The shocking statistics behind apparel recycling

By | eCommerce, Sustainability

Apparel Recycling

It’s 2018 and we’ve figured out recycling right? The fact is that it is easier than ever to recycle bottles, cans, paper, plastic, and more restaurants, shopping malls, and city streets are making recycling a priority. So the same must be happening with clothing right?

Unfortunately that isn’t the case. Here’s a scary statistic, nearly seven times more apparel and footwear ends up in a landfill or incinerator (i.e. air pollution) than gets recycled (Source – Let’s think about that for a minute, and put things in perspective.

By 2030 we are expected to consume 102 million tons of apparel every year. If seven times more apparel is wasted than recycled we will have a major environmental disaster on our hands.

It’s time to face the facts. By 2030, we will consume 102 million tons of apparel per year, an increase of 63 percent from 2017. And by 2050, the global-fashion industry will consume a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget — which represents the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions that can be emitted to keep climate change “tolerable.” (Source –

While all this is going on, apparel eCommerce retailers are being told to expect more returns but to be okay with it since in the end they’ll be selling more.

“The solution: Send more than what the customer wants and expect returns. Rather than trying to avoid returns, learn to embrace them. I know, it’s a bizarre concept.” (Source – Forbes)

This concept that Forbes is promoting, encouraging apparel brands to ship more and expect more returns is the kind of rhetoric that sustainability teams at companies like Levi’s and Nike are trying to fight. While large apparel brands have been known to focus on the bottom line over all else, the times are changing and now brands have sustainability teams that are trying to do the opposite of what Forbes is suggesting above, they want to reduce returns, not create more – and that is possible thanks to advancements in machine learning and AI technology.

“These days, Levi’s continues to focus on how it can push the envelope when it comes to being green. Dillinger believes that part of the solution is encouraging people to stop thinking about clothes as disposable.” (Source – Fast Company)

When consumers think of clothing as disposable, they exhibit the behavior we’re seeing more and more now. Buying more than they need and returning what they don’t want. This is growing apparel waste exponentially and we are already seeing the environmental impact which, given that online sales only represents 10% of apparel sales means that we’re still scratching the surface.

Now is the time to start educating consumers about the impact they make when they do buy more and return more in the process. Some of the most well-recognized brands in the world are now scrambling to encourage consumers to buy the right size, not multiple sizes, which means lower average order value but lower return rates, which in the end means higher net profits and more importantly (yes there are things that are more important than profits!) a much lower impact on the environment.

Over the next ten years we’ll see if sustainability can beat back the culture of buying more than you need online, thanks to pioneers like Levi’s, Nike, North Face, and many more – it’s safe to say there’s a real movement going on.

Photo Credit: Emiliano Grusovin Flickr via Compfight cc

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