Clothing Destruction in the Fashion Industry: Why it’s Necessary, and How We Keep it Green

The fashion industry has long been dubbed one of the most wasteful industries in the world. With many clothing brands under scrutiny for the destruction of their unsold items, it’s easy to use the fashion industry as a scapegoat for our collective impacts on the environment. However, to fully understand why this process can sometimes be necessary, it’s important to think about the broader picture.

The fashion industry is comprised of two main seasons: Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter. Fashion lines also frequently feature two additional inter-season collections – Holiday Collections, and Pre-Autumn Collections. These collections do not adapt throughout the year by chance. We as consumers demand variations in attire for different times of the year. We like to wrap up warm in the winter months, keep cool in the summer months, and if we are fortunate enough to get an occasional holiday, we also look for clothes to suit foreign climates. Fashion houses must constantly be thinking about their next line of releases as a result of these demands. They also must think about what to do with the last season’s unsold stock.

To understand why destruction can be essential in the fashion industry, we must look into three main areas. Firstly, this article will explain why the fashion industry is important for individuals as well as the economy. Secondly, we’ll be looking into the counterfeiting industry and the devastating effects it can cause. We’ll then look into the destruction process, why this is necessary, and how we keep this process as green as possible here at Shred Station Ltd.

Image of auidence at a runway fashion show

Why is fashion so important?

As mentioned, we wear clothes primarily for comfort in different climates, and to cover our modesty. While clothes do not fossilise, anthropologists have used the study of lice and their evolution to conclude that we’ve adorned ourselves with clothing garments for around 170,000 years¹. But that’s not all. Researchers have discovered coloured flax fibres from roughly 30,000 years ago. This suggests that for 30,000 years we’ve been dyeing clothes for decorative and symbolic purposes. We’ve even been accessorising with beads made from animal bones, shells, and ivory. To put it simply, it is in the human condition to use clothes not only for functionality but symbolically.

Fast-forward to the modern-day and clothing is still used expressively, but also in some cases politically. In 2018’s Golden Globes, celebrities adopted an all-black dress code to represent feminist solidarity against sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond. In one of the most publicised awards ceremonies of our time, clothes mattered more than ever.

The fashion industry not only divulges our desires for commodities and expression, but it’s also hugely beneficial to our economy. The British Fashion Council states that in 2016 alone, the fashion industry directly contributed £29.7bn to the UK GDP². This contribution is on par with other major economic sectors. Fashion events also encourage international tourism. For example, 2018’s London Fashion week attracted guests from 60 different countries, including international press, government officials, patrons, and fashion buyers, all of whom were here spending money. Fashion exports alone are thought to be worth over £6.5bn. Without events like Fashion Week, that contribution may never have made it into the UK economy.

The fashion industry is one of the UK’s major employers. It creates over 850,000 jobs nationwide, the majority of which are in retail. This makes it the UK’s largest creative industry.

But what does this have to do with shredding?

Without a way of securely disposing of unsold goods, fashion lines risk damage to the brand’s reputation. This is particularly prevalent for high-end fashion brands where exclusivity is a large part of the customer appeal. But this risk isn’t solely reputational; it could affect the jobs of many people working for these brands, and also the huge contribution they make to our economy. Without secure destruction, brands risk their intellectual property falling into the wrong hands. This brings us to our next point, the clothing counterfeiting industry and how this affects everyone.

Image of woman looking through garments on a clothing rail

The counterfeiting industry – how does it affect me?

Counterfeiting is a colossal illegal industry, globally worth around £352bn. In the UK alone, the counterfeiting of apparel and accessories costs the economy around £9bn every single year. If we translate that damage into jobs, we can estimate that counterfeiting is directly responsible for putting 4100 people out of work in the UK annually³.

But counterfeiting isn’t just a problem that affects brands and jobs. Consumers also are vulnerable to deception, with the proliferation of fake products flooding online markets undetected. The poor quality of these fake goods, which consumers often pay full price for believing they are genuine, also results in further damage to brand reputations. This can cost brands loyal customers.

The UK’s Anti-Counterfeiting Group, a trade body whose members include fashion giants such as Chanel, Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Burberry, all work together to try and reduce intellectual property crimes such as counterfeiting. This illegal industry doesn’t just damage the retail world and its contribution to our economy; it also helps to fund other kinds of criminal activity. This can include drug smuggling, the illegal importation of firearms, human trafficking, and money laundering⁴. That is why so many organisations work to try and stop this criminal trade.

The destruction of unsold clothing items, therefore, is one of the best preventative methods brands can take to avoid counterfeiting. If companies sold off last season’s stock cheaply, it becomes more accessible and could risk being copied. This could result in further criminal and economic impacts as outlined above. But why destroy the items instead of say, donating them to those in need? This leads us to our final point, why destruction is necessary.

Image of rolls of white fabrics

Why is product destruction necessary and how do we keep it as green as possible?

One consistent criticism the fashion industry faces when destroying stock is that the clothes could be used to help others. Instead of destruction, why can’t fashion brands donate their clothes to those less fortunate than ourselves?

While this may seem like the most philanthropic answer to the issue of unsold stock, the effects of donating clothes to less economically developed countries may actually do more harm than good. Several African nations including Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Sudan are currently taking steps to ban the import of second-hand clothes by the end of 2019. The import of clothes is already banned in the Philippines and South Africa and has been for years.

The reason? It’s damaging to the local industry. African textile companies simply cannot compete with the low cost of imported clothes from western civilisation, and thus a lot of Africa’s textile companies have had to close down. This can have significant impacts on smaller economies. To some, it poses an additional moral question. How can a country thrive and develop with dignity whilst wearing rejected or unwanted clothing items from other countries, often kept and transported in unsanitary conditions? These questions have been debated for many years by many nations, and growing numbers are now choosing to impose the ban.

If donating clothes is out of the question, what else can be done?

Many clothing companies at lower risk of counterfeiting sell their unsold stock to chains such as TK Maxx. Here the general public can buy the items at a discount. This supply chain produces less waste. Plus, unsold garments can be used to help the fashion economy and create more jobs.

Many more are also beginning to use recyclable materials, and the fashion industry as a whole is becoming much more conscious of environmental impacts and ecologically sourced fabrics – good news for everyone.

However, there are still some cases where destruction is necessary. The safe and responsible destruction of these goods can benefit businesses and the economy, preserve jobs, and reduce crime.

Here at Shred Station Ltd, we have a zero-tolerance for landfill policy and recycle all of the shredded clothing we can. We break clothing products down into separate materials, using recyclable materials to create Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) or Solid Recovered Fuel (SRF).  We incinerate any materials we can’t recycle safely and responsibly under strict controls. The heat produced from this incineration process powers a steam turbine, generating electricity which is then fed back into the National Grid.

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