18 Aug 2014

The impact of throwaway threads

9:14 am on 18 August 2014

Take a walk down any high street, and it’s clear from the two-for-one deals and store-wide sales that you can buy a lot of cotton for not much money. While mainlining cut-price clothes straight to your wardrobe might not have an obvious impact on wider society, the scale on which we do it is what makes it harmful for the planet.

According to the Retailers Association, Kiwis spent more than $3.5 billion in clothing stores in 2012, an 80 per cent jump in spending since 2000 – and that doesn’t take into account the amount we fork out for fashion online.

Ministry for the Environment figures show 100 million kilos of textile waste is thrown into the country’s rubbish dumps yearly. That’s the equivalent of every person in New Zealand chucking about 145 medium-sized men’s T-shirts a year. And aside from turning unwanted clothes into rags, insulation or sending them offshore to become another country’s problem, not much is currently done to give old clothes new value.

Garments made using recycled materials by Donna Cleveland.

Garments made using recycled materials by Donna Cleveland. Photo: Supplied

Global action by consumers has progressed social issues in garment production. In the 1990s, people became aware of the shocking reality of working conditions in sweatshops in countries like Bangladesh and China, where the overwhelming majority of main-street fashions are made. The public put enormous pressure on manufacturers and labels that were seen to be trading unfairly. Nike is a good example – they changed the way they manufacture goods after bearing the brunt of a global boycott.

Cotton garments can take around six months to decompose – nylon fabrics can take between 30 and 40 years.

In the same vein, light has been shed on problems with cotton production and how disastrous it is for the environment, which has seen a slow shift towards people choosing sustainable cotton. Just this month, aging rocker Neil Young urged fans to purchase organic clothing and removed all products that didn’t fit the bill from his merch line.

But the reality is people need to be able to get rid of clothes somehow. Arguably, the top three options are selling them on; taking them into a charity shop; or depositing them into the Child Cancer Foundation clothing bins scattered around the suburbs. In the case of the latter, most people have no idea what happens to their bags of old clothes once they’ve been pushed through the steel flap.

For years second-hand clothing retailer SaveMart, which has dozens of industrial-sized op shops nationwide, has collected the clothing from those bins to sort and sell. SaveMart owner Tom Doonan, explains his outlet keeps the best quality clothes to sell and Child Cancer gets a percentage of revenue. The unwanted but still wearable clothing is shipped off to Papua New Guinea and distributed throughout the settlements. “Even unsaleable items are saleable to a third world country,” Doonan says. “In Papua New Guinea they need warm clothing because it’s cold in the mountains, so we ship a lot to the highlands.”

It’s not just clothing from the bins that ends up in SaveMart’s hands. The business also takes care of unsold stock from hospice and Salvation Army stores, as well as obsolete goods from high-street chain stores like Glassons and Shanton. Unwearable items will be made into rags, insulation, or woollen blankets for India. “SaveMart is the end of the chain,” says Doonan.

He won’t say how much clothing gets shipped to Papua New Guinea, but according to Statistics New Zealand, more than 5.8 million kilos was exported to the island nation in the year to May 2014. That is more than 70 per cent of the total second-hand clothing exports from New Zealand, valued at more than $10.5 million dollars. And while intentions to help those less fortunate than us are good, waste that was ours will eventually just become refuse in another country.

In ideal conditions, cotton garments can take around six months to decompose, while nylon fabrics can take between 30 and 40 years. However, as AgResearch senior scientist Dr Steve McNeil explains, modern rubbish dumps are suboptimal environments to catalyse decay.

“If it was buried in your back garden it’s probably going to be faster, but in a modern landfill there is less soil, less bacteria and less fungi, so it would be quite a bit slower,” he says. “Modern tips also have less water draining into them, and you need a bit of water for the break down.” As the clothes decompose they release methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and liberate dyes into the soil.

Donna Cleveland's yarn, made with recycled materials, is blended with wool to make it more workable.

Donna Cleveland's yarn, made with recycled materials, is blended with wool to make it more workable. Photo: Supplied

Upcycling is one trend that is increasing in global popularity and helps breathe new life into otherwise unwanted clothes. In Auckland, a shop called Smoove has had snowballing success in the last two years with selling upcycled dresses sourced from Asia. The reworked garments went from taking up one rack, to gaining their own massive store, as well as being supplied to a dozen other retailers around the country.

Smoove Reworked Vintage store manager Nathalie Gregory explains the dresses originally come from countries like Singapore, Japan and Korea, but eventually find their way to Cambodia where they are sold at the markets. “I think there is not as much of a culture of second-hand or thrifting or even donating to charities there,” she says. “It’s more about buying something and wearing it, but if something goes wrong like a button falls off, then you get rid of it.” Smoove’s buyer takes advantage of this unthrifty attitude and snaps up the dresses from the Cambodian markets for sale in New Zealand.

Before being shipped over here, the dresses are modernised by a family business operating in Thailand. They are paid a fair wage to work on the dresses and make adjustments to the collars, hems and sleeves to give the garments a more current style. When they finally reach New Zealand shelves they sell like the hotcakes, according to Gregory. She reckons their popularity is due to the unique character of each garment, which bear bright floral or geometric prints. She has never seen two dresses exactly the same, despite selling hundreds upon hundreds of them.

Gregory believes if the frocks, a majority of which are constructed from synthetic fabrics, didn’t get sold in New Zealand most of them would end up in the trash. “Think of the environmental implications of thousands of dresses ending up in landfill and not rotting. It’s quite scary. They are perfectly wearable dresses,” she says. “And if you think about the volume of dresses we’ve got in this store alone, and then the volume this has come from, it’s unfathomable really.”

While upcycling is a good way to stretch the lifespan of a piece of clothing, designer Donna Cleveland says it’s not a solution to help the overall problem. “While it can be really worthy it’s not going to be the final answer because they're all one-off garments and they take a lot of designer time to turn them into new garments.” She has bigger ambitions to develop a process that creates a zero waste fashion industry.

Cleveland was recently granted the AUT Vice Chancellor’s Scholarship of $95,000 to enable her to undertake PhD research in recycling fabrics. Cleveland’s interest in eco-fashion emerged when she began studying to be a fashion designer in 2010. She says although she lived a sustainable lifestyle at home, she never paired those ideologies with fashion design until she attended a lecture about the impact of clothing waste. “I was blown away. I couldn’t believe that’s how much of a mess we made and I hadn’t thought about it until then,” she says. “I didn’t want to add to the problem, so I started to make sure that my projects were based around sustainable fashion.”

When Cleveland went on to do her Masters degree she continued looking at ways to encompass sustainability into every facet of her design work.  “If you don’t think about the whole three legs of sustainability – the economy, the social and the environment – you’ve still got a lopsided view of what’s going on,” she explains. She looked beyond simply adopting organic cotton or upcycling garments, and found a way to make beautiful clothes while incorporating a closed-loop production method.

Donna Cleveland holds her recycled material.

Donna Cleveland holds her recycled material. Photo: Supplied

Textile waste is by no means endemic to post-consumers; there is a great deal of waste happening before the clothes even hit the shelves. Estimates from the fashion industry put fabric wastage at about 15 per cent, because it’s cheaper to dump scraps than recycle them. But while doing her Master’s studies, Cleveland worked out a method of transforming a mix of leftover textiles into a quality fabric, from which she created a high fashion collection. “It was just that sort of lightbulb moment of how was I going to do it,” she says.

Cleveland describes the process as being similar to recycling paper – it involves shredding all manner of wasted fabrics, cottons, synthetics and wools, then mashing them back together. To highlight the problem of industrial waste, and utilise the resources in her environment, she collected all the waste out of the AUT fashion design rooms. “I collected up 500 kilos of textile waste in one go from their end of year clear-out. That’s what the students left behind in those studios to go into the bin,” she says. “When I started to assess the waste it was clear there was a reason they had thrown it out, it was crap.”

She persevered and created a fabric that is soft to the touch and structurally sound. She also made a yarn that is blended with wool to make it more workable. She proved her method with a collection of beautifully shaped jackets and paired them with charming dresses, each item incorporating the recycled material.

The endgame for Cleveland is to have these fabrics to the point where the fabric can be recycled again and again to make high end clothing. “The ultimate goal is to have a completely saleable, manufactured textile that’s works and looks good. The ultimate goal is to make a fashion textile that is closed loop,” she says.

The final hurdle will be convincing consumers to quit their fast fashion habit and to take a closer look at eco-fashion, which still carries a stigma. Cleveland believes the tainted imagery of sustainable clothing comes from the 1970s. “Unless they can see the item, the term conjures up an image of being a hippie, doily, felted skirt,” she says.

For her, overcoming that means making the clothes irresistible, and the fact they come from a closed-loop fabric source is secondary, thereby normalising sustainable textiles. “I think that will only come with it looking good – I think it’s got to be the whole picture and all those legs of the sustainability stool being incorporated.”

This content is brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.