What Contribution to fashion sustainability do clothing take-back Schemes offer?

Panel Session 14 October 2015

12065592_544661822348735_5348863888750166248_nLast month I headed to Westminster, London for a panel session exploring the role of take-back schemes in fashion. Organised by hubbub and taking place in the UK Government’s Portcullis house, there was a wide range of attendees and panellists. The event was chaired by Baroness Young of Hornsey and the panellists came from academia, technology, sustainability and retail, including well-known brands such as Marks and Spencer, H&M and the Centre for Sustainable Fashion.

To start the ball rolling, Baroness Young asked the panellists to imagine a line across the room, with one end symbolising the view that take back schemes were a good idea and the other end symbolising the view that they were a bad idea. The panellists were then asked to position themselves along the line in accordance with their personal view. This was a great way to get a clear idea of where each of the panellists stood on the issue which, of course, immediately made us want to hear more from them!12108891_544661809015403_4631476576747740731_n

The first panellist to stand up was Professor Kate Fletcher from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Kate told us that she is against take-back schemes in general as she believes they don’t encourage the overall buying culture to change. People may feel that by returning their unwanted clothing they are then entitled to buy more and have done their bit for sustainability.

Next to speak was Trewin Restorick from Hubbub. Trewin was keen to push forward the reuse rather than the recycling of used clothing. He talked about Hubbubs ‘From a Mother to Another’ project which had been run with brand JojoMamonBebe where families were encouraged to donate used children’s clothes which were then passed on to needy families via the charity Barnardos. Over 50,000 items were donated which benefited 4000 families. Trewin felt that this kind of initiative was more beneficial than flooding African markets and destroying local economies.

Cecilia Brannsten from H&M was the next to take to the podium. Cecilia told us that 85% of textiles are either oil or cotton based – the cotton being grown to support this taking up land mass which could otherwise be used to grow food. 1 million tonnes of textile waste is thrown away each year. This is why H&M introduced the first global take-back scheme in 2013 which has since collected the equivalent of 60 million tshirts. H&M are also keen to move away from garment production using purely virgin resources and have introduced their first ‘Closed Loop’ collection which uses 20% recycled materials.

Adam Elman of Marks and Spencer (after showing off his coat made of 100% recycled fabric!) talked about M&S’s take-back scheme working with the charity Oxfam – shwopping. M&S pride themselves on making clothes that last but are still well aware that 10,000 items go into landfill every five minutes in the UK. He felt that take-back schemes offer part of the solution, meaning that items can be resold either here or abroad. M&S also have ‘Plan A’ which is their work to ensure responsible supply chains and the use of recycled components.

Cyndi Rhoades of Worn Again spoke next and told us about their work to separate the components of fabrics so that they can be used again as if they were virgin resource. Unfortunately the more recent drive towards quantity up / quality down has meant that it is harder than ever to do this separation. Currently Worn Again are focussing on this but it is not yet cost effective. In the meantime Cyndi believes that the brands could use their large advertising budgets to be the mouthpiece that encourages consumers to shop more thoughtfully.

Finally Dr Andrew Brooks of Kings College presented a more global perspective. He talked about the effects that reselling our unwanted clothing has on economies abroad. His view was that the low pay and dependency caused by the secondary clothing industry damages the livelihoods, economies and the dignity of those communities receiving our old clothes.

Following the panellists’ presentations we all took part in a question and answer session. The key points that emerged to me were:

  • – Consumers need to be encouraged to value their clothes more. Cheap deals and BOGOFs do not help with this!
  • – Does the government have a role here to legislate within the clothing industry?
  • – Brands have a key role to come up with ways of preventing their clothing ending up in landfill
  • – Technology such as that pioneered by Worn Again is part of the solution but there is such a glut of textiles, especially low quality ones, that it cannot solve the issue alone.
  • – The issues around secondary markets are very complex. Clothing is being reused but at what cost?

At the end of the event we participants were encouraged to place a dot on a chart at the back of the room which represented our view on the question of take backs. It was a tricky thought process, especially following all the discussions we’d had, but I’d have to say that I’m broadly in favour in the short term – anything to stop all the textiles ending up in landfill! However I firmly believe that consumers need to be re-educated, and brands such as ours (Where Does It Come From?) play a key role in this. Let’s just hope that by encouraging consumers to buy less and buy better we will soon see a move towards less waste, less dumping on other economies and more use of recycling technologies.