The local Salvation Army thrift store isn’t the only place offering new life to used clothing and furniture: Patagonia Inc., Eileen Fisher Inc., H&M, and IKEA are among the global brands experimenting with repair or buy-back programs to extend their products’ lives.
The move reflects a growing shift within the retail sector toward “circular” supply chains, which prioritize recycled materials as way to recoup lost value and improve the environment.
“Just using clothing an additional nine months can reduce the carbon, water, and waste footprints by 20 to 30 percent each,” Phil Graves, senior director of corporate development at Patagonia, told Bloomberg Environment.
While some fashion industry observers commend the companies’ efforts, they point out that the impact of recycling programs will be more than offset by the industry’s explosive growth.
“I think programs like H&M and others do contribute to recycling efforts, but it also contributes to ongoing consumption,” said Jana Hawley, a professor at the University of North Texas’ College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism.
The average American throws away about 95 pounds of clothing per year, only 15 percent of which is donated or recycled, according to recycling group 2ReWear Inc., citing Environmental Protection Agency data.
‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’
Last year, Patagonia launched a program called “Worn Wear” which allows customers to repair old items, for a fee, or to trade them in for store credit. The program expanded this summer to over 70 repair centers in Patagonia stores globally.
The company famously ran a full-page ad in the New York Times on Black Friday 2011 with the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket” to raise awareness about runaway consumerism.
“We believe that one of the most responsible things we can do as a company is to make high-quality product that lasts for years and can be repaired so you don’t have to buy more of it,” Graves said.
Repairing and reusing clothing usually requires fewer resources than the energy and chemicals required to recycle a garment, he said.
“We’ve all been recycling for decades, but clothing is still hardly considered when we think of conventional recycling,” said Eric Stubin, CEO of Trans-Americas Textile Recycling, based in Clifton, N.J.
While he doesn’t expect the situation to change quickly, Stubin told Bloomberg Environment that companies are best positioned to impact behavior going forward.
More than $500 billion of value is lost every year because of clothing that is seldom worn and rarely recycled, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes circular-economy principles.
In an effort to get ahead of this, some companies are attempting to repurpose their used or discarded clothing and appeal to a socially conscious customers under the mantle of sustainability.
The luxury designer Eileen Fisher recently opened two “RENEW” stations—one in Irvington, N.Y. and one in Seattle—where customers can send their old pieces for a new look.
The company’s sustainability plan, called Vision 2020, projects to hit 1 million reusable recycled items over the next two years, and is hoping for a domino effect on other fashion brands currently in the industry.
Last year, Swedish clothing retailer H&M claimed to have diverted more than 2.5 million pounds of unwanted textiles from U.S. landfills through its in-store clothing recycling program. The company also sells a brand called “H&M Conscious” made with a percentage of recycled cotton.
Minimal Impacts So Far
While the recent focus on sustainable supply chains has raised the issue at a corporate level, others point out that the impacts will be minimized as long as consumers continue to buy cheap stuff they don’t need.
The University of North Texas’ Hawley said the current trend of “fast fashion”—making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers—is the real reason clothing consumption has gone through the roof.
“What happens is the turnover of fashion trends is happening so fast that clothing has become disposable,” Hawley said.
Efforts to close the loop on fashion have been minimal at best. Only 0.7 percent of the materials in new clothes come from recycled materials, according to an H&M 2016 sustainability report.
IKEA’s New Loop
Clothing retailers aren’t alone in trying to extend the lifecycle of their products. Swedish furniture chain IKEA is also testing new business models, including renting out and buying back their own furniture.
The experiments, currently being tested in Australia, Belgium, and Japan, are conceived as a way to repurpose IKEA furniture that might otherwise be thrown away.
“This means developing commercially viable and scalable offers in the areas of how people bring things into their home, and how they pass on the things they no longer need,” Pia Huusfelt, a business leader-global for IKEA Group, told Bloomberg Environment in a statement.
As part of the pilot program, the company is offering to vouchers up to 50 percent of the original value for furniture that is capable of being resold. Customers don’t even have to disassemble the items to qualify.
Huusfelt didn’t comment on whether program would also be rolled out in the U.S., or if it undercut sales at test locations.
“We are on the journey, and we are very much focused testing and learning so that we can design relevant offers that really meet our customers’ needs,” she said.