The Clothing Supply Chain: From High Fashion Runway to Landfill!

Clothing Supply Chain

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Every 3-6 months my wife and I accumulate a bag full of clothing that we no longer wear. We take it to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army. In our minds we believe that we are contributing to help those who want gently used clothing. We didn’t realize we were a part of the Clothing supply chain.

I expect that many of you do the same. You either make donations to these or similar institutions or you avail yourself of used or second hand items that are for sale at numerous outlets.

There is an extraordinary amount of time and money spent on new clothing. But only a small portion of that ends up being recycled and repurposed. In the U.S. alone over 2.5 Billion pounds of textile waste is generated each year and 85% of that goes into 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 Clothing Supply Chain?

The Global Clothing Market

According to statista.com the global apparel market is expected to be $1.5 Trillion US dollars in 2020. The largest category is Women’s wear with a 2017 market value of $643 Billion US dollars.

Over 80 billion pieces of new clothing are made each year. Wow! That’s at least 10 pieces of new clothing for every man, woman, and child on the entire planet every year. Wow! What is even more incredible is the amount of energy and resource required to make all of those goods. Edgexpo.com reports apparel and textile industry waste as follows:

  • Nearly 20% of global waste water is produced by the fashion industry.
  • 20,000 liters of water is needed 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 manufacture a T-shirt and a 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 was generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded.
  • About 15% of fabric for clothing ends up on the cutting room floor.
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With clothing available in stores and on-line from innumerable brands the demand for new clothing is only increasing. So are the environmental impacts associated with the production and logistics in the Clothing Supply Chain.

So how big is the used, or second hand, clothing market, which seems like the obvious way to lower environmental impacts by reducing, reusing and recycling?

The Global Used Clothing Market

Statista reports that the apparel resale market, that is sales of second hand, or used, clothing through vintage stores, thrift stores or consignment stores, had a value of $20 Billion US dollars in 2017.

Further thredup.com forecasts that the second hand, and donation/thrift (eg. Goodwill and Salvation Army) market will grow phenomenally from $24 Billion in 2018 to $51 Billion in 2023.

Total Secondhand Apparel Market to Double in 5 Years With Resale Sector Driving the Growth1

Secondhand apparel market chart

Source: thredup.com and GlobalData.

Thredup’s 2019 Resale report provides many other encouraging statistics:

  • 64% of women bought or are now willing to buy second hand products
  • Second hand attracts all ages but Millennials and Boomers thrift the most
  • Buying one used item reduces its carbon footprint by 82%
  • Resales satisfies the two biggest demands of the Instagram generation: Being seen in new styles constantly and being a sustainably conscious consumer
  • 40% of consumers now consider the resale value of an item before buying
  • The second hand share of closet is expected to grow more than 2x in the next 10 years and is expected to make up 1/3 of the closet by 2033
  • 51% of consumers expect to spend more on second hand in the next 5 years
  • 96% of senior retail executives want to advance their company’s circular fashion efforts by 2020

This is very encouraging. The more that people reuse clothing, extending its life, means that there will at some point be less demand for new clothing, which will in turn lower the resources typically needed for new clothing production.

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But is this enough? Current efforts and growth in the used clothing market are really only tackling the tip of the iceberg.

The Landfill Problem

Despite the size and projected growth of the second hand and used clothing market the Clothing Supply Chain problem is much larger.

Over 21 billion pounds of clothing are sent to landfills every year (ecoGoodz.com) even though almost 100% of clothing and textiles are recyclable and reusable. This is despite the fact that approximately 70% of the world population uses second hand clothing. There is certainly a market and demand for that which is otherwise sent to garbage dumps.

Thredup also reports that the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or incinerated every second! Every second!

Edgeexpo.com also reports that consumers throw away as much as 70 pounds of clothing and shoes annually, per person. More specifically a very small portion of individuals recycle their clothing whereas manufacturers and retailers are much more likely to repurpose clothing.

What’s Next for the Clothing Supply Chain?

The obvious waste associated with the Clothing Supply Chain in its current form is staggering. There are growing references to a Circular Fashion Cycle which does hold promise.

Essentially there is some recognition that the use of more environmentally friendly materials coupled with design aimed at enabling product reuse and the proliferation of more extensive channels focussed on recycling will help reduce Clothing Supply Chain waste.

At a personal level we can all consider whether we need to purchase new or whether we can buy second hand. We should look at ways to extend the life of the clothes that we have. And when we are ready to dispose of clothing we should always consider giving them to channels such as Goodwill or the Salvation Army which help promote the extended life of those clothes.

What else would you do?

Originally published on May 21, 2019.

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