INTERVIEW - Recycling Behaviours in Fashion
We talked to Alan Wheeler, CEO of the Textile Recycling Association, about the impact of our clothes on the environment, the need to change our behaviours to reduce, reuse and recycle, and how we can learn from good practice to promote efficient change.
Behaven — Hi Alan, can you please introduce yourself?
ALAN WHEELER — Sure! I'm Alan Wheeler. I'm the Chief Executive of the Textile Recycling Association, which is the UK trade association for collector processes of used clothing and textiles. I’m also a general delegate of the textile division at the Bureau of International Recycling, which is the global trade association for recycling industries. This includes not just textiles, but also paper, plastic tires, etc.
Can you tell us more about how the Textile Recycling Association was born?
It started in 1913 and was originally called the ‘Metals and Scrap Traders Association’. It was more of a general trade association for the recycling industries. Their involvement during the First World War showcased how they were trying to get as much value or resource use out of every single scrap of item that existed. Back then, recycling wasn’t about addressing environmental issues but rather, it was about getting the most out of the limited resources that existed.
From the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a bit more of an environmental agenda. This was also the time around which the first recycling points in the UK were seen, particularly for glass and later for textiles. These different material streams eventually diversified and formed their own industry and with only the textile recyclers remaining, the association went on to be called the Textile Recycling Association.
Can you tell us more about the role that the association now plays in terms of sustainability?
Our membership is primarily consisting of profit-making companies i.e., small, medium-sized enterprises. It also includes some of the big commercial arms and charities as well. Our members will be primarily collecting used clothing. That's their target material because that's what has the maximum value. And they will be collecting from charity shops and the unsold stock that has been donated by the public. About 50% of what goes into the charity shop is sold in the charity shop, with the remaining 50% being sold out in the back to the trade i.e. gets sold to somebody else.
The other really important way of collecting clothing is through textile banks, especially the ones that commonly are in public car parks or in the local authority recycling centres. In the UK, charity shops and textile bank collections account for about 85% of all clothing and all used textiles collected in the UK. Irrespective of how the clothing, how the used textiles are collected, once they come back to a warehouse, they will go through a very similar process.
The end markets for used clothing and textiles are not dictated by what happens here in Europe. The products flow to where there is demand in the world. So the reason why clothing goes to Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, etc. is because that's where the buyers are. This is an issue going forward for developing a circular economy because some people believe that we should be promoting more reuse within Europe. In the UK, we have the highest domestic reuse rate in the world because we've got a fantastic network of charity shops. But that does mean it limits the option for promoting further reuse in this country.
The simple message is if you want to have high domestic reuse, please buy the clothing that has been sorted and prepared because it's here ready to be bought, and it will be sold to anyone who buys it.
We are in an industry that is supposedly accounting for somewhere between 4% and 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The fashion industry produces somewhere around 100 billion garments per year. Looking back on 2019, we traded two and a half billion kilos of used textiles, this means we collect 10 billion or 10% of all the clothing that's put on the market.
Re-using a garment by ensuring that it goes to another user (anywhere in the world) rather than just being put in the waste stream once the original owner has finished with it, reduces that garment’s carbon impacts by around 60%. So collecting, sorting, and preparing clothing for re-use as well as buying second-hand clothing is the best way in which people can get hold of clothing that is new to them whilst at the same time reducing overall consumption of new textile products.
Based on all of this, what would be the key behaviour for us to change as consumers?
Indeed, we need to dramatically reduce our consumption of clothing. I know that can sound very flippant, especially when you think about how many people are actually employed by the fashion industry, both on the retail side and on the production side of things. But we can move to a society where you pay essentially twice as much for your clothing and keep it twice as long.
There is also scope for trying to switch to more sustainable ways of production and driving that demand for sustainable production. But it's a complicated area. For instance, if you focus on the issue of microplastics in the ocean, you might consider not buying polyester moving forward and switching to cotton. However, polyester is more durable than cotton and sheds fewer fibres. It's also more readily recyclable once we have new chemical regenerative recycling processes on board. Cotton on the other hand consumes huge amounts of water. This resulted in the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world, to disappear because of the over-irrigation of cotton plantations. So, jumping from buying polyester garments to buying cotton produced in a conventional manner, means you literally jump from the frying pan into the fire. You're simply replacing one environmental issue with the other.
In my opinion, the only way we can ultimately tackle all these issues is by buying less, buying reused and recycled, and putting more of our clothing out for reuse and recycling. We should always try to reuse products as much as possible. Reusing is better than recycling and recycling is always going to be better than disposing.
Who do you think would be responsible for informing consumers on a large scale about these issues?
It’s really down to everyone. Governments have a role to inform consumers on the environmental issues we face and the impact of our choices. Whereas, if you are somebody in the fashion industry and are genuinely concerned about the environment, then you can position yourself, your company and your products to point out what the issues are and what needs to be done. Also, the public themselves have a role to play by actively making choices to choose sustainable clothing options and encouraging more clothing suppliers to consider their environmental credentials.
However, there are real issues right now with fashion retailers putting out a lot of greenwashing messages, although not necessarily deliberately. This is something that has been taken up not just by the UK Competitions and Market Authorities, but also by the Dutch Competitions and Market Authority as well. They've written to around 70 retailers who they were concerned about.
There is also a role for government policy as well. France is the first country in the world to have extended producer responsibility (EPR) for clothing and textiles. It's not the silver bullet, but it is a very important piece of armoury. The second country to do so is Sweden, as of January 1st, 2022. It hasn't immediately manifested itself with a levy on all clothing, but it has come into law, and the producers have to pay the levy on the clothing they put on the Swedish market in a few years. The Netherlands has also set an ambition to introduce this in 2023, whilst the UK government will be consulting upon EPR this year and the forthcoming EU Textiles Strategy is expected to include a framework for how member states can implement EPR.
How do you think social influences impact the younger generations and their views on fast fashion?
When it comes to Gen Z, some teenagers following influencers now do not want to be seen wearing the same thing twice on their Instagram. But more generally, I will also say we need to get away from the media coverage of celebrities recycling their clothing. Wearing the same dress twice should not be seen as ‘recycling’ or something to celebrate. They are just wearing clothing in the way they should be i.e. more than once. Instead, I would like to see social influencers and the media start calling out people who are not seen wearing their garments repeatedly. I really think that needs to be a change on that one. We need to ask questions like “We've never seen you wear the same outfit more than once. What are you doing with them all?” We do need to push back. We need to change people's psyche.
About the Textile Recycling Association: https://www.textile-recycling.org.uk