STOCKHOLM, Sweden (CN) – In January, investigative journalists from the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet attached trackers to 10 items of clothing from H&M, the Swedish fast fashion giant.
The journalists wanted to see where the clothes would end up. They also wanted to dig deeper into the company’s pledge to limit textile waste, summed up by the company’s motto “Let’s close the loop.” H&M started its current Garment Collecting program in 2013, encouraging customers to bring their unwanted items to stores, ostensibly so the clothes can be re-worn, reused or recycled. Only in 2020, the company gathered over 18,000 tons of clothing and textiles.
Now, however, Aftonbladet has revealed that collected garments are unlikely to end up as useful second-hand items, but as waste in other parts of the world. When the journalists tracked down the marked clothes, they eventually found them stranded in places like northern India and Benin.
The journalists also used customs data to show how H&M’s partners in Germany have shipped 1 million items to Ghana since the beginning of the year. The ten tagged items traveled thousands of kilometers around the world, only to end up in remote local markets where there is little infrastructure to handle them.
In a interview after the news broke, Cecilia Strmblad Brnnsten, H&M’s head of resource use and circularity, said that “clearer legislation and stronger rules are needed to prevent waste from being sent to countries where recycling systems do not exist.”
Still, for those with knowledge of the industry, it was hardly surprising to see Nordic clothing ending up as trash in faraway lands rather than useful “donations.”
H&M’s environmental pledges are “first and foremost a sales and greenwashing strategy,” says Laura Lava, a Danish clothing expert and former designer.
“Closing the loop is practically impossible, as the industry will never be able to successfully reuse all textile materials,” said Lava, evoking H&M’s eco-friendly motto.
Even when textiles are actually recycled, the fibers are “too poor quality” for reuse, Lava said. In Denmark alone, she estimates that around 670 tons of brand new clothes are incinerated on an annual basis.
As Lava sees it, there is only one real solution to preventing global clothing waste: Companies like H&M should make fewer products to begin with.
“We have been able to hide this extreme overproduction because worn-out clothes end up in landfills overseas,” Lava added. Without reform, she said, “the textile industry will continue to pollute third world countries.”
In February, the European Environment Agency published a report shows that the amount of textiles exported from Europe has tripled since 2000. The agency called the industry “the fourth largest source of pressure on the environment and climate change” and warned that clothing donations are not the form of recycling and charity that many in the public may think they are they are.
Danish photographer Sren Zeuth, who specializes in stories about clothing waste abroad, has seen firsthand how clothing waste mixes from Scandinavia and Europe to the global south – and the damage it can do once it’s out of sight of consumers.
In January, he traveled to Ghana, where he found a six-kilometer-long garbage dump next to a river. When the rainy season sets in, discarded t-shirts, jeans and dresses either drift into the sea or get stranded on sandbanks. Eventually, the textile fibers dissolve and poison like PVC plastic tiles in the water, Zeuth said.
“In Denmark, we collect recycled clothes in good faith and believe that it can benefit poor people in Africa,” said Zeuth. “In reality, 40 percent of it is completely useless garbage, with holes, stains or a design that is not suitable for the local climate.”
Zeuth estimates that the Nordic countries send around 100,000 tonnes of clothing to the global south on an annual basis. In recent decades, he has also seen how clothing production has shifted overseas – first to southern European countries such as Turkey and Portugal and finally to Asian countries such as Bangladesh where wages and salaries are comparatively lower.
“In Bangladesh, women work 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week for an hourly wage below the UN minimum wage,” he said. “We are talking below the poverty line – just for the textile industry to produce quick collections at low costs.”
European Commission’s 2023 strategy for textiles aims to cut down on fast fashion, increase the demands on the quality of the fibers and introduce more producer responsibility. Meanwhile, Zeuth is appalled at how cheap clothes are produced halfway across the world in cheap sweatshops, only to return as junk a few short years later.
Imagine the recursive symbol of recycling – but instead of reuse, it’s an endless cycle of profit, trash and cheap fashion. In Ghana, Zeuth said, the locals have a word for this bike. They call it “waste capitalism”.
Source: Courthouse News Service