With the scope and severity of climate change, it can be easy to feel powerless; that the problem is too far beyond our grasp for individual efforts to be meaningful. This climate anxiety is valid, but through a circular economy lens, we see how even small actions can have a tangible impact.  

Though large-scale technological innovations are part of the circular economy, it’s important to remember the smaller aspects, like buying used furniture or renting from a tools library. From this perspective, there’s one area that can be a crucial point for change: clothing and textile waste. 

Facing the facts 

Clothing and textiles (such as towels, sheets, and fabric) are a major driver of waste. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that in 2018 alone, 17 million tonnes of textile waste ended up in landfill. The Recycling Council of Ontario estimates that up to 95% of textile waste could actually be reused or recycled. The problem has been on the rise, with the EPA stating that the amount of textile waste has doubled in just the last 20 years. Beyond waste, clothing and textile production can be taxing on the environment and natural resources; the World Resources Institute (WRI) states that about 2,700 litres of water goes into making just one cotton shirt.  

Moreover, it takes most textiles more than 200 years to break down in landfill – clothing, like certain hard plastics, is rarely designed to break down quickly. Its purpose is to be worn, and that’s not always compatible with environmentally-friendly materials. Most clothing or textiles are made with a blend of fabrics that can have dyes, as well as chemicals used to make it more durable or flame-retardant. Although you can (and should) repurpose clothing, the sheer volume of production means some of it will inevitably become waste.  

The “trendy” problem 

The reasons why clothing and textiles are such a consistent driver of waste are complex. Firstly, clothing is a tangible component in our capitalistic, constantly producing and marketing world. Clothing companies and media intentionally develop trends to encourage us to keep buying, and to feel left behind or “out of style” if we don’t keep up. One season, shoes with thicker heels are “in”, and the next, a different shape is popular – encouraging disposal of pieces no longer in style.  

In recent years, fast fashion has been called out as a major culprit of this, with tons of cheaply made clothing produced on a never-ending cycle, and often poor conditions for the workers making them. With the low price point and subsequently low quality, fast fashion pieces are more likely to be disposed of sooner. As the WRI points out, the cheaper fabrics usually found in fast fashion, like polyester, tend to be carbon intensive. Brands like Forever21 and online retailers such as SheIN, have all been taken to task by consumers for their harmful practices.  

When it comes to things like plastic or food storage, you can make conscious efforts not to use or purchase it. But we all need clothing and will need to continue buying it, which means it’s important to be aware and change our behaviour. Luckily, there are ongoing efforts worldwide to raise awareness of and reduce textile waste.  

Investing in quality 

Not only is fast fashion harmful to the environment, but it is predicated on making us feel like we always need to be “in trend” and buying the latest clothes to fit in. There are endless tricks to keep us buying more, like marketing specific colours and fabrics as being the “it” style everyone should have (for a few months, that is). The WRI points out that traditional, “slow” fashion has two seasons – spring/summer and autumn/winter – whereas fast fashion can run through up to 50 arbitrarily created “new” seasons every few weeks, as a means to push more buying.  

If we recognize this, we may be more likely to invest in quality pieces that will last a long time and always be in style. With the demise of fast-fashion giants like Forever21, there are signs that more consumers are turning toward this idea. Also, paying more for a quality piece may encourage us to take better care of it, and work with tailors or other professionals to uphold it; an underrated but helpful practice. 

It all comes down to the first of the 5Rs – reduce. If you never purchase in the first place, you never have to think about reusing, recycling, repurposing, remanufacturing, or disposing of something.  

Thrifting and donating 

With the amount of ways to purchase reused items these days, it’s almost a wonder why anything needs to be bought new. While there are commercial thrift stores like Goodwill, Value Village, and Plato’s Closet, there’s also been a major increase in online resale, from Facebook Marketplace to dedicated platforms like thredUP, Vinted, and Depop. To make purchasing used more sustainable, consider buying from local sellers, so you reduce some emissions from shipping and transport. 

There are also consignment boutiques, which have long been around and tend to focus on designer items; this is a great option to make money back, and contribute to the circular economy. 

Donating your clothing is also a good standby way to avoid having it end up in landfill, but approach with caution and careful research. Along with the rise in awareness about harmful fast fashion, it’s been revealed that many donated items that don’t sell end up as waste. Recent data in Canada found that only about 25% of donated clothing sells in thrift stores. While some of that ends up in landfill, some is sorted or repurposed by organizations that work to extend the life cycle of clothing. For example, Ottawa business Bank & Vogue ships second and third life-cycle clothes to various processing facilities, where it’s used to make things like cleaning rags or car-seat filling. Other shipments are sent to places in need. 

This doesn’t mean you should avoid donating, but rather, be intentional about it; research places in your area that take used clothing and find out what they do with unsold donations, or find an organization that can make better use of your items.  

Sustainable options 

Since long biodegrading time is one of the main problems with clothing waste, many brands have begun to shift their production to accommodate more eco-friendly or sustainable fabrics and practices. There are even some swimsuit brands that offer biodegradable pieces! Brands like Tentree, Patagonia, Pact, Organic Basics, Sustain, Harvest & Mill, and more offer some variation on sustainability, either with natural dyes, organic fabrics, or production efforts that offset carbon emissions. Beyond this, some are encouraging reuse of their products, or setting up programs and incentives to facilitate reuse.  

Even H&M, traditionally a bastion of fast-fashion, now has a line of products that are environmentally-focused. However, one thing to look out for with this trend is greenwashing, where companies exaggerate or falsify environmental claims in order to attract more consumers or deflect responsibility. Always do your own research on a brand’s sustainability claims; nowadays, there are many dedicated websites and blogs that do some of the research for you, so be sure to educate yourself. 

Considering how necessary and useful clothing can be, it simply shouldn’t end up in landfill. By incorporating these smaller – but no less important – circular practices into your own closet, you can take steps to combat one of the world’s biggest sources of needless waste.