, moth eaten T-shirt, search for your nearest textile recycling plant. Things that can’t be sold on will often be turned into insulation, cleaning rags or furniture padding. However, in terms of textile recycling technology, we’ve got a long way to go.
Take shoes. Often stuck together with toxic glue, most take at least 50 years to decompose, and are made from materials that are notoriously hard to separate. In the meantime, while scientists develop new means of wide scale textile recycling for complex fibres, keep on swapping, sewing, or crafting. You’re doing mother earth’s work.