Photo by Søren Zeuth: Discarded Textiles waste in Ghana
A shocking revelation emerges from a Swedish investigative report: around 1 million recycled clothing items from Sweden have devolved into waste in underprivileged nations worldwide. This disheartening truth, brought to light by Aftonbladet journalists who tracked ten garments from H&M, urges us to take a hard look at the environmental and societal repercussions of the textile sector.
Fast Fashion’s Concealed Price: Shipped Waste
In 2013, H&M, the Swedish fast-fashion powerhouse, rolled out its Garment Collecting program. The initiative aimed to curtail textile waste under the pretext of creating a circular economy. It urged customers to return unwanted items to stores for potential reuse, repurposing, or recycling. In 2020 alone, the program amassed more than 18,000 tons of clothing and textiles.
However, the Aftonbladet investigation presents a starkly different picture from H&M’s green claims. Instead of finding new life, the tracked clothes morphed into waste in countries like Northern India, Benin, and Ghana. These places need more waste management infrastructure; the donated items become environmental liabilities rather than assets.
Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, H&M’s Head of Resource Use and Circularity, acknowledged the necessity for “more precise legislation and robust regulations to prohibit waste from being shipped to countries without recycling systems.” This statement, however, conflicts with H&M’s actual practices.
Unmasking the ‘Greenwashing’ Reality
Critics have accused H&M of “greenwashing,” a deceptive strategy where businesses falsely present themselves as eco-friendly to bolster sales. Danish clothing expert and ex-designer Laura Lava said, “The concept of closing the loop is practically unfeasible, as the industry will never successfully recycle all textile materials.”
When textiles undergo recycling, the resulting fibres often need more quality for reuse. Lava reports that Denmark incinerates approximately 670 tons of brand-new clothing each year. She contends that reduced production is the solution to the global clothing waste crisis. Lava warns that without substantial reform, “the textile industry will continue contaminating developing nations.”
The Dual Crisis: Shipping Waste, Exploiting Workers
Our fast fashion consumption carries an equally considerable human cost. Danish photographer Søren Zeuth, who specializes in stories about clothing waste, exposes the reality garment workers face in places like Bangladesh. According to him, “Women endure 10 to 12-hour workdays, six days a week, for a wage lower than the UN-recommended minimum,” This exploitative system fuels rapid collections at low prices, satisfying our relentless craving for affordable fashion.
In the countries receiving discarded garments, the situation is deteriorating rapidly. In Ghana, disposed clothing items pollute rivers and oceans, with textile fibres breaking down and toxins like PVC plastic leaching into the water.
An Urgent Appeal for Regulatory Reform
According to the European Environment Agency, European textile exports have tripled since 2000, positioning the industry as “the fourth most significant environmental and climate change pressure source.” The agency suggests that clothing donations differ from the altruistic and sustainable solutions they’re often portrayed as.
To address this escalating crisis, the European Commission’s 2023 textile strategy aims to rein in fast fashion, raise fibre quality standards, and impose more responsibility on producers. But prompt action is vital to curbing the intensifying environmental and social damage caused by the textile industry.
The Unforgiving Cycle of ‘Waste Capitalism’
We find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle: inexpensive clothing manufactured under exploitative conditions is sold to consumers, discarded, and ultimately lands in countries ill-equipped to handle the waste. In Ghana, this cycle is termed “waste capitalism,” reflecting the grim underside of our global fashion consumption.
The fashion industry’s intricate environmental and societal challenges network calls for urgent and significant reform. As I have previously noted in my two scientific articles, “Improving recycling of textiles based on lessons from policies for other recyclable materials” and “Recycling as the way to greener production”, these two articles, which have been cited over 100 times in other scientific journals, highlight the importance of consumer awareness, sustainable manufacturing, and higher recycling levels in establishing a balance between industrial and environmental systems. This investigative report underscores the acute need for corporations to shift beyond greenwashing, for stricter laws that promote actual recycling efforts, and for consumers to reconsider their buying habits. As long as we consumers continue purchasing fast fashion, there will be a market for it. Thus, we all bear responsibility for collectively working towards a truly sustainable fashion industry.