What becomes of our unwanted clothing?

As consumer awareness of this issue grows, we can safely say that a Fashion Revolution is underway, with many new measures and practices in place aiming to make the industry more sustainable. In particular, the lack of clear information around supply chain and workers’ conditions has led people to demand increasing transparency from the companies who make the garments they buy.

The reality you might not know

What does it cost to produce a T-shirt?

20% of global Industrial Water Pollution comes from the treatment of textiles
It takes 2720 litres of water to make one t-shirt
95% of clothing can be recycled

The price of what we buy often goes far beyond what’s printed on the label. On average, each fashion item goes through 5 production stages: material research, production, shipping, use and disposal. Products used to make a T-shirt include: 700 gallons of water, 22 pounds of fertiliser, .01 pounds of pesticide and 1.2 pounds of fossil fuel. And this is just for a single one!

China, India and the US are the world’s three largest cotton producers, with the US the world’s largest exporter of the material (Huff.Post). Currently, almost 25% of all pesticide use in the United States goes on cotton crops. The disposal stage may involve incineration – a process that releases harmful emissions – or landfill, where cotton takes years to break down. Discarded textiles are generally transported directly to national collection sites, then exported to large international sorting facilities. However, since in 2017, articles have reported that landfill was beginning to fall out of fashion at last, as European countries finally moved towards embracing sustainable clothing. In the UK, the amount of clothing discarded in residual waste has fallen by approximately 50,000 tonnes in the same year (Wrap Report).

Wrap estimated that more than 70% of all used clothing from the UK is sent overseas, where it then becomes part of global second-hand trade in countries such as Ghana, Pakistan and Ukraine (Rogers, 2015). A lot of our old clothes are also sold on to textile merchants, which then transform our donated textiles into tradable goods.

Given the ease of clothing disposal and the proliferation of synthetic fabrics, the brands accused of malpractice in this area are, unsurprisingly, the ‘fast fashion’ companies.

Zara, H&M and Primark have all been accused of burning tons of unsold clothes. They are not alone: in 2018, the luxury brand Burberry was accused of destroying unsold clothes, accessories and perfume worth £28.6m to protect its firm. Richemont, which owns the Cartier and Montblanc brands, has had to buy back € 480m (£ 430m) worth of watches over the last two years (BBC UK).

Burberry promotion

Microfibre pollution is also pervading the environment: 60% of fabric fibres are now synthetic, which are derived from fossil fuels: bad news for if and when our clothing ends up in a landfill. About 85% of textile waste goes to landfills or is incinerated, according to the New York Times. Moreover, an growing amount of microfibres are ending up in seas and oceans, harming numerous underwater species.

As reported by Amberoot news, aquatic organisms have been found to consume microfibres throughout the food chain. As a result, these particles have been found to have physical and chemical impacts, including starvation and reproductive consequences in certain species. Microfibres have also been found in marine species and in the tap water directly consumed by humans, the effects of which are as yet unknown (Amberoot).

Microfibers in the food chain

Considering the fact that most of our clothes today are synthetic, it’s unsurprising that they end up in incinerators once we cast them aside.

Separating fibres is a much simpler process for natural fibres than for synthetic, so for convenience, synthetic garments are more often than not burned, creating enormous environmental problems.


The Guardian reported that clothing has the 4th biggest impact on the environment after transport, housing & food, causing 10% of all global carbon emissions. Of all the textiles in landfills, 85% are products from the fashion industry.


The companies to look at with scepticism are certainly those in the fast fashion sector: if it should take six months to create a piece of clothing, the rate of in-store turnover of fast fashion collections is remarkable, such a swift process must indeed be devoid of nuance and care. For example, Zara puts out 24 collections per year, while H&M offers between 12 and 16 (Business Insider).

In addition to being easier to use, synthetic fibres cost less and allow production in larger quantities.

Read your labels!

Each dress, fast fashion or not, carries a precious element: its label. Reading these not only helps us learn how to wash and care for our garments; they give us useful information about their origin. We can easily see that most of what we wear comes from India, Bangladesh or other developing countries. This is not a coincidence.

On 24 April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed. 1,138 people died and another 2,500 were injured, making it the fourth largest industrial disaster in history.

According to the Fashion Revolution, there were 5 garment factories in Rana Plaza, all of which were manufacturing clothing for big global brands. The workers – the victims – were mostly young women. The majority of workers who make clothing for the global market live in poverty, unable to afford even life’s necessities. Many are subject to exploitation, verbal and physical abuse, unsafe and dirty conditions, and receive very low pay (Fashion Revolution Org.).

Factory sewing in Bangladesh
@Tomas Munita for The New York Times

So should we stop buying clothes? Not yet. Whether it’s driven passion or simply a means to express ourselves, fashion and the search for a unique style is an intrinsic part of our lives. The good news is that since 2016, many organisations have sprung up with the shared aim of promoting a more positive and environmentally friendly vision of the fashion industry.

Several brands have started experimenting with new materials and production systems, which involve fewer natural resources and more use of modern technologies. The goal for current designers is to create a circular – or closed-loop – system, in which products are continually recycled, reborn, reused.

Model lying in a sea of discarded clothes
@Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney has long been a spokesperson for sustainable fashion: as designer of the brand Chloé in the late 1990s, she refused to include leather or fur in her collections, making this look cool and amplifying those practices in her eponymous company, by using reclaimed cashmere and refusing to use polyvinyl chloride or untraceable rayon.

This is only the tip of the iceberg as more and more brands are experimenting with more sustainable techniques to ensure transparent production.

The responsibility for fashion sustainability falls ultimately to the consumer.

In 2018, a survey questioned consumers living in Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, New York and Tokyo about the ways they disposed of old or damaged clothing. 39% of respondents stated that they disposed of their old or damaged clothing, while only 8% chose to resell their old or damaged clothing items (Statista, 2018 – figure below).

The effort put in by brands is not enough if we as consumers do not begin to look at our clothing purchases less as a race to have the fullest wardrobe, but more as a long-term lifestyle choice to make what we wear last longer, cherishing our items as unique and timeless.

Our clothes shouldn’t have to cost our life on the planet

Nor should we have to jeopardise our sense of style or interest in fashion. However, through being more mindful about the fashion industry and trying to help where we can, we should be able to work towards a more sustainable future (groundsure.com).

Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it last - Vivienne Westwood

This article is part of the Sustainable series, in which each blog covers a different topic related to sustainable fashion, including fibre innovation, emerging brands, and luxury brands paving the way for a sustainable supply chain in the industry.

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