The apparel supply chain: from the high fashion catwalk to the landfill!

Every 3-6 months my wife and I accumulate a bag full of clothes that we no longer wear. We’ll take it to the local welfare or salvation army. We believe we are helping to help those who want gently used clothing. Little did we know we were part of the apparel supply chain.

I assume many of you are doing the same. Either you donate to these or similar organizations, or you resort to used or used items that are for sale in numerous outlets.

A tremendous amount of time and money is spent on new clothes. But only a small part of it is recycled and reused. In the US alone, over 2.5 billion pounds of textile waste is generated each year and 85% of that ends up in landfills!

And did you know that the clothing and textile industry is the second largest polluter in the world?

What exactly is happening in the apparel supply chain?

The global apparel market

According to statista.com, the global apparel market is expected to be worth US$1.5 trillion in 2020. The largest category is women’s clothing with a market value of $643 billion in 2017.

Over 80 billion new items of clothing are made every year. Wow! That’s at least 10 new pieces of clothing every year for every man, woman and child on the entire planet. Wow! Even more incredible is the amount of energy and resources required to craft all of these goods. Edgexpo.com reports on waste from the garment and textile industry as follows:

  • Almost 20% of the world’s wastewater is produced by the fashion industry.
  • 20,000 liters of water are required to produce one kilogram of cotton; equivalent to a single t-shirt and pair of jeans.
  • It takes more than 5,000 gallons of water to make one t-shirt and one pair of jeans.
  • The textile industry is one of the top 3 water wasting industries in China, discharging over 2.5 billion tons of wastewater every year.
  • NPR reports from the Environmental Protection Agency that 15.1 million tons of textile waste were generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded.
  • About 15% of clothing fabric ends up on the cutting room floor.

With clothing from countless brands available in stores and online, the demand for new clothing is only increasing. So are the environmental impacts associated with production and logistics in the apparel supply chain.

So how big is the market for used or second hand clothing that seems like the obvious way to reduce environmental impact through reduce, reuse and recycle?

The global market for used clothing

Statista reports that the apparel resale market, meaning the sale of second-hand or used clothing through vintage shops, thrift stores, or consignment stores, was worth $20 billion in 2017.

Additionally, thredup.com predicts that the market for used goods and giving/thrift (e.g. Goodwill and Salvation Army) will grow phenomenally from $24 billion in 2018 to $51 billion in 2023.

The overall second hand clothing market will double in 5 years with the resale sector driving growth1

Source: threadup.com and GlobalData.

Thredup’s 2019 Resale Report has many more encouraging stats:

  • 64% of women have bought or are now ready to buy second-hand products
  • Second hand attracts all ages, but Millennials and Boomers save the most
  • Buying a used item reduces its carbon footprint by 82%
  • Resales fulfills the two greatest demands of the Instagram generation: to be seen again and again in new styles and to be a conscious consumer
  • 40% of consumers today consider an item’s resale value before making a purchase
  • The second-hand portion of the wardrobe is expected to more than double in the next 10 years and is expected to account for 1/3 of the wardrobe by 2033
  • 51% of consumers expect to spend more on second hand in the next 5 years
  • 96% of retail executives want to accelerate their company’s circular fashion efforts by 2020

That’s very encouraging. As more people reuse clothes and extend their lifespan, there is less demand for new clothes, which in turn reduces the resources normally required to produce new clothes.

But is that enough? The current efforts and growth in the used clothing market is really just the tip of the iceberg.

The landfill problem

Despite the size and projected growth of the second-hand and pre-owned clothing market, the apparel supply chain problem is much larger.

Over 21 billion pounds of clothing goes to landfill each year (ecoGoodz.com), despite nearly 100% of clothing and textiles being recyclable and reusable. And this despite the fact that around 70% of the world’s population wears second-hand clothing. There is certainly a market and demand for what otherwise goes to landfill.

Thredup also reports that the equivalent of a garbage truck full of textiles is being dumped or incinerated every second! Every second!

Edgeexpo.com also reports that consumers throw away up to 70 pounds of clothing and shoes per person annually. More specifically, a very small proportion of people recycle their clothes, while manufacturers and retailers are much more likely to reuse clothes.

What’s next for the apparel supply chain?

The apparent waste associated with the apparel supply chain in its current form is staggering. There is increasing evidence of a circular fashion cycle that shows promise.

In essence, it recognizes that the use of more environmentally friendly materials, coupled with a design that aims to allow products to be reused, and the proliferation of broader channels focused on recycling, will help reduce waste in the supply chain for reduce clothing.

On a personal level, we can all consider whether we need to buy new or whether we can buy used. We should look for ways to extend the life of our clothes. And when we are willing to dispose of clothes, we should always consider donating them to channels like Goodwill or the Salvation Army that help promote longer lifespans for those clothes.

What else would you do?

Originally published May 21, 2019.

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