Fashion is costing the earth

Last year, around 50,000 tonnes of clothing and textiles were dumped in landfills.

Pile of clothing in landfill

According to the tag, the jumper on the rack at Farmers was made from “luxuriously soft fabrics, brushed on the inside, creating warmth and softness for the ultimate in comfort”. However, a closer look at the label revealed the jumper was 100% polyester.

It’s a bit of a stretch to describe polyester as “luxurious”. It’s used in about 60% of our clothes and is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource (see our Table). And, once that jumper’s done its dash, it’s unlikely it’ll be recycled into new clothing – it’s cheaper to make polyester from scratch than to recycle.

At budget retailer The Warehouse, 38% of clothing is made from polyester and other synthetic fibres (acrylic, nylon and elastane). Another 36% is made from cotton blended with synthetics. The rest is cotton or wool. The company said it’s aware of the effects of manufactured textiles and intends “to move towards higher percentages of sustainable fibres”.

Fast-fashion fix

Cheap synthetic fabrics, coupled with inexpensive labour in countries such as China and Bangladesh, have made clothing more affordable. Prices for women’s clothing have fallen 3% in the past two years.

Some of us ease our minds, and bulging wardrobes, by dropping off used clothes to charity shops. However, it’s far from a perfect fix.

Last year, New Zealand exported more than 6549 tonnes of used clothes. Most went to Papua New Guinea, with the rest going as far as the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands.

The Salvation Army estimates about 20% of donated stock goes to the tip. Some Red Cross shops mend clothes and turn leftover stock into shopping bags. However, even then there are garments that just can’t be saved and end up in the landfill.

“Fast fashion has created cheaply made clothing that often won’t last the life of one person, let alone multiple [people],” said Millie Lambess, St Vincent de Paul Society Wellington communications and marketing manager.

Suitable items that can’t be sold or repurposed at St Vinnies are given to Save Mart, a business that operates clothing bins and sells second-hand garments at its outlets.

“Currently this is the only option for these goods instead of sending to landfill, but we’re always looking at new opportunities for sustainable distribution” Ms Lambess said.

Save Mart said what it can’t sell locally, then goes overseas. Clothes that can’t be worn, go to landfill.

Last year, New Zealand exported more than 6549 tonnes of used clothes. Most went to Papua New Guinea, with the rest going as far as the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands.

Greening your wardrobe

What can you do to avoid adding to the problem? Here’s our advice:

  • Whether buying new or second-hand, look for quality garments with good stitching and fastenings.
  • If you want to avoid plastic-based fabrics, check what the clothing is made from (see our Table). (All new garments must have a label telling you what it’s made from and where it was made.)
  • Treat your clothes with care and they’ll last longer. Washing too often increases wear and tear on the fibres. You can save money and reduce environmental impacts by washing in cold water and line drying.
    Man fixing buttons on jacket
    Mend clothing rather than buying new. If you’re not skilled with a needle and thread, there are repair services that can do the work.
  • Can it be fixed? Mend clothing rather than buying new. If you’re not skilled with a needle and thread, there are repair services that can do the work.
  • Check what the clothing stores you buy from do to minimise the environmental impact of their products.
  • Rent clothes for special occasions rather than buying something you’ll wear once. There are clothes rental services, such as Designer Wardrobe or The Borrowed Collective. You could also get together with friends and hold a clothes swap.
  • Don’t wear it anymore? Bag up your used quality clothes and donate them to a charity shop. If it’s not suitable to donate, use it as a duster or cloth, or get creative (see “Waste not, want not”)
  • You can also sell good quality second-hand clothes on Trade Me, or pop into used clothing stores, such the Recycle Boutique, to see whether they’ll sell it on your behalf for a 50% fee.

Compare fabrics

Organic cotton

Buying a garment made from organic cotton means you’re getting clothing produced to a higher environmental standard. However, it isn’t always easy to tell whether it’s the real deal.

We bought a T-shirt advertised as 100% organic cotton from Postie for $5, but there was nothing at the online checkout or on the shirt to back up its organic claim. The T-shirt tag had a logo that could have been mistaken for an organic certification tick – but it wasn’t an official stamp of approval.

T-shirt with uncertified organic cotton logo.
A tag on a T-shirt bought from Postie had a logo that could have been mistaken for an organic certification tick – but it wasn’t an official stamp of approval.

Getting information about the shirt shows how complicated the fashion supply chain can be. Postie bought cotton certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

Although Postie said the shirt was made in a GOTS-certified factory, the cut, sew and trim process weren’t GOTS certified, so it didn’t apply for the logo.

The store said it would “review GOTS certification of products going forward”.

There are two GOTS certifications: its “organic” certification requires a product to have at least 95% organic fibres; its “made with organic” label requires at least 70% organic fibres.

The other main organic standard for textiles is the Organic Content Standard (OCS). It also has two certifications: OCS 100, which means the product has 95% organic material, and OCS blended, which means the product has at least 5% organic material.

Waste not, want not

Rather than throwing your unwanted clothes into landfill, they can be turned into common household items — the only limit is your imagination!

“Think about the plastic you use in your house and see how you can replace it with textiles,” said Caroline O’Reilly, textile recycling coordinator and sewing tutor at Vinnies Re Sew.

Pile of donated clothes  to be repurposed
St Vinnie's uses fabrics from clothes to make an array of household and clothing items.

The Re Sew initiative aims to reduce textile waste while creating work experience opportunities for the community. They give finished products to people who use St Vinnies’ services.

Caroline’s team uses fabrics from clothes, as well as other donated textiles, to make an array of household and clothing items.

Face and baby wipes are made out of old T-shirts and cotton. Her team also makes re-useable sanitary pads.

You don’t even need a sewing machine to make a T-shirt bag. Caroline said you can cut the sleeves off, cut around the neck, and sew up the bottom of the shirt using a running stitch.

Instead of using plastic or beeswax wraps, cut out a circle of cloth and stitch elastic into the inner circle and use it to cover food in the fridge (see “Beeswax wraps”).

You can even use the fabric from an umbrella as the lining of a reusable sandwich bag. If you can’t beg or borrow a sewing machine, check if any local community centres have a textile recycling programme.

Member comments

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Genevieve D.
29 Sep 2019
Clothing bins

Where do clothes donated into clothing bins end up?

Consumer staff
30 Sep 2019
Re: Clothing bins

Hi Genevieve,

The clothing bins operate as a business which means donated clothes are re-sold in NZ, or exported overseas (mainly to Papua New Guinea). While some of those businesses may donate a percentage of profit to charities, if you want to help out your local community we’d recommend you donate directly to a charity shop.

Kind regards,

Natalie - Consumer NZ staff